The Hidden figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

It is no coincidence. A few days ago, Lady Doctors- Kavita Rao’s brilliant portrayal of the forgotten healers (read: doctors) of India came out to much acclaim. She paints a stoic picture of 6 of the most intelligent women from all over the country who dared to cross hurdles of their times and studied medicine only to be sidelined by a world order that frowned upon women stepping out, forget treating patients. 



Author : Margot Lee Shetterly
Originally Published : 2016
Publication : William Borrow Paperbacks
Pages : 368
Genre(s) :-
Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Psychology, Relationship

The world has come far, or so I think, from the days when even American women were not credited for their major intellectual contribution- for the simple reason that they were, well women, and more so because they were black. One cannot imagine such kind of discrimination today. But this part of history is not something of yore, maybe just a few decades ago. The Hidden Figures is a poignant tale of women of color who contributed to NASA’s missions as human computers. The author’s background made it possible to have access to these accounts because she knew many families with members working for NASA. 

I remember how fascinated my wife and I were after watching the movie with the same name, which was, not a surprise at all, nominated for that year’s Academy Awards. The movie had me so curious that it was only a matter of time when I got my hands on the book. 

The book is a tale of African American women mathematicians who were hired at NASA for computing and were hence called Computers (can’t imagine being addressed thus, now). It was a first of sorts, having women professionals at Langley’s labs, while there were women working as janitors, mechanic’s assistants, groundskeepers and cafeteria workers. Dorothy Vaughann was one of them. She answered when the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) decided to visit Universities to recruit Mathematics students. She got selected at a pay of $2000 per month which was double what she earned as a maths teacher. 

We get languid glimpses of Dorothy’s life , her marriage with Howard Vaughan and her beginnings at NACA. Though the new rules required that American organizations employ blacks, the situation outside on the streets had not changed much where racial discrimination was rampant. At NACA, Dorothy met some more women of ‘color’, Thelma Stiles, Pearl Bassette and Miriam Mann. There was segregation at the lab too, where the bathroom had a sign that read ‘Colored Girls’, there was special residential facility closer to the lab with a special bus for the white girls and the café had separate seating. All of this defeated the core of accommodating colored girls in the lab. So when they stow away a sign in the cafeteria that read ‘Colored computers’, there is much buzz. Small acts of defiance was paving way for more empowerment for the black women. They didn’t face problems in the lab but outside, the situation hadn’t improved much. Even in the face of acceptance of small segregation, certain things did touch and hurt the blacks who felt they were hired for merit and shouldn’t be discriminated against for their skin color. The pages that show the life at Langley Labs and the town around are the most interesting, where you see the world’s best Aerodynamicists working together and driving the townsfolk crazy with their weird antics- asking questions at the stores and doing their own science stuff at the shopping mall. 

Into the heart of flying

Dorothy, we see, is now seated in a classroom, gaining knowledge about how planes flew, basically aerodynamics, which we take for granted today, But back then, the theories were slowly unfolding. Dorothy Vaughan played a crucial role in making the B-29 planes carry more load, fly higher and without an error. She was slowly becoming an integral part of the NACA nuts. As the war ended, Dorothy’s life with Howard slips into a forever limbo while she settled in a leased apartment near her workplace. The women computers were as much part of the experiments that launched new planes that broke the sound barrier, as the scientists themselves who built these planes. Soon, you encounter other black women who take key positions at NACA, Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, Eunice Smith and many more. All these stories intertwine to present a picture so endearing, you almost walk with them at NACA and the Langley Labs. 

At some places, like when Katherine walks up to her cabin and puts her things on the table besides an engineer, who gives a side glance and walks away when she comes in. These women understand the racist bias against them but are bent to prove their mettle solely on the basis of their intellect and hard work. Nonetheless, they don’t lose an opportunity to defy norms and let known their angst. Against ignorance, they mounted a day-in, day-out charm offensive: impeccably dressed, well-spoken, patriotic, and upright, they were racial synecdoche’s, keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community. But the insecurities, those most insidious and stubborn of all the demons, were theirs alone. They operated in the shadows of fear and suspicion, and they served at her command. This makes the book all the more endearing

Key takeaways

  1. Even as America was changing for better with anti-apartheid campaigns and efforts, the ground reality was different. Racism was rampant, even in supposedly liberal institutions like the NACA
  2. The black mathematicians who worked for NASA’s space program carved a niche with their unmistakable intelligence, grit and restraint 
  3. Stories of these women of color enthrall you and leave you captivated at the amount of effort they had to put- not just in work but in fighting odds
  4. Back stories of all these women help you understand the odds they have overcome to rise to where they are

Why I recommend this book

Because it is as relevant or more today than ever before. As America fights back accusations that it’s track record of treating the blacks is not good, examples like these remind you that the blacks have won their equal rights with a lot of effort. You can empathize with them as page after page you come across gritty women who never gave up but gave it their all. 

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