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HIDDEN FIGURES: Is there enough space for women in the Church?

Is there enough space for women in the Church?

This guest editorial was written by Tracey Edstein, editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

Director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures tells the true – albeit massaged for maximum screen impact – story of the women whose mathematical genius was integral to the United States’ mission to explore space, ultimately seeing a man on the moon in July 1969.

The NACA (later NASA) program was predictably male-dominated and driven by the determination to beat the Russians into the last frontier. The women to whom the film’s clever title refers are disadvantaged not only by gender but by colour. A cohort of African-American women, called impersonally, “computers”, is responsible for endless calculations that are part of the space mission. Their leader is Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), overseen by the condescending Vivien Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Both they and the numbers they crunch all day are hidden, not only from the public but from most NASA personnel. They have a ‘coloured’ canteen and ‘coloured’ bathrooms, yet their work is indispensable.

When one of their number, Katherine Johnson, is plucked from the pool to join the ‘big league’, she is all but ignored by her white male colleagues. A ‘coloured’ coffee pot is thoughtfully – and anonymously - provided for her exclusive use. While it’s clear that Katherine is more than up for the task, she is not merely ostracised by her colleagues – who seem dreadfully insecure despite their specialised skill set  − but her work is actively sabotaged. Vital documents have sections ‘blacked out’ and she is denied access to critical briefings.

When she explains to her supervisor that she cannot give of her best if information is denied her, he appeals to the man most threatened by Katherine’s expertise. Paul Stafford replies, “There’s no protocol for women attending [NASA briefing]” in a tone that brooks no further dialogue on the matter.

Katherine Johnson replies evenly: “There’s no protocol for man circling the earth either, sir.”

This was a turning point for me in what had already been a highly engaging and entertaining film.

The African-American women, in significant numbers, were subject to various limitations in their lives at work and beyond − but their gifts were recognised. And eventually, their role was acknowledged. In a scene which can be authenticated, astronaut John Glenn, about to become the first American to go into orbit, is uncertain about the newly installed IBM computers, so he asks for “the girl….the smart one” to check the figures. She does, and he soars into space, successfully.

A very significant number of the Roman Catholic Church’s adherents are women. Many are well educated, articulate, professional and resilient. Their faith in their Church, like that of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, has been sorely tested by the revelations that a significant number of Church personnel – mostly priests and brothers – sexually abused children while other men in positions of power and influence, who preached the gospel  daily, failed to act.

Unlike the protagonists of Hidden Figures, these women are not hidden. In fact, it could be said that in the Australian Church, it is women who keep the wheels turning, even as the institution struggles.

Like NASA, the Church has a mission.

NASA realised that it needed the contribution of women with exceptional and rare skills to realise the mission.

The Church is yet to realise that same truth. Sure, there are countless roles for women, and no limit to our possible contributions. But in terms of official ministry, these contributions can only be made at the behest of an ordained man.

It’s time for the Church to take seriously Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 4: 27-28)

It’s time for change. It’s time there was a protocol.