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

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

by Margot Lee Shetterly

No, but seriously, did you expect anything less of a rating from me? This book is kickass. It is literally everything I have wanted in a science history book for a while.

Hidden Figures details the lives and achievements of the Black women who worked first as computers, then as mathematicians and engineers, for NACA (the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics) and its successor, NASA. Margot Lee Shetterly pulls back the curtain on an aspect of science history that has remained obscured and neglected. As she explains in the afterword, it’s not that these women and their roles in history were deliberately suppressed; instead, no one had really bothered to piece together their stories and tell the general public. Shetterly, in her first book, pulls together the threads of several women’s lives, creating a compelling book that doesn’t just tell us their story but actually tells the story of NACA/NASA, and the transformation of the American aeronautics industry from World War II to the moonshot.

If you’re a woman, you don’t need me to mansplain to you why this book is important. In fact, you’re probably good just skipping the rest of this review and going out and buying a copy right now.

If you’re a man, particularly a white man, and you’re having trouble comprehending why I’m gushing so unreservedly at this book, then let me point you to Kameron Hurley’s essay, “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”:

I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other. It turned out many of them were governing countries and figuring out rather effective methods of birth control that had sweeping ramifications on the makeup of particular states, especially Greece and Rome.

Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.

What Hurley says of women fighting is true for women in STEM. There have always been women in STEM. Unfortunately, it’s just so much easier to name prominent men in STEM than women, thanks to the way our historical narrative has been constructed. Sure, when pressed I can name a handful of women mathematicians off the top of my head—Ada Lovelace, obvs., Emmy Noether, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Sophie Germain. Even when I do this, however, all I’m doing is stretching the Great Man theory to accommodate another sex; in doing this, I erase the contributions of thousands of unnamed women who laboured and calculated and thought.

Shetterly avoids succumbing to this temptation. True, she focuses more on some women than others, like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble Johnson—but she names and briefly explores the lives of many more. Although she relates biographical details, this is not a biography. It’s a history, a history of the early twentieth-century United States and how its technological prowess in air and space allowed it to become a global superpower. Oh, and by the way, that prowess was built on the computations of Black women. Or, as Shetterly observes at one memorable point, there is precious little in aeronautics and space history that women have not been involved in or somehow helped to build.

Before we had electronic computers, we had human computers. People—by which I mean, women, because computing was seen as women’s work—sat at rows of desks and did the math required by engineers designing and prototyping aircraft for the war effort. We’re not talking about sums and differences on a calculator here; we’re talking about complicated algebraic operations the likes of which would dazzle you unless you happen to have an undergrad math degree—which most of these women did. Yes, women graduated from university math programs in the 1930s. And, like Dorothy Vaughan, they almost always went into teaching (especially if they were also Black), until the war came along and the demand for women in the workforce—and for computers.

There were white women computers as well, and Shetterly names several of them and mentions their contributions at NACA. By focusing on West Computing and its Black computers, however, she can use this history to examine the paradox of racism in the American South during and after World War II. And this is where Hidden Figures transcends merely flipping the script on forgotten women to become a comprehensive and edifying history. I learned so much about discrimination, segregation, and the civil rights movement from this book!

As a Canadian, of course, I didn’t learn an awful lot about the American civil rights movement (nor, sadly, do we learn much about our own country’s anti-Black policies). But I thought I knew the gist of it: Black and white people sent their children to separate schools, had separate bathrooms and water fountains and separate seating on buses and at movie theatres. I knew of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. I didn’t know about the numerous other legal challenges involving higher education, nor was I aware that following Brown, Virginia was basically like, “Welp, we’ll just defund public education instead.” I had no idea that for five years a county in Virginia closed all of its public schools in an effort to stop integration. Smh. So wild.

(It seems wild to me, sitting here and writing this from my relatively enlightened position in 2017. Yet I’m aware that I benefit from hindsight, and I spun off a rant about blindspots in the present day into a separate blog post.)

Even in the history of civil rights, I think it’s easy to get caught up in how Black men fought for, advocated for, agitated for freedom from discrimination. Aside from a few token women, like Rosa Parks, mythologized for a single act of defiance, the movement is defined by masculine resistance. Shetterly shatters this conception, showing us how Black women resisted every single day: Miriam Mann’s quiet war to remove the “Colored” sign from the lunchroom table; Mary Jackson working with her son to build the most aerodynamic soap box derby racer; Katherine Johnson literally demanding that she be allowed to sit in on editorial meetings—this is a story where women are not just wives and mothers and cheerleaders of others but actors and makers of history in their own right.

Similarly, Hidden Figures is the story of the States’ transition from wartime boom to post-war bustle. Shetterly captures the tension and patriotism ignited by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, and how it galvanized the States to transform NACA into NASA and begin aiming for space. If her exposition into the administrative intricacies of how this transformation happened gets a bit much at times, I cannot fault her dedication to such details. Despite such digressions, the book remains fascinating through and through.

I can only hope the movie based on Hidden Figures is as good as this book. It’s past due for women like Vaughan and Johnson to get the recognition they deserve, and it’s time that we change the way we tell stories about the history of science and technology. Writers like Shetterly remind us that there is so much more to the story than a few Great Men having leaps of intuition or spearheading intense, improbable projects. Some “untold story” books fizzle, failing to deliver on their promises of a brand new perspective on an old story. Not so with Hidden Figures. This is one untold story that you need to hear.

I saw the movie, and I blogged about it!


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