“Unless an engineer was given a compelling reason to evaluate a woman as a peer, she remained in his blind spot, her usefulness measured against the limited task at hand, any additional talents undiscovered.”
The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Author Margot Lee Shetterly grew up on the Virginia Peninsula, her father one of the many African Americans who worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center. This was so common in the area that during her childhood, Shetterly took it for granted that “the face of science was brown like mine.” But on a return trip home to visit her parents during adulthood, she began to realize how remarkable her community really was. She peppered her father with questions about his early days at Langley, and began interviewing women from their church who had worked as computers in the early days. By the time she finished Hidden Figures, Shetterly could “put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980.”
Shetterly focuses on three main figures, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson. For most people, the last name is the only one that might be familiar, particularly after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Shetterly touches briefly on many other women who worked for NACA and NASA, and in the later part of the book, brings in Dr. Christine Darden, representing the next generation of black women who were able to take advantage of the advances made by their predecessors. She follows Dorothy Vaughn from being a member of the West Computing pool, to head of that department, to overseeing its dissolution when the creation of NASA finally desegregated the computers. After beginning her career as a teacher, Katherine Johnson joined the computers in 1953, before going on to calculate launch windows and trajectories for several of America’s first space flights.
Meanwhile, Mary Jackson’s story in Hidden Figures always seemed to be building but never quite as centered as it could be. This made a great deal more sense when I arrived at the epilogue, and learned that Shetterly had to cut the section she had intended to include about Jackson’s later career. After notably achieving the title of engineer, in 1981 Jackson took a pay cut to move across to human resources, where she focused on ensuring equal employment opportunities for women and minorities at the agency. Shetterly recounts some of this in the epilogue, but I very much wished to read the complete chapter on the subject that was cut from the manuscript.
Throughout the narrative, Shetterly balances the math and science with the personal stories of the women. But she is also adept at counterpointing the developments at Langley and the career trajectories of the women with events in the United States at large, particularly as it pertains to the Civil Rights movement. In the space race against the USSR, the continued segregation and inequality of African Americans was on international display, undermining America’s stated ideals. While activists were being dragged off buses and beaten at lunch counters, the black computers were quietly fighting against segregated cafeterias, colored bathrooms, and the difficulty of achieving titles and paygrades commensurate with their education, acknowledgements that were automatically granted to their white or male peers. Shetterly deftly places all of this in context with the larger movements of history.
Shetterly has a writing style that leans more towards the academic than to narrative non-fiction. The documentation includes hundreds of notes, and ten pages of bibliography. Hidden Figures is as much science as anthropology. For that reason, I also look forward to the release of the film that will help bring these amazing women to life for those who might not be as interested in reading the in-depth details of math and engineering, but who still need to hear this story.
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