If, like me, you would be perpetually lost were it not for GPS, you owe a debt of gratitude to Gladys West.
Gladys was born in 1930 to a family of farmers in rural Virginia. She grew up working in the fields, but longed for more than the agricultural and factory work that surrounded her. Gladys poured herself into her studies, desperate to earn the college scholarship that would be awarded to the valedictorian and salutatorian of her high school.
I thought at first I needed to go to the city. I thought that would get me out of the country and out of the fields […] but then as I got more educated, went into the higher grades, I learned that education was the thing to get me out.
Gladys’s hard work paid off, and she graduated top of her class, which enabled her to attend Virginia State College (now University) where she majored in Math, an unusual choice for a woman at the time. The expectation for women with college degrees during this period was that, if they worked at all after college, it would be as a teacher. Gladys followed that path for two years, but her desire for education and career advancement ultimately resulted in her leaving teaching in order to pursue a master’s degree.
Because of her bright mind and advanced degree, doors that might otherwise have been closed were open to Gladys. In 1956, she went to work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgreen, Virginia. She was one of only four black employees at the time, only two of whom were women.
You’re always competing and trying to survive because you’re in a different group of people.
Despite the fact that this was a period when racial segregation was the norm, and racism and sexism ran rampant, Gladys was able to accomplish a great deal during her time at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. She worked in both data collection and processing, conducting calculations based on satellite data and helping the computers refine and correct their programming. She eventually went on to serve as both a computer programmer and project manager, and the work she did at Dahlgreen would ultimately form the basis for GPS technology.
Though Gladys retired in 1998, she never stopped learning. In fact, in 2018, despite being in her late 80s and having suffered a stroke that compromised her vision, hearing, and mobility, Gladys went on to earn her PhD.
The world is opening up a little bit and making it easier for women […] But they still gotta fight.
Despite her tremendous contribution to technology and society, aside from being recommended for a commendation in 1979, until very recently, Gladys’ work went largely unrecognised and unheralded. This changed, however, when a member of her sorority discovered Gladys’s story as a result of an alumni function. Since then, she has finally begun to get her due, with the Virginia State Senate passing a joint resolution in her honour and numerous media outlets sharing her story.