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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race Paperback – December 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
Now a Major Motion Picture from Twentieth Century Fox
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space
Before John Glenn orbited the 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. Originally math teachers in the South’s segregated public schools, these gifted professionals answered Uncle Sam’s call during the labor shortages of World War II. With new jobs at the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, they finally had a shot at jobs that would push their skills to the limits.
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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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.
HIDDEN FIGURES tells the story of four determined black women, who overcame numerous obstacles, and worked in the space program at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now known as "Langley Research Center.") It was at this Virginia lab where Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden were able to employ their skills--and really make a difference. It was "behind the scenes" work back then--but now we know the real picture.
To give the reader an idea of how difficult it was for a woman--much less an African-American woman--to actually become a mathematician, the author notes these statistics: "In the 1930s, just over a hundred women worked as professional mathematicians." The likelihood of a black woman actually becoming a mathematician working on the space program was about zero: "Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees. The odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero."
Oddly, the Soviet Union actively encouraged women in engineering. The schools in the Soviet Union were “loaded with women” including many of their engineering grads. Alas--that was not the case in the United States, which "struggled to find a place for women and Negroes in its science workplace, and in society at large."
At the time, women generally got little credit for their work. It was unusual for a woman to even be acknowledged as co-author of a report: "The work of most of the women, like that of the computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication."
At the lab, life for black women was not quite as bad as outside, where strict rules were followed, with blacks always separate from whites. At Langley, the "boundaries were fuzzier. Blacks were ghettoed into separate bathrooms, but they had also been given an unprecedented entrée into the professional world."
At Langley, the work was serious; lives were at stake: "Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was that part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night."
Recall that the U.S. did not yet have a track record of successful space launches. In fact, many launches were complete failures: "Two of the Atlas’s last five sallies had ended in failure. One of them had surged into the sky, erupting into spectacular fireballs with the capsule still attached. That wasn’t exactly a confidence builder for the man preparing to ride it into orbit..."
All in all, I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a fascinating, as well as an informative read. The author paints a compelling picture, illustrating how difficult it was for these four women to accomplish what they did. Thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly for revealing this inspiring story about these unique women. These women all deserve a special place in the record books for such a remarkable, historical achievement.
Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss.