Black History Month, Women; Continent: North America

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

  • Read more about the three women focused on by the Oscar-nominated film and learn about more like them
  • 373 pages (Acknowledgements begin about page 243)

When I saw the trailer for Hidden Figures a few months ago, I knew I’d have to find the book. Great space movies Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff also came from America’s Space Race. However, both classics are very much tales of white men—engaging, inspiring, but now that I’ve read Hidden Figures, I notice that their casts are very monochromatic.

What If You Were a Brilliant Mathematical Mind in 1940s America?

Well, if you were wrapped up in the body of a black woman, then the pinnacle of your career could be teaching at a high school for black students or, possibly, teaching at a black university. In the former case, you could expect to earn about half your white counterparts’ salaries in the same school district. In the latter case, you could expect to encounter sexism in addition to the racism that would block your path to any other profession. For black Americans, particularly women, ambition traveled arm in arm with frustration.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Langley’s NACA research center began to hire capable young women to crunch numbers for the aeronautical engineers. The facility’s wind tunnels for testing experimental aircraft generated stacks of numbers compiled in to datasheets—more data came from a given NACA engineering group than the engineers could practically manage themselves. The government needed to hire mathematicians who weren’t already in some academic or industry post, and that meant women, including black women. Suddenly several talented young black women had access to better paying jobs as “computers” than were available to them anywhere else in the country. This narrative held true for the decades that followed, even as NACA morphed into NASA and developed space flight.

Computers in Context

The best argument for committing to the book even after seeing the movie is that Shetterly’s book offers more context for the computers’ achievements than does the screenplay. Langley’s research center was situated in Virginia, part of the segregated South, and home to some of the most vocal critics of Brown v. Board of Education. Virginia’s resistance to desegregation meant that many of the Langley parents sent their children to segregated schools, even as they headed to work each day in a comparatively meritocratic environment (“comparatively” a key word here). Certainly, Katherine Goble shouldn’t have had to run across the entire Langley campus for a “Colored” ladies’ room, and the film gives you a taste of her shame and frustration. However, Shetterly’s description of protests and legal action going on around the country even as the computers came to work each day offers a fuller sense of the times and compares the Langley culture with American society as a whole. Without building this detailed sense of the times, Mary Jackson’s victory in court when she is awarded the right to attend night classes at the white high school feels less impactful in the screenplay than it does in the book. If you were alive in the 1950s or 1960s, then maybe you don’t need Shetterly’s Civil Rights history lesson, but high school or college readers will benefit from the historical context.

Shetterly also goes to some trouble to put these women in the context of their community. Church and the community center in the suburbs built for black Langley employees served as their networking centers. After all, neither blacks nor women were permitted to use the Langley golf course used by NACA’s white managers and go-getters for their own networking opportunities. Instead, Mary Jackson headed her local chapter of the Girl Scouts and was instrumental in ultimately integrating her chapter for black girls with its counterpart offered to white children. Jackson in particular encouraged education in math and science for local kids, welcomed new Langley talent into the community through the Community Center, and made sure the word got out to black applicants for open positions at Langley. Similar networking occurred at the local church, where Dorothy Vaughan sang in the choir. As they learned of available positions, they encouraged black applicants to come to Langley. Jackson made a particular effort to see these applicants housed and fed personally or by her neighbors for the few days they were in town.

Takeaways

Another reason to consider reading Hidden Figures is that Shetterly discusses more women in some detail in her book. Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble and Mary Jackson were contemporaries and made terrific choices for the focus of the screenplay. Their careers were different enough that each highlighted a different achievement, so the movie wouldn’t have been complete if lacking any one of them. However, many more women came to work at Langley, and their stories appear only in Hidden Figures’ print version.

The achievements of these remarkable women and the opportunities created at Langley glow more brightly because the author provides the timelines of the career advancements and attitudes at Langley together with the larger Civil Rights movement. However, this worthwhile effort does slow the pace of the narrative, so you probably won’t kill off this book in an afternoon. Plus, although the book is written in a very accessible narrative style, the story doesn’t build to a single climax. Instead, it celebrates a series of small victories and keeps moving, making it feel like a collection of short stories.

If stories about women in American science programs capture your interest, then consider also reading Denise Kiernan’s excellent book, The Girls of Atomic City. I couldn’t read one without thinking of the other. While Hidden Figures deals more explicitly with the topic of racism, The Girls of Atomic City describes another group of women who were unknown to the American public at large.

Image: Katherine G. Johnson in 2008. Source: NASA/Sean Smith

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