Oscar-nominated film shows era familiar to female pioneers at GE

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By Bill Buell
Gazette Reporter
GLENVILLE- For Larry Lewis, watching the Oscar-nominated film, “Hidden Figures,” about black females working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1957, was a great way to spend two hours.
“I read ‘The Right Stuff,’ I saw the movie, and I didn’t see anything about these women,” said Lewis, a New York City native and Glenville resident who worked at GE Global Research in Niskayuna for nearly 20 years before recently retiring. “I was a big fan of the space program. I grew up following it, but you never heard the stories about these women.”
The movie, based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of three black mathematicians, called “computers,” who worked for NASA. One of those women, Katherine G. Johnson, helped calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury as well as other missions, but received no credit for the work. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner, and has earned three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress.
“It’s a great movie, but it doesn’t quite purport to what went on at the R&D Center,” said Lewis, referring to the former name of GE Global Research. “We were about MRIs, x-rays, plastics and diamonds, so computing and calculating figures were never the strength of the company. I was a chemist. If we needed them we had men who knew mathematics, and they would do it the old fashioned way. So in that regard, the movie and the GE story don’t exactly line up.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that women at General Electric had smooth sailing right from the start. Edith Clarke, Katharine Burr Blodget and Edith M. Boldebuck were the first three prominent female scientists at GE — all three were white — but it’s only been recently that more women have become part of the company’s scientific faculty.
“When I started at GE, there were very few black men, let alone black women in professional positions,” said George Wise, another retired GE worker who moved to the area in 1971. “When the Department of Defense started keeping score of the diversity of its contractors, then GE had to go out and get blacks. Back in the 1980s, I can remember a very loud remark by a top engineer about the presence of a black woman scientist at GE. It was intended as a joke, but it was in very bad taste.”
Julia Kirk Blackwelder wrote a book about the history of General Electric, “Electric City: General Electric in Schenectady.” She said that sometimes even well-intentioned efforts of the GE brass often ended up being more condescending than helpful.
“There’s a heart-breaking photo, to me, of Katharine Burr Blodgett welcoming other women to GE by giving them a tea party,
said Kirk Blackwelder. “It was painful to me, and GE also felt it was important and compulsory to tell female students that they could be a scientist or an engineer and still be feminine. That attitude was pervasive at GE during the 1940s and 50s and probably after that.”
When Lewis began working in Schenectady, there was a club strictly for women. His wife, however, had no desire to join.
“When I got there they had a wives club, the implication being that everyone working there was a guy and we all had wives waiting for hubby to come home each day,” said Lewis. “My wife had a Ph.D., so she was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ It was tough for women back then. Even when they did get hired, they would have managers who previously had never had women working under him before. It was a tough environment.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com.