Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.
There is so much history that we don’t know about. Some of it is hinted at in textbooks – conversations that may have taken place in closed rooms, people who may have helped behind the scenes. These are things we can imagine not knowing. But that there was a group of African-American women that worked as mathematicians at NASA, plotting our course to the stars? It’s an unknown unknown – in media depictions I don’t think I’ve seen any people of color at all.
All too often women and people of color are left out of our histories. Hidden Figures works to fix that.
There is way too much I didn’t know about the Jim Crow South. I mean, I knew Virginia was segregated, but I had no idea of the crazy stuff they did to keep it that way:
In 1936 a black student from Richmond named Alice Jackson Houston applied to the University of Virginia to study French but was denied admission. The NAACP sued on her her behalf, and in response the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate educations of black students in any place but Virginia.
I didn’t know that executive orders slowly desegregated the military and government jobs over time, providing an opening for all black people to get into more skilled professions. Other things that I already knew – minorities being shut out of the housing market, women not being promoted as quickly or paid on par with men – came to life.
Shettley focuses the the story through many lenses. What was it like to be a woman at Langley? How about a black man? How were those issues compounded in the case of the black women “computers”? And what additional difficulties did the world outside of work present? Intersectionality, I love thee.
I’m having a hard time coming up with more to say because I just want to press Hidden Figures into your hands and say, “read this.” Learning about Dorothy Vaughan, who moved away from her family for a chance at a job that would fulfill her while providing for her children, inspires me. I want my 10 year old niece to read about Katherine Johnson, a natural mathematician that took every opportunity that presented itself, along with a bunch that didn’t. All the women in this book smashed ceilings, and “the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.”
So the content gets high marks from me. The writing is good, more journalistic than narrative non-fiction-y. So if you like your fact to read like a thriller this may not be the best choice for you. In fact you may just want to wait for the movie. Yes, movie! I’m so excited, because everyone will see that NASA also looked like this:
Shetterly has done us all a service by researching and speaking with these amazing women while they’re still here to tell their stories. A must read for NASA history buffs, and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the space program, civil rights, or pioneering women.
Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.