The stereotypical icon of a white Rosie the Riveter representing those American women who took over the jobs of the men who were fighting in World War II, ignores the approximately 2 million African American women who also helped the country’s engine keep running. The emblematic image with the famous “We can do it!” motto doesn’t reflect the wide range of occupations these women held either: from manual jobs to highly skilled scientific jobs, including administrative positions at the federal government (around 8,000 in 1940 according to the Women’s Bureau of the U. S. Department of Labor Bureau).
A career in the US government
Annie Mae Turner Taylor Randall was one of the pioneering African-American ‘Government Girls’ to take a position first at the War Production Board, then the Navy and the Air Force. She accepted an appointment to work at the Office of Biometry of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where Dr. Donald F. Morrison trained her to become a mathematical statistician. Dr. Morrison served as a mentor to Annie and became lifelong friends after he left the NIMH to work at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania. She worked at NIMH for 16 years where she learned to calculate complex mathematical equations one of the first mainframe computers and the Friden Calculator (featured in the ‘Hidden Figures’ film).
Her great work did not go unnoticed and was commended by the University of Pennsylvania and National Academy of Sciences. She was also acknowledged for her “extremely competent and untiring efforts” and expert statistical contributions to the research behind the books ‘Human Aging: A Biological and Behavioral Study’ (1963) and ‘Human Aging II: An Eleven-year Follow up Biomedical and Behavioral Study’ (1971). The study ran between 1955 and 1960 with a focus on the relation between cerebral physiological changes of advancing age and psychological capacities and psychiatric symptoms, and still to this date is of great relevance in the behavioral sciences.
Discrimination and racism
Despite federal civil service employment of Black women in the 1940s, Black ‘Government Girls’ faced veiled discrimination and workplace hostility. For Annie, who was born on January 22, 1925, in Greenwood, South Carolina and grew up in a segregated Washington, D.C., segregation and Jim Crow Laws were ever present force during her time at the government. She faced blistering discrimination and overt racism, including a supervisor who asked that his desk to be turned away from a young Annie so he didn’t have to look at a Black person. However, throughout Annie’s career as a civil service employee, she challenged and surpassed pre-conceived notions of her intellectual capability and the socially constructed roles expected from Black women. Training young Black girls to be domestic servants was commonplace and reinforced the social constructed belief systems of racism. For ‘Government Girls’ such as Annie Mae Turner Taylor Randall, federal government employment interrupted the cycle of generational servitude and unpaid employment. Despite the very low number of Black clerical women in the federal sector, Hesse-Biber and Carter (2005) acknowledged how meaningful the opportunity was for them:
“Although clerical is not considered a prime occupation because of low wages, little autonomy, and limited opportunity for advancement, for minority women it signaled an upward move in the occupational hierarchy, away from domestic service, farm work, and low-level manufacturing jobs.”
Inspiring the new generations
Annie remains a positive role model and an inspiration for many statisticians today. In 2020 the American Statistical Association has launched the ‘Annie T. Randall Innovator Award’ to recognize the contributions of early career statistical innovators across all job sectors, and of any level of educational attainment. She sadly passed away on August 16, 2021.
This is an English version of the blog post Annie la Estadística: ¡ella también pudo! by the same authors, Dr Aura Wharton-Beck & Altea Lorenzo-Arribas,
AmstatNews, the membership magazine of the American Statistical Association, 28 February 2019. Annie Mae Turner Taylor Randall https://magazine.amstat.org/blog/2019/02/28/annie-mae-turner-taylor-randall/
ASA website. Annie T. Randall Innovator Award.
Hesse-Biber, S. N., & Carter, G. L. (2005). Working women in America: Split dreams. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wharton-Beck, A. (2015). African American Government Girls: Unspoken Narratives of Potential, Perseverance, and Power. UST Research Online.
Wharton-Beck, A., Lorenzo-Arribas, A. (2021) Annie la Estadística: ¡ella también pudo! Mujeres con ciencia, 17 febrero, 2021