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

By: Margot Lee Shetterly

Star Rating:



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Before John Glen orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, NASA needed scientists and mathematicians to run the calculations and explore the science behind whether such feats were even possible. Among some of the most brilliant minds in the country were a group of African American women who were typically relegated to low-paying teaching positions in the poor segregated schools of the South. Then the labor shortages of WWII brought these women unexpected, but welcome, new opportunities. Suddenly they found themselves working for Uncle Sam at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. Although these women had to fight against Virginia's Jim Crow laws, which tried to hold them back, they wouldn't be deterred. They put their skills to use in helping the United States and its allies win WWII by designing aircraft that could keep up with the rapid advances the Germans were making. Following the war, many of these ladies stayed on with the newly formed National Aeronautics & Space Administration to once again help their country reach the milestone of winning the Space Race against the USSR throughout the Cold War. It was, in part, their knowledge and expertise that helped to launch rockets into orbit and put men on the moon. Hidden Figures explores and intertwines the lives of four of these women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, interspersed with the stories of others, their contributions to NASA's success, and how they used their intellect to change the course of their own lives and the future of our country.


When I heard about the movie Hidden Figures last year, it immediately stood out as a film I'd like to watch. Then I found out that it was based on a book, so of course, I wanted to read that first. I'm glad I did, because although I still haven't yet watched the movie, I can tell that the book contains a lot more information. I'm aware that the movie follows only three women, which is why I went into reading the book thinking that it was a biography of only those three women, when in fact, it's so much more. The movie version may or may not leave the impression that it was only those women who had an impact on the space race, but I quickly found out that there were many women involved in those efforts, both black and white. That's why I actually had to go look up the movie on IMDB to find out which women profiled were the "characters" in the film. For the record, it's Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, but the author includes many other individuals in this book, although perhaps admittedly there was a little more focus on these three.

In addition to the numerous persons who are profiled to some degree, the book also takes a closer look at history, particularly the aeronautics race during WWII, which was then followed by the space race as the Cold War with the USSR began to build. To some extent, the story delves into the science behind the advances that were gradually being made in both cases. It additionally explores the employment climate for both women and persons of colors during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and the struggles these people faced in the workplace. Then there's the general history of what was happening surrounding Jim Crow laws and segregation, which of course led to the fight for civil rights. So there's a whole lot going on in the book that doesn't always directly impact the three women seen in the movie version, and in many (probably most) cases, they weren't necessarily working directly with one another either. While the movie I'm sure is likely a more dramatized version of their lives and their impact on aeronautical and astronautical research, the book presents a much-more detailed, fact-based accounting.

Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and most all of the women who worked for the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), which was the predecessor of NASA, started there during WWII. If you're familiar with the history of that war, you'll know that because most of the men were overseas fighting on the front lines, there were many job openings in various areas back home that needed to be filled. Women were often the only ones available, so this is when women really started working outside the home more. When positions for computers (the human variety :-)) became available at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, it was women who were brought in to fill them, and as it happened many of those women were African American. However, of course, because of the Jim Crow laws, which were particularly strict in Virginia where Langley was located, they had to be segregated from the white computers. All of these women, but perhaps especially the ones of color, had to work harder than their male counterparts in order to get ahead and were paid less. I have to say that the story of these trailblazers and the struggles they faced is inspiring. They really proved that women can do the same work as and have brainpower equal to men. Without them, many of our most famous achievements, such as breaking the sound barrier and putting men on the moon, might not ever have come to fruition. It's a crying shame that until this book was published and the movie was released, these women's contributions lived largely in the shadows with few people even knowing about them.

Hidden Figures is an excellent story that more people should know about. In fact, IMHO, it should now be part of school curricula. There's even a young readers edition suitable for just this purpose that I think I might pick up, because it looks like it condenses the narrative down to focus more on the three women seen in the movie, plus one more who came along a little later named Christine Darden. In some ways, I think that's what I was looking for when I picked this book up. While all the extra info was great, I often found it a little hard to remember what was going on. For example, the narrative might focus on Dorothy Vaughan for a little while, but then veer away into the more general history or science stuff, then pick up with another of the women, before later going back to Dorothy, which made it hard to keep track of where I'd last left her. This difficulty in following everything was the main reason I knocked off the star. Plus there were simply some areas of the story that interested me more than others. I enjoyed the bits of personal narrative on the women, in addition to some of the sociological history surrounding persons of color in the general world of that era, as well as POCs and women in the workplace. Also as a kid who was a bit of a space nut growing up and dreamed of some day becoming an astronaut, I also enjoyed much of the later chapters surrounding the space race. Then there's the feeling I get every time I read a history book that no matter how far we've come and how much progress has been made, there are just some ways in which we, as a society, never seem to learn the lessons of the past, which is why I believe it's so important to read and learn from it. So for it's valuable contribution to the historical narrative, Hidden Figures is a great book which I highly recommend to just about everyone, and if you don't have the patience to read this longer, more detailed version, then by all means get the younger readers edition, but please do read it.


Margot Lee Shetterly