Mary Winston Jackson

04/09/1921 – 02/11/2005

You might recognize Mary Jackson’s name from the movie Hidden Figures. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop what you’re doing right this second and go watch it. You watched it? Great. Now you can finish reading this article.

The movie is based off a book, which is based off true events about intelligent African American women who were known as ‘computers’ and did mathematical calculations by hand for NASA. These women not only faced adversity as African American’s living in a time where segregation was a part of every day life, they also faced adversity as women who worked in a male-dominant environment, where the ‘glass ceiling’ of promotion was the rule. Not only did women not get paid the same as men, African American women did not get paid the same wages as Caucasian women. 

During her life Mary had several career changes. When she graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, she accepted a job as a math teacher at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland. After a year of teaching, she returned home and found a position as the receptionist at the King Street USO Club. She also worked as a bookkeeper, had a stint at home following the birth of her son, and later worked a job as an Army secretary. She did all this before she landed at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951. 

She worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section for 2 years before accepting an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. He offered her hands-on training experience conducting experiments in the facility and ultimately suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer.

However, the graduate level math and physics classes that were required for the promotion were held in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia and held at then-segregated Hampton High School.

But Mary Winston Jackson didn’t let that stop her.

Mary had to get special permission from the city of Hampton in order to join her white peers in the classroom. She completed the courses, earned the promotion and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. She enjoyed a productive engineering career for nearly two decades and during her career authored or co-authored a dozen or so research reports.

But as time passed, promotions slowed and she became frustrated at the glass ceiling being the rule for preventing female professionals  from advancing in their careers. 

She ended up taking a demotion and dramatic career change to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. In this new position, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. She believed in the service of others and took a demotion so she could directly help advance and impact the women who were beginning their careers.

Mary Jackson is an Alpha Maiden through and through. She was born in a time where segregation, racism and sexism were a part of every day life. She faced many challenges and obstacles that could have made her quit, or choose a less challenging path. But she never quit. She took on the challenges, and no matter how hard things got, she prevailed and kept pushing on. To add, she also believed in improving the lives of others and even took a demotion so she could help impact other women and help them advance. She was intelligent, contributed to scientific advancement at NASA, was a humanitarian, worked hard and stood strong in the face of challenges while helping others along the way. 

If you want to read more about Mary Jackson click here.

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