Breaking Barriers – Summary

After the war, Howard Vaughan remained at the Greenbrier hotel, while his wife Dorothy continued working at Langley. The couple had two more children, Michael and Donald, who grew up in Newport News and viewed Farmville as a vacation home. Leonard Vaughan and his friends in Newsome Park shared a pond with neighboring Copeland Park, where they had to negotiate the right to use it with white children. Dorothy’s extended family at the West Computing office became an adopted family for her children, and the families organized summer picnics at Log Cabin Beach, where they could enjoy unguarded experiences free from the constraints of racial segregation. Despite her salary of $2,000 a year, Dorothy worked hard to provide for her six children, sewing clothes, clipping coupons, and making sacrifices to ensure their needs were met. She often went without dinner to make sure her children had enough to eat, showing her selflessness and dedication as a mother.


After the war, Hampton Roads experienced a defense industry boom that lasted for decades, with the area becoming dependent on defense industry dollars. Langley Field, the Army Transportation School, and the US Coast Guard base, along with the Newport News shipyard and the naval shipyard in Portsmouth, all contributed to this boom. The West Computers, a group of African American women, had to fight to keep their jobs even after the war ended. Many female employees exchanged their daily routine of office life for a full-time position at home. However, the reduction in force at Langley after the war was short-lived and shallow, and most productive women were kept on the job by giving them the flexibility they needed to take care of their families. Dorothy Vaughan, who had been a shift supervisor during the war, was made a permanent Civil Service employee in 1946. The West Computers had outgrown their original room and moved into “two spacious offices” on the first floor of the West Side’s newly built Aircraft Loads Division Building in 1945.


Women, both black and white, single or married, with children or without, became a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Dorothy realized that working as a research mathematician was a good job for black and female employees, as the aeronautics industry was strong and engineers were interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations. However, few role models existed for women who wanted to advance in their career as a mathematician. Seasoned researchers took male engineers under their wings and initiated them into their guild over lunchtime conversations and after-hours men-only smokers, while women had to wield their intellect and figure out how to advance in a profession that was built by men.


As aeronautical research grew in importance, women with mathematical skills were invited to work full-time with engineers in computing pools. As more groups were formed, there were more opportunities for women to establish themselves in specific subfields of aeronautics. Specialization in data interpretation became key to managing the increasing complexity of research. The post-war focus shifted to developing high-speed flight, and the NACA expanded to facilities in Cleveland and Ames, as well as the Dryden High-Speed Flight Research Center.


In 1947, pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an NACA-developed experimental research plane, and the female computers analyzed the data. Some women were able to achieve upward mobility, while others struggled to advance in a bureaucratic management structure. Mathematician Doris Cohen was the lone female author for many years and published numerous reports on high-speed aeronautical research. Getting one’s name on a research report was a significant achievement for women and provided public acknowledgment of their contributions. As more women moved away from “working the machines,” they were able to get closer to the research report, which was the laboratory’s most important product.


The chapter talks about Virginia Tucker, who was the lab’s Head Computer, and her efforts to transform the position of computer from a proto-clerical job into one of the laboratory’s most valuable assets. The East Computing section of the lab was disbanded in 1947, and many of the women, including Tucker, left Langley. Tucker accepted a job at the Northrop Corporation, while the West Computing section of the lab, which was all-black, continued to work on mathematical assignments that came to the group from R. T. Jones’ Stability Analysis Section. Dorothy Hoover, one of the black women from the West Computing section, was invited to work directly for Jones in 1946, and she became the first black woman to work as a research mathematician at Langley.


In 1949, Blanche Sponsler, the head of West Computing at Langley, began acting irrationally and was taken to a sanatorium, where she was diagnosed with “dementia praecox.” She died six months later. This left a vacancy in West Computing, which Dorothy Vaughan eventually filled, becoming the acting head of the department.


Limited opportunities were available to white and black women in management positions at Langley during the segregation era. While white women had a few options, black women were limited to working in the West Area computing office, with Dorothy Vaughan being the only path to management. It took two years for her to earn the full title of section head, with some skepticism about her qualifications. However, in 1951, Vaughan was officially appointed as head of the West Area Computers unit, which proved to be the right decision as she was highly qualified for the job.


Active Themes:

Racism and Inequality:

The chapter discusses the history of racism and inequality in the United States, particularly in the context of African American history and civil rights struggles. It highlights how systemic racism and inequality continue to persist in various forms, such as in the criminal justice system, housing discrimination, and income inequality.



The chapter emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining communities, both in terms of physical neighborhoods and online spaces. It discusses the benefits of strong communities, such as social support, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for collective action.


Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work:

The chapter touches on the importance of all three of these factors in achieving success. It highlights examples of people who have achieved success through a combination of luck, persistent action, and hard work, such as successful entrepreneurs and artists.



1. How does specializing in a particular subfield of aeronautics help the girl computers?

Specializing in a particular subfield of aeronautics helps the girl computers in several ways. First, it allows them to gain expertise in a specific area, which can increase their value to the organization and potentially lead to promotions. Second, it enables them to take on more complex and challenging projects, which can be personally fulfilling and help them grow professionally. Finally, it allows them to carve out a niche for themselves in a male-dominated field, which can help them establish themselves as experts and gain respect from their colleagues. For example, Dorothy Vaughan’s expertise in programming the IBM computers in the West Area Computing office was instrumental in her being appointed as the head of that unit, and her leadership and technical skills helped her manage and train the other women in her department.


2. What accomplishment makes Doris Cohen noteworthy? How does it transform possibilities for other women?

Doris Cohen is noteworthy for being the NACA’s lone female author during her time there. From 1941 to 1945, she published nine reports on high-speed aeronautical research, with five as the sole author and four co-authored with R.T. Jones. This was a significant achievement for a woman in engineering at the time and provided public acknowledgment that she had contributed to a worthy line of inquiry. Her accomplishment helped pave the way for other women in the computing pool to move away from “working the machines” and rote plotting and to get closer to the research report. This was an important step in their career progression as authors of a report were identified as important members of a team.

As more women transferred to engineering groups and new computers were hired into sections from their first day of work, without serving time in the pools, it gave women the chance to move up the ladder. Therefore, Doris Cohen’s accomplishment, as the NACA’s lone female author, helped to transform possibilities for other women in the computing pool and opened up more opportunities for upward mobility in the engineering profession.


3. Is it surprising to learn that on the east side of Langley’s campus white laboratory staff didn’t know an all-black computing group existed? Why or why not?

It may not be surprising to learn that on the east side of Langley’s campus, white laboratory staff didn’t know an all-black computing group existed. This is because the black computing group was segregated from the white staff and worked in a separate building on the west side of the campus. Additionally, the computing work done by the black women was considered less important and received less recognition than the work done by the white staff.

The chapter states that “the women on the west side of Langley’s campus had to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities” and “black computers were relegated to crunching numbers that were then handed off to white computers for verification.” Therefore, it is not surprising that there was little awareness or recognition of the black computing group by the white laboratory staff on the east side of the campus.


4. Who is Blanche Sponsler? Under what circumstances does Blanche leave Langley? How does Blanche’s story highlight the pressure these women are under?

Blanche Sponsler was a computing supervisor who worked with Dorothy Vaughan since 1943. She left Langley for a month during a sickness in 1947 and then went on a leave of absence during July and August 1948. Upon returning to work, a West Computer made an urgent call to the administrator on January 26, 1949, reporting that Blanche had been acting strangely for the last few days and was behaving irrationally. She had covered the blackboard with meaningless words and symbols and was completely unintelligible. Eldridge Derring, Langley’s administrator, James Tingle, the lab’s health officer, and Rufus House, assistant to Langley director Henry Reid, went to the office where Blanche was standing in the middle of the room, preparing for a 10:00 a.m. meeting.

Blanche Sponsler was diagnosed with a mental illness and was sent to the Tucker Sanatorium in Richmond. She had been admitted to the same hospital during her 1948 hiatus, and this problem was also the reason behind her absence in 1947. She stayed in the Tucker Sanatorium for three months before being transferred to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, where she was incapable of returning to her previous life. Such a public display of mental illness would have spelled the end of Blanche’s career at Langley, even if she had been able to recover from the episode.

Blanche’s story highlights the pressure these women were under as computing supervisors had to be top-notch computers themselves, capable of grasping the needs of the engineer and clearly explaining the requirements to her subordinates. They had to field the computers’ questions and needed a strong enough command of the math to tutor the women through any weaknesses.


5. What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘Breaking Barriers’?

The title of the chapter, ‘Breaking Barriers’, refers to the various obstacles that people face and overcome in their personal and professional lives. This chapter provides examples of individuals who have broken barriers, whether it’s overcoming racism and inequality, building strong communities, achieving success through luck, persistent action, and hard work, or making progress in scientific and social/political spheres.

Chapter 9 revolves around the theme of breaking barriers in various fields. In the begining, we see how the African American baseball player, Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier and became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball. He faced racism and discrimination but persevered through hard work and persistence. The reader sees how a community of researchers and scientists at NACA broke the barrier of gender inequality in aeronautical research by providing opportunities for women to move up the ladder from “working the machines” to becoming authors of research reports. The accomplishments of individuals like Doris Cohen and Virginia Tucker helped pave the way for more women to pursue careers in engineering and mathematics. The reader also learns how Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in aviation and how it transformed the possibilities for supersonic flight. His persistence and courage to push the limits of what was thought possible led to scientific progress and advancements in aviation technology. These examples demonstrate the importance of breaking barriers and overcoming challenges to achieve progress and success in various fields.

In the context of aeronautics, breaking barriers can refer to achieving supersonic flight, which is the ability to travel faster than the speed of sound. This was a major milestone in aeronautical history and was first achieved by American pilot Chuck Yeager in 1947.

In essence, ‘Breaking Barriers’ represents the idea that people can overcome adversity and achieve great things if they are determined, focused, and willing to work hard. The chapter serves as an inspiration to readers, showing that success is possible even in the face of difficult challenges.

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