Title: Hidden Figures
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
Genre: True Accounts, Society & Culture, 20th century American history
First Publication: 2016
Setting: Hampton, VA
Book Summary: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Set amid the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program.
Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘coloured computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets and astronauts, into space.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War and the women’s rights movement, ‘Hidden Figures’ interweaves a rich history of humankind’s greatest adventure with the intimate stories of five courageous women whose work forever changed the world.
Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures tells the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who blazed the trail for others to follow in the fields of mathematics and engineering at NASA.
NASA, originally known as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) began hiring women during WWII as female computers. These women essentially did the work of mathematicians but were labelled as subprofessionals in order to be paid less. In 1943 there was a push to hire qualified black women because the demand could not be satisfied with white employees only.
“Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.”
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is a remarkable account of a small number of intelligent, hard-working, driven and admirable African American women who made significant contributions to the Space Race and to the fields of math, science and engineering. At a time when many parts of the United States still practiced segregation and racial prejudices were still widespread, their story is even more extraordinary. What a day it must have been for those women standing in that room in 1969 as the culmination of their dedication and perseverance was about to peak as the first man made his way to the moon!
I particularly enjoyed how this book focused on the individual stories of each woman. I was so inspired by the sacrifice, determination, and intelligence of these ladies. The book incorporates the history that coincides with the stories moving from WWII and aviation research to the Cold War and the Space Race. The book focuses a lot on the Civil Rights Movement and the push to end school segregation. At the onset of the story, the black mathematicians are forced to work on the west side of the Langley campus until the 60s when integration occurs.
“Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status–none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions.”
This book is thoroughly researched and introduces us to four of these gifted women and their stories as they took the plunge into careers as mathematicians – or ‘computers’, as they were called before the age of information technology and digital electronics. Author Margot Lee Shetterly also provides us with many details of the civil rights movement, school segregation and eventual integration, and the aeronautic industry.