Margot Lee Shetterly
William Morrow, 2016
328 pages (hardcover)
Before John Glenn orbited 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 American’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 entering the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even at 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 Car War, the Civil Rights movement, and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughn, 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 as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives and their country’s future.
–Description from publisher
Claiming it’s about how African American women assisted the space race gives them less credit. The book starts during World War II when Langley was in need of more mathematical prowess for its many aeronautical operations. Enter West Computing and the human computers who also happened to be black.
My eyes would glaze over at parts that were filled with aeronautical or mathematical jargon. However, the parts that focused on the details of these women’s lives and how they juggled family needs and the work they loved held my interest. Overall, I enjoyed the title and am happy to know more about this topic and these women.
Who it’s for: Everyone. Seriously, these women deserve to be known about.