Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
Nonfiction Biography: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
When America entered World War II, it did so with an aviation industry that was only the seventeenth largest industry in the US. Before the end of the war, US aviation was the largest industry in the world. Some of the credit for this increase in industrial capacity, particularly for the improvements in technology that changed the way aircraft was built and that made American planes faster and safer, belongs to the engineers, mathematicians, and “computers” (a job title which was then held largely by women) who worked at Langley, VA during that time. And among those brilliant people in segregated Virginia were a number of African American women whose stories are celebrated in the book Hidden Figures.
Margot Lee Shetterly has compiled their stories with detail and affection. She tells of women who grew up in the heart of a racist and sexist society and defied all the odds to get jobs as “computers” after racial discrimination was formally ended in federal government hiring in 1941 (obviously the formal end did not change everything overnight, but it did create new opportunities). Women like Dorothy Vaughan, who became the manager for the “West Computers” and shepherded the careers of many other women, perhaps at the expense of her own career. Women like Katherine Johnson, whose work was finally acknowledged by a Presidential Medal of Honor in 2012. Katherine Johnson’s work was instrumental in both the Mercury and Apollo space missions.
Their very presence and the high standards of their work gave the lie to the segregationists and those who asserted that blacks and women were somehow less capable than white men. More than just their presence, though, these women fought discrimination on a personal level. Miriam Mann used to take the signs from the cafeteria that labeled a specific table for “colored girls.” For awhile the signs would be replaced, but eventually they were gone for good. Through their collective insistence on excellence and accuracy and their tireless advocacy for each other, these women created new opportunities for themselves and for others. They refused to allow others to define them. In a world where blacks could not stay in hotels, could not eat in diners, could not attend school with whites, could not even be in some towns after sundown, these women pried open doors that had been closed to all but white men and proved that they belonged.
Shetterly’s writing is warm and brimming with love for her subject. She grew up in the Langley area and knew some of these women when she was a child. That affection gives a tenderness to her prose, but does not detract from the detail and research that informs it. I love the way she presents these women as full people. She gives details about their families, their interests, their churches, their sororities, and all the things that made them complete as humans. Spouses and children may not have plotted trajectories or measured air resistance, but they mattered to the “hidden figures” and so they matter to their story.
Hidden Figures is a book of hope and triumph. The challenges faced by the African American women who worked in Langley during the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were such that people of lesser character might have folded. The fact that they not only persevered but forced their way into the history books is a credit to their determination, their talent, and their will. Shetterly has given us their stories as a road map to the destinies that character and hard work can win.