Serendipitously, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures* arrived on my doorstep on the ninety-eighth birthday of Katherine Johnson, pioneering scientist mathematician and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—and one of the subjects of this engrossing book about the black female mathematicians who helped the United States win World War II and the space race.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s writing is straightforward and lively; it is clear how passionate she is about her subject. She hails from Hampton, Virginia (“Spacetown USA”), the setting of Hidden Figures, where, she writes, “I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Only years later did she learn about the history of the women who worked in West Area Computing, a division of black female mathematicians (called “computers,” since they did complex calculations by hand) at Langley Research Center. To keep up with war demand, these women (and their white counterparts) were recruited by NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA), the agency responsible for ensuring American air supremacy in World War II by researching and testing advancements in aeronautics.
Despite the fact their expertise was badly needed, the West Computers, including Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, and Mary Jackson, often faced longer routes to advancement than the white women who did the same kind of work, and all women at Langley found it difficult to break into the ranks of the engineers.
Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. [. . . ] 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. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all.
Besides the hurdles common to all the female mathematicians and engineers working at Langley, the black women of West Computing faced segregation in the workplace and in Hampton; even after segregated bathrooms and cafeteria sections at Langley disappeared, their children were sent to schools separate from those of their white colleagues. Many of the West Computers were working mothers; some were also widowed or separated geographically from their spouses. Given the difficult work and long hours of the job, this presented its own set of challenges, which Hidden Figures touches upon.
Hidden Figures places the story of the West Computers in the context of war, the fight for civil rights, and the space race without losing sight of the details (though I did want a bit more explanation of the mathematical and scientific tasks the engineers worked on). Necessarily, the book focuses on a handful of women, but also emphasizes that they were not alone; as Ms. Shetterly writes, “For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.”
The story of these mathematicians, engineers, and scientists is one of discrimination and perseverance, dedication and curiosity, orbital trajectories and soap-box derbies. I came to admire the women of this book immensely; they are the epitome of grace under pressure, and it’s long past time their story was told.
What nonfiction have you been reading lately?
P. S.: Fellow Trekkies, there is a fantastic anecdote in Hidden Figures that you don’t want to miss.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.