Frances “Poppy” Northcutt

On this date in 1943, Frances Marian “Poppy” Northcutt — computer engineer, attorney and women’s rights activist — was born in Many, La. She was raised in Luling, Texas, and as a teen was named Miss Watermelon of Luling. Her brother nicknamed her after reading Poppy: The Adventures of a Fairy, a 1934 children’s book. (Aviation Magazine International, March 1970) While the character Poppy was only 4 inches tall, Northcutt as an adult would top 5-foot-9.

After graduating with a mathematics degree from the University of Texas, she went to work as a 22-year-old “computress” (the actual job title) in 1965 at TRW, an aerospace contractor for NASA in Houston. In those days, classified ads had separate sections for male and female employment. Jo Ann Evansgardner and her husband, both later FFRF Life Members, successfully sued in 1969 to stop the practice.

Northcutt was the first woman stationed in NASA’s Mission Control. Her team designed the return-to-Earth trajectory for Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, and for missions through Apollo 13. Television broadcasts that showed her brought heaps of fan mail. ABC reporter Jules Bergman once asked about her potential to distract from the mission: “How much attention do men in Mission Control pay to a pretty girl wearing miniskirts?”

She answered: “Well, I think the first time a girl in a miniskirt walks into [Mission Control], they pay you quite a lot of attention, but after a while they become a little bit more accustomed to you and pay more attention to the consoles.” She told Teen Vogue in 2019 that “all women at that time, in all the places around the world, were living in a sea of sexism.”

In 1981 she graduated from the University of Houston law school while continuing to work as an engineer and as the city of Houston’s first women’s advocate, working to promote equal opportunity municipal employment and pay equity for women. She became the first prosecutor in the domestic violence unit in the Harris County district attorney’s office and worked with the nonprofit Jane’s Due Process to ensure legal protections for pregnant minors in Texas.

Northcutt is not a fan of religion, while not saying publicly what her personal beliefs are. On Oct. 3, 2019, she tweeted a USA Today story detailing the Catholic Church’s successful lobbying to limit lawsuits by survivors of clergy sex abuse. About Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s comment “The Problem is Not Guns, It’s Hearts Without God,” she tweeted in August 2019 that “I seriously doubt that most of the mass shooters are atheists. Show me the data, Governor.”

On May 22, 2020, she tweeted about several COVID-19 “superspreader events” at churches. “All this money to churches is appalling,” she tweeted on July 10, 2020. “They amass huge holdings free of taxes, litigate zealously to be free of following laws with which they disagree, and then my tax dollars go to them!”

Freedom From Religion Foundation