Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. Published in 2016.
It wasn’t long ago that I reviewed the motion picture based on this book, which was released earlier this winter. The movie was good, but as you might expect, the book is light years better in terms of content, information, and balance.
While the movie took pains to sensationalize the documented accomplishments and milestones achieved by three of the black female mathematicians who helped claculate the figures at Langley during the space race, the book offers a more well rounded presentation.
Shetterly takes the time to explore how the magnitude of the female computing offices (white and black) impacted the space race, and how despite their enormous contributions, their work went largely unheralded simply because they were women doing the work:
“Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions.
The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe 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. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all.”
After laying the foundation of the history of the female computers in a more general sense, Shetterly then proceeds to unpack the admirable and history making intellectual and career exploits of the women featured in the motion picture: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson.
The work and labor of the female computers was noteworthy not only because these women were among the most educated American women during that time. Unlike the white computers however, the black computers had to juggle the long hours and demanding work alongside marriage and family. Marriage for them did not signal the end of their working days, because their husbands were rarely paid enough to be able to support their growing families without their wives help and the substantial amount of income they earned as Langley computers. So juggle they did, because the opportunity being afforded them was too great to pass up:
“Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status–none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions.”
Shetterly spends lots of time and effort pulling research not only related to the women she featured, but also related to the developments in aeronautics and space exploration so that her readers could follow along (as much as some of us are able to follow such things) as she revealed why the work the women did was so valuable, even though their work was largely hidden from view until very recently. In fact, it was something of a running joke at NACA (what we know as NASA) how little recognition computers got despite the fact that their work was so vitally important:
“Woe unto thee if they shall make thee a computer,” joked a column in Air Scoop. “For the Project Engineer will take credit for whatsoever though doth that is clever and full of glory. But if he slippeth up, and maketh a wrong calculation, or pulleth a boner of any kind whatsoever, he shall lay the mistake at thy door when he is called to account and he shall say, ‘What can you expect from girl computers anyway’?”
In spite of the downplaying of the work of the girl computers, and the obscurely tucked away accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, we can thank Margot Shetterly for her tireless labor of love bringing the work of these women to the forefront. It is worth a read.