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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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“Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.” (Seattle Times)
“Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories (Boston Globe)
“Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.” (Bookreporter.com)
From the Back Cover
The #1 New York Times Bestseller
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture.
Before John Glenn orbited Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and entering the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives and their country’s future.
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Top customer reviews
I was an officer in the Air Force for 20 years, working in the missile and space industry. I also lived in Hampton, VA, for 6 years growing up. I feel like the author has given me back a piece of my history that I never knew was missing. I've always known that there are women who went before, upon whose shoulders I stand, but it is incredible to add a deeper understanding of what that meant and to know their names.
Thank you, Margot Lee Shetterly, for persevering and doing the work to bring this history to light in a way that makes it accessible.
Sure, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, et al are amazing, inspiring, and strong, but their own modesty over their roles in NACA/NASA history is telling: like many black pioneers of the Jim Crow era, they didn't step up for the attention or accolades. They stepped up to be "the first" in order to pave the way for those who would come behind them.
Shetterley deftly reveals these cross-generational ties at Langley, as well as how for African-Americans, the professional is often the personal when it came to representation and community. The portions of the book that were the most fascinating to me were those pertaining to the links forged by the black community in the Southern Virginia area, and how they intersected with employment and residency in Hampton as the 20th century progressed.
Shetterley's prose shined the best on the minutia of the women's lives, but the parts about NACA/NASA were just as interesting--and Shetterley's explanations of the mathematics and aeronautics is masterful. It was never pedantic, yet never overly simplified. As I reached the end, I was disappointed there weren't more pages, but also even hungrier for more stories about the intersection of race, gender, and science!
Get this book! It is an excellent companion to Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls and Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, for a comparison of the different experiences of women in the Space Race.
I appreciate the author's bringing these women to public attention. I liked how their story is presented in the context of the prevailing racial attitudes of their time.
The book is not a biography of a few women, as in the movie. It is a study in culture.
The bulk of the book covers the massive need for computers--mathematicians--during WWII, offering women and people of color unique job opportunities working for NACA. There were at least 50 black women who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory between 1943 and 1980. President Roosevelt signed an executive order to desegregate the defense industry, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
The African American women hired as computers were not only qualified, some had more education than their white counterparts. Their job opportunities and salary level had been limited, and landing a job at Langley allowed brilliant minds work equal to their ability. The women were dedicated, their high standards apparent in their dress and demeanor as well as in the excellence of their work. The high quality of their work brought respect from the engineers. At the same time, Virginia's segregation laws restricted the women to where they could live and what bathroom they could use.
The later part of the book covers the change of the NACA to NASA and the Space Race. I found it more compelling to read. The technology was changing to computers and the mathematicians had to retool their skills to keep up with the times.
My favorite story was about John Glenn's 1962 flight and how Glenn didn't trust computers to get him safely back to Earth; he said, "Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the number are good, I'm ready to go." He trusted Kathryn Johnson, the human computer.