Poppy Northcutt


Poppy Northcutt began her career as NASA’s first female engineer in mission control, and the sexism she faced on the job inspired her to pursue a legal career egal career fighting for women’s rights. Now the state president for the National Organization for Women’s Texas chapter and still handling the occasional legal case, she tells Teen Vogue that she wants her multifaceted career to be a model for young women today.

“The idea of having one career in your life — that was what people had 100 years ago,” she says in an interview. “You need to be more flexible these days.”

Northcutt, a pioneering woman in hard sciences before the idea of STEMeducation or jobs even existed, also tells Teen Vogue about how she’s seen sexism change, the importance of doing the hard thing, and more about her groundbreaking work at NASA, which is documented in the new threepart series from PBS’s American Experience, “Chasing the Moon.”

Teen Vogue: Could tell us a little bit about what led you to your job at NASA when you were coming up through school and how you got that position?

Poppy Northcutt: In high school, I always scored well in math classes, and I enjoyed them. I decided to major in mathematics when I was in college. The stereotypical jobs for women were very limited. If women went to college, they were expected to end up as executive secretaries, nurses, or teachers.

When I got out of college, I started looking for a job in the Houston area and ended up taking one with a contractor for NASA. I hadn’t been planning on going to work in the space program; I just lucked into it. The job title I had when I started was “computress.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, but that’s the title that those women had as well. But at the time, I had no idea about the history. I didn’t know about the women in Langley.

I mainly just thought that my title was really strange. First of all, I’m not a computer. Secondly, you’re going to gender me as a computer?

TV: Was that gendered title indicative of what working there was like?

PN: They may not have had the gender in their title, but at that time, almost all jobs were highly gendered. If you opened the newspaper, the newspaper had sections for “Help Wanted: Female” and “Help Wanted: Male.” And it was the late ’60s, before litigation and demonstration stopped newspapers from classifying jobs that way.

I started work as a computress number-crunching for engineers. After I’d been there about six months, I had my first job evaluation. The head of Houston operations told me that they were looking to promote me to the technical staff, which is the phraseology they used for the people doing engineering work. I started working on Apollo in that first year that I worked there.

TV: You were in the mission control center at Houston. What was it like being a woman in a space like that?

PN: By the time I was there, I was used to being the only woman in the room because that was just sort of the normal situation. There just weren’t many women doing technical functions. We did have some women doing computer programming.

TV: Were there any specific challenges you were facing as a young woman doing this incredible scientific work?

PN: It wasn’t just me. It was all women at that time. We existed in a sea of sexism. The waters are a little clearer now. They’re not as murky as they were 50 years ago. But all women at that time, in all the places around the world, were living in a sea of sexism.

If you were the only woman in a particular area, you stood out because you were different and you had the feeling that people were watching you more. Some people may be hoping that you failed.

I was fortunate I worked for a company that was very progressive for the time. You might not think they were very progressive, looking at them through today’s eyes, but if I had been working at one of the other companies, I might not have been promoted. The promotion was very hard for my company to get.

The head of Houston operations told me later was he could’ve more easily fired me and rehired me than to get that promotion because the increase in pay was so great. They have these rigid rules about how big of a salary increase somebody can get, so he had to fight for it. Most people would not have had somebody who fought that hard for them.

Even after I got the promotion, he told me, “You’re still underpaid.” All he could do was to get me to the bottom of that pay category, but he said, “I’m still going to work on trying to improve that.”

That’s a problem women still have today. If you were hired in and underpaid, it is extremely difficult to ever catch up because your future employers so often are basing your new pay on your previous pay.

TV: What made you want to go to law school after you’d worked at NASA?

PN: I had become very conscious of the women’s rights movement, partly because of my experiences being the only woman and with pay disparities. I also became very aware of the fact that I was actually really lucky. Even if I was discriminated against, I wasn’t experiencing nearly as much as most women were in the workforce.

I became involved in the National Organization for Women and was on their board of directors in the early 70s and became an activist. As a result, I was contacted by a new mayor elected in Houston, a new young, progressive mayor. He had made a commitment to appoint a “women’s advocate” on his staff. I was lucky enough to end up in that role.

Part of what I was doing was looking at equal pay problems and other kinds of discrimination. I was looking at the treatment of rape victims by the police and our health department and trying to increase the number of women who were on boards and commissions. I became increasingly aware of how laws affect us and can help close some of these gaps. I ended up going to law school.

TV: It seems like that activist streak carried through your work with Jane’s Due Process, the nonprofit ensuring legal protections for pregnant minors in Texas.

PN: I still work with them! I had worked for the Harris County district attorney’s office, and I was the first felony prosecutor in the domestic violence unit when we set that up. As for activism, I’ve always tried to do something to improve the status of women.

TV: People may think of studying STEM and studying law as very separate paths. What would you say to young people who want to have the range that you’ve had in your career — who have this activist streak and might also be into science?

PN: They should go for it. The idea of having one career in your life — that was what people had 100 years ago. But our life span is greatly increased at this point.

They may also want to change careers, or it may actually be a need. You need to be more flexible these days. I think you need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the world around you in terms of economics and be flexible.

TV: Any other advice for Teen Voguereaders?

PN: My big advice is to go back and read what John F. Kennedy said when he laid out his plan of going to the moon and understand that mission statement — land a man on the moon and return safely back to the earth — was a specific goal. But it was also followed by the reason why: We do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

We should all look at doing the hard things, especially when setting goals for our careers. Do the things that are going to challenge you. That’s where you’ll really find your potential. And you’ll also make bigger contributions to society as a whole.

Culled from: Teen Vogue