Book review: Breaking barriers en route to moon in Shetterly’s ‘Hidden Figures’
October 6, 2017
The realms of science and math have long been dominated by men, not because women have lacked the intellect or acumen to contemplate the mysteries and machinations of the universe, but because the world's patriarchal societies have traditionally been reluctant to cede space within their very parochial fraternities of power and influence. The same oversight can be said of people of color, so when author Margot Lee Shetterly decided to examine the history of her childhood hometown, Hampton, Virginia, she learned that African American women had been working deep within the overwhelmingly male-dominated landscape of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory and then at NASA since the earliest days of their existence. Armed with this basic information, she was determined to learn the full story of these remarkable women, without whom, the moon landing, it is safe to say, might not have taken place.
Shetterly's 2016 book, "Hidden Figures," became a national bestseller and inspired the surprise hit movie by the same name, which brought to life the stories of those women whose significant contributions to the space race otherwise would have gone uncelebrated. With all the modern emphasis — finally — on encouraging STEM education for girls, Shetterly's thorough research of, in particular, four math-computing black women makes for a rich legacy to inspire future generations of young women in the fields of math and science.
Shetterly's own father worked for NASA as a climate scientist, at a time when a black man, let alone a woman of any color, was a rarity in the scientific community. From her frame of reference as a child, though, Shetterly says, "I knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that's just what black folks did." Little did she know, but the men and women of color who worked at Langley were a rare concentration of race within a large field of study. Upon further examination she was awed by the "chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the moon."
But that is just what happened, and it is that woman's story, among others, that Shetterly unfolds in her book. Katherine Johnson is perhaps the most famous of the "hidden figures" who helped set NASA's course to the moon, but Shetterly details how Johnson and three other black female employees at Langley worked together and supported each other to make sure they all got ahead and the mission got done.
Long before there was NASA or a space program, it was the needs of World War II that drove the burgeoning National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which later became NASA) to consider the hiring of women to fill gaps left by its male employees who had gone overseas to fight. The need was great, as aeronautics was a booming industry in the 1940s, as it quickly became evident that aerial fire power was going to be crucial to winning the war.
In spite of the stellar and accurate computing work being put out by the women, there was the inevitable pushback, with those less open to change asking "how could a female mind process something so rigorous and precise as math." For after all, even though there was a need for more employees with impeccable math skills, it was still Virginia — the South — and blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus.
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As Americans, blacks were asked to do their part to defend liberties overseas, while being fully aware of the bitter double-standard that was their everyday existence with segregation. "They knew democracy's every virtue, vice, and shortcoming, its voice and contour, by its profound and persistent absence in their lives." Still, each time they stood up on behalf of America, they hoped a unified America would stand up on behalf of them.
But, initially, the black women were kept separate. A "Colored Computers" sign delineated where they could sit in the cafeteria during lunch, and though one defiant woman repeatedly removed it, another was always put back in its place. But, in spite of the surface inequalities, the women were well aware of the exclusive group they had been allowed into — the few of the few of the few.
"They wore their professional clothes like armor," proving they were every bit as equal as their white counterparts, even when they knew the bar they had to reach was set much higher. To be female in the profession meant they "had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations."
And their trajectory to that high bar continued over the decades, as NACA became NASA and John F. Kennedy tasked the young space agency with the seemingly impossible goal of placing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. With such an ambitious and public commitment, NASA realized there was no energy left to spend on lunch tables and separate offices; they simply needed the best and the brightest, and Shetterly beautifully details the vital contributions of four of the very best, who all played a part in winning the race to the moon.
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