Friday, January 27, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians that Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is the book I have been waiting for.  As a woman engineer that has often been the only woman in the room, it was inspiring to read about women in the past who persevered to have the careers they dreamed of in the mathematics and engineering fields.  I never knew that women were behind the calculations that put Americans on the moon and helped develop better aircraft during and after WWII.

Hidden Figures tells the story of many women, but focuses on Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Groble Johnson, and Mary Jackson. During WWII, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was faced with a  problem – how could they get enough mathematicians and human “computers” to do the calculations necessary to get state of the art aircraft designed for the war effort?  They decided to start advertising at colleges for mathematicians including all black colleges.  They hired a number of highly qualified women with great mathematical skills who put in their all to make both the war effort and space program a success.  While doing so, they also helped to bring their families a better life.

I’ve honestly struggled with this book review. I could write a multi-page review and go into depth about each woman and their lives, but I don’t think that is effective. The book has such a great depth to it, it is hard to narrow it down for a review and give it justice.  I bookmarked fifty or so quotes I loved so I’ll have to narrow it down to.  What did I love about the book?  What I loved the most was learning about women that were successful in the STEM field.  When you are growing up and thinking about going into the STEM field, there are not many role models to look up to.  That is why I am also so excited about the movie.  Having it become the norm to show the reality of women working in these fields will hopefully encourage other young women to pursue a career in these fields.  I also love that it is finally giving these women credit for all of their hard work.

I also loved that the book told the story of many women who worked at Langley, but focused on these women.  I loved learning their stories, their lives and struggles and how they were able to use their love of math to get a college education and a rewarding career.

Hidden Figures also gave a unique look into history. These women worked at NASA, but were not considered equal.  Over time they were able to work for equality and a way to break through the glass ceiling.  Why were women with the same qualification as men hired at a lower grade and not allowed to progress up to as high a grade as similarly qualified men?  They worked hard to dispel the myth that “men were uniquely qualified to be engineers.” I learned a lot more about the segregated south as well.  It seems so strange to me that African Americans not only couldn’t use bathrooms or drinking fountains that white people used, but they couldn’t even check out books from the library that weren’t from the colored section.  They also couldn’t attend the same schools which forced each town to try to staff two different schools, which was not always effective.  The segregation made it very hard for a woman of color to be able to make it in a technical field, but these women persevered and made it.
I’ve narrowed down a few favorite quotes:

“As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” – Author Margot Lee Shetterly.  I thought this was awesome.  If we can change the stereotype of only white males being in these fields, I think we could attract more qualified people to them.

“You men and women working here far from the sound of drums and guns, working in your civilian capacity in accordance with you highly specialized skills, are winning your part of this war: the battle of research.  This war is being fought in the laboratories as well as on the battlefields.”

“Being an engineer, Mary Jackson would eventually learn, meant being the only black person, or the only woman, or both, at industry conferences for years.”  I still find myself the only woman at engineering meetings, but it’s gotten better.

“They wouldn’t get rich, but an engineer’s salary was more than enough to crack into the ranks of the comfortable middle class.”  I always tell this to my family who thinks engineers live in mansions.
“There wasn’t one day I didn’t wake up excited to go to work.” – Katherine Johnson

“She was still juggling the duties of Girl Scout mom, Sunday school teacher, trips to music lessons, and homemaker for her two daughters in addition to her full time work at Langley.”  I felt like this was a page out of my life!

Overall, Hidden Figures told a compelling true story that all Americans should know about the hidden women who helped to make our air and space program a success.  I learned a lot from this book and can’t wait to see the movie!  

Book Source:  Review Copy from William Morrow.  Thanks!


  1. Laura, this books sounds incredible. I didn't know either that women were behind the calculations that put Americans on the moon and helped develop better aircraft during and after WWII. This sounds like an important,"hidden" part of American history.

  2. I, too, didn't know about the female involvement in this effort until I heard about the book. Being a female IT geek from a family of IT geeks, I too am always interested in learning about females who have been successful in the STEM field. Also being a librarian and amateur history buff, I made sure to read this book as soon as it came out (and watch the movie as soon as it came out) and loved the story! I think you did a great job of this review, and I particularly liked reading the quotes you highlighted.

  3. This is the fourth time today that this book has been recommended. The other three were people at the clinic where I had an appointment. All of the recommending people had great comments on the book and I will have to read it.