Sunday, March 14, 2021

Poppy Northcut

Now that we've finished all six seasons of Schitt's Creek, my household's latest pandemic television binge is For All Mankind — one season plus four episodes so far of alternate history exploring what would have happened if the USSR had landed a man on the moon just before the U.S. in 1969. 

It's well-made and gives a lot to talk about, especially for those of us who lived through the real thing, but I wanted to focus on a true piece of the history it brought to light for me. One of the main characters in the show is a young woman named Margo Madison who works in mission control in Houston. I wondered if she was real or not, and if not, whether there were really any women there at the time. 

Well, it turns out while Madison isn't real, there was at least one woman there: Poppy Northcutt. 

This Salon interview from 2019 (published around the time of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing) is full of interesting details about what it was like at the time generally and for her specifically. 

  • 400,000 people worked to make the moon landing happen.
  • Northcutt was an engineer working for TRW (now part of Northrop Grumman) under contract to NASA, which was responsible for calculating the trajectories out of and into orbit of the Earth and moon. 
  • Her work was central to the rescue of the Apollo13 mission, though it's invisible in the movie version of that rescue.

Apollo 13, though, wasn't the scariest part of the work. Instead, that was during the first mission she worked on, when Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon. Why?:

...because they were going to do these critical maneuvers on the back side of the moon, with no communication. That was really heart stopping. Now, I don't mean to say that 13 was not scary. The thing that was scary about 13 was not “can what we do work?” I had complete confidence. We knew how to do that. The unknown for us was, what is the condition of the spacecraft.

She tells two stories of different aspects of sexism, one personal and the other systemic. First, the personal one:

I remember one time, we had headsets on, and we would listen to four or five different things.... That was one of the challenges when you first went over there, figuring out, "How do I figure out what I need to listen to?..." We also had these consoles where you can see different channels. ...during the simulations on Apollo 11, I would hear some chattering on about "Hey, look at what's on channel," time I heard it and I thought, "I wonder what is on channel whatever that I keep hearing these guys talk about."

So I turned onto that [channel] and it was me. It was a camera that was focused on me. That was pretty off-putting. You know, of course the first thing that comes to your mind is, you're going, "What are they doing? What have I been doing when this hidden camera's been watching me?” But, I just, I wouldn't have known who to report it to, and I probably would not have reported it. It wouldn't have been good to report it. It would've made things worse instead of better. So, I just ignored it and remembered, "Hey Poppy, there may be a camera that's watching you this whole time." They had cameras in all the rooms.... You assumed the room was being photographed. But, this camera was homemade.... So, I knew I was being watched.... So, you just let it fly and go on.

Then the systemic one:

...protected legislation doesn't protect women. It exploits women.... These days, they're keeping you from controlling your own body, but in those days, they were controlling your income. I learned that within the first few months of being in the workforce, because I had the wage hour laws being applied. It was not my employer that was doing this to me. It was my male-dominated state legislature, saying...I couldn't work more than 9 hours, 54 hours a week, but what it really boiled down to was, I couldn't be paid more than 9 hours, 54 hours a week, by one employer. My employer was not making me work more than that. My employer was...saying, "Look Poppy, you know we cannot make you do this." That was not protecting me, because if I wanted to work three jobs, I could've worked three jobs, but the difference was, I wasn't going to be able to get overtime. Overtime was a big deal.

....It also worked in a way that separated you from other people. If you're an employer, are you going to want to give the job to somebody who's going to be able to work the whole way, or are you going to want to give the job to somebody who's crippled, in a sense.... Working with one hand tied behind your back. It also prevents you from becoming a member of the team, because to be a member of the team, you have to work like the team. You can't be the one who always goes home. The rest of the team's working 12 hours and you’re leaving at 9. How are you going to really become a full member of the team.

I did not pay attention to those laws. I just went. My boss would come around and say, "You know we can't pay you." I'd say, "I know that. Okay? I'm staying." I worked the hours. I think that was a big reason why I ended up getting promoted and other people that were "computeresses" — that was my job title at the time — did not. Is because I just knew that I had to do that in order to be a member of the team. But, you never get that money back. Ever. You know, it means you get a lower retirement, when that comes around. It just snowballs and travels with you, those pay disparities, throughout your whole life. I was very fortunate. I mean, I was. I was very fortunate. I earned more money than most people did. There were women, at the time, but the effect of that kind of stuff, on women, is just devastating. So, I learned a lot about discrimination.

Northcutt ended up leaving engineering and working for the mayor of Houston to improve the status of women in the city. She went to law school and worked in defense, prosecution (especially of domestic violence), and with pregnant minors. She was on the board of NOW locally and nationally. At the time of the Salon interview, she was still active in women's rights and reproductive rights.


Photos: historic photo from National Geographic; recent photo by Jay Godwin, Creative Commons.

1 comment:

happypix said...

It really is amazing how many essential women got left out of history.