• Hardcover: 368 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow (September 6, 2016)
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 starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
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, 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 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 they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
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Time and time again I am amazed at the absolutely astounding women that have shaped history and yet are left out of our textbooks. Hidden Figures focuses on five of the many, many African-American women that worked at NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, before it became NASA) as human computers. Intelligent, hard-working, motivated women who knew the ins and outs of mathematical computations and equations better than the male engineer that got paid far more after receiving their work, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine are finally highlighted for the work they accomplished helping the USA win World War II, the Cold War and the Space Race, not to mention their strides in women’s rights and racial relations during segregation.
I absolutely love learning about strong, smart women who have positively influenced the way we live. Hidden Figures did a terrific job of bringing forward these few women who played such a big role in science and technology. Author Margot Lee Shetterly had the advantage of knowing these women growing up; and she provides unique insight as well as an incredible amount of research to bring the women’s personal and work life out into the open. One of the most interesting things that were brought up was in the prologue; when Shetterly remembers walking through NASA and seeing teams of African American women working on mathematical equations; furthermore, this was completely normal to her- women were good at math and African American women were employed for their skills. When did this change? Why are women so afraid of math now? And how can we get this back? Another compelling point made was surrounding segregation. While separate but equal was a sham, these women just worked harder and when white colleges didn’t accept them or other brilliant teachers, African American colleges were formed and Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine and Gloria were just a few of the women who earned an education there. I loved the stories of these women making a stand against segregation in their workplace and communities, from the cafeteria to the bathrooms and the communities where they lived, the protests for equal treatment made a big difference. Most of all however, I enjoyed reading about the breakthroughs that came out of all the computations achieved. Where would we be if not for Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine, Gloria and the scores of other women employed at NACA? Overall, an important read that finally gives some of the recognition due to the pioneers of out flight and space exploration history.
I received this book for review from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours.
Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.