Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures Review
I admit I was completely ignorant of the story presented in HIDDEN FIGURES. I had no idea that black women played such a key role in our space program. It's great to finally acknowledge those who contributed so much--and received so little credit for their work.
HIDDEN FIGURES tells the story of four determined black women, who overcame numerous obstacles, and worked in the space program at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now known as "Langley Research Center.") It was at this Virginia lab where Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden were able to employ their skills--and really make a difference. It was "behind the scenes" work back then--but now we know the real picture.
To give the reader an idea of how difficult it was for a woman--much less an African-American woman--to actually become a mathematician, the author notes these statistics: "In the 1930s, just over a hundred women worked as professional mathematicians." The likelihood of a black woman actually becoming a mathematician working on the space program was about zero: "Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees. The odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero."
Oddly, the Soviet Union actively encouraged women in engineering. The schools in the Soviet Union were “loaded with women” including many of their engineering grads. Alas--that was not the case in the United States, which "struggled to find a place for women and Negroes in its science workplace, and in society at large."
At the time, women generally got little credit for their work. It was unusual for a woman to even be acknowledged as co-author of a report: "The work of most of the women, like that of the computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication."
At the lab, life for black women was not quite as bad as outside, where strict rules were followed, with blacks always separate from whites. At Langley, the "boundaries were fuzzier. Blacks were ghettoed into separate bathrooms, but they had also been given an unprecedented entrée into the professional world."
Hidden Figures Review
At Langley, the work was serious; lives were at stake: "Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was that part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night."
Recall that the U.S. did not yet have a track record of successful space launches. In fact, many launches were complete failures: "Two of the Atlas’s last five sallies had ended in failure. One of them had surged into the sky, erupting into spectacular fireballs with the capsule still attached. That wasn’t exactly a confidence builder for the man preparing to ride it into orbit..."
All in all, I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a fascinating, as well as an informative read. The author paints a compelling picture, illustrating how difficult it was for these four women to accomplish what they did. Thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly for revealing this inspiring story about these unique women. These women all deserve a special place in the record books for such a remarkable, historical achievement.
Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss.