Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

I saw (and loved) the movie and wanted to read the book it was based on. When there was a Kindle sale of the book, I bought it. I read it now to see if it would work for our next American History Club meeting about the space race.

Subtitle: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Published: 2016

Genre: nonfiction science biography

Length: 267 pages of text, 368 pages total

Setting: In and around Langley, Virginia, 1940s-1960s

Summary: The book follows the lives of several black, female computers at Langley. During WWII, NACA (the precursor to NASA) was created to improve airplane technology. The engineers needed lots of calculations done, so NACA was continually hiring female computers (they were cheaper than men). Because demand was so high, they turned to the African-American community for recruits. We follow the careers of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and, to a lesser extent, Christine Darden. In almost every occasion, we saw girls with significant mathematical aptitude that had to settle for becoming a teacher, at least until they got into the computer pool at NACA. Each one made significant contributions to research at NACA. Eventually, NACA turned into NASA and the research focused on rockets and orbits and getting a man to the moon. While the general computing pool was disbanded, the women made a home for themselves within the institution and continued to turn their mathematical abilities on to the problems of the day.

Final thoughts: I found the subject matter of this book fascinating, but the writing style was quite dry at times. I don’t think it will work for American History Club because it’s a bit too slow for 13-year old boys. It certainly covers a much longer time period than the movie, since several of the women started working during WWII and the movie only focuses on the space race.

There were so many points that I had no idea about, both in terms of NASA and the Civil Rights stories. They two parts of the story were intertwined quite tightly, although the women weren’t trying to make a Civil Rights stand. They just wanted the opportunity to do the work they were capable of and be judged for that, and not for their gender or skin color. I am continually amazed how hard people will work to keep everyone from being treated equally. Virginia was not about to integrate and change their way of life, regardless of what the federal government said. The governor of Virginia closed schools rather than allow them to integrate! Overall, it is an interesting addition to the story of the space race, focusing on an unknown side of the story.

Title comes from: Shetterly used the phrase  in the epilogue referring to the female computers. She does emphasize the women weren’t actively hidden, just ignored in the history books and the stories surrounding NACA/NASA.

Reading challenges fulfilled: book #26 for the year

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can click on the cover image to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!


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