Women on the Edge
While researching the part of my story that takes place in the late sixties/early seventies at JPL , I’ve had the privilege of talking to two former directors of the Image Processing Lab there. Bill Green came on board around 1971, just in time for Mariner 9, and stayed for 20 years. His predecessor Tom Rindfleisch was director from from the early sixties until 1971. Image Processing was responsible for turning the raw data received from Mars into more presentable visuals; their tasks included removing transmission noise, enhancing contrast, and correcting for geometric distortion.
One question I had for both Bill and Tom was what the ambience of the workplace was like, specifically with regards to female employees, in a profession (rocket science) that was overwhelmingly male. I wanted to figure out what job my fictional character Venus might have had, and I remember from my own workplace experience during that time that women did not have a lot of opportunities to work in non-traditional jobs (I worked in a television station and was the first woman there to operate a television camera).
While Bill recalled women in professional positions and even provided evidence in the form of a feature article in the JPL newsletter Lab-Oratory, Tom did not recall any women in non-clerical positions. I realized I’d set my story right on the cusp of workplace liberation.
I also had a telephone conversation with another employee, Thedra MacMillan, who told me about the beauty contests during her days there: Miss Solar System, Miss Guided Missile, and Queen of Outer Space. I decided to incorporate this into my story, with my character Venus being pressured to participate, but refusing unless she can do this on her own terms, which are outrageous. Thedra also told me about the dress code for women, and about the “director of protocol” who enforced the code. Those were the days, some of you may recall, of miniskirts and go-go boots. I’m not sure whether the JPL dress code would have condoned or condemned these.
This mirrors the story of Wrexie “Lulu” Leonard, who looked through the telescope at Lowell Observatory before most women were allowed to do so. Her access was fragile, however, and dependent on the good will of her boss Percival Lowell.
My character Venus, by the way, was not named for the planet or for the goddess of love, but for Lowell Observatory’s beloved cow.
Bill Green has just published his memoirs. I’ve suggested that Tom do the same. While we were talking at a coffee shop in Burlingame, someone overhead us and got all excited about Tom’s time at JPL. This is good stuff.