46 pages 1 hour read

Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is a 2016 nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where her father worked at Langley Research Center, on which the book is centered. Thus, she knew firsthand both the story and many of the people involved. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the business school at the University of Virginia. The book won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and Shetterly won the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction. Hidden Figures was made into a film, which also came out in 2016.

The story focuses on four African American women as examples of the many such women who worked at Langley. The title is a play on the meaning of the word “figures” in the sense of both people and numbers. Each was largely hidden from the public view: Most people think of White male astronauts when they think of NASA, and the countless mathematical calculations that lie behind the agency’s accomplishments are known only to specialists. Shetterly’s goal is to make known the stories of women like those she was acquainted with growing up.

With a mandate to desegregate the federal workforce for the war effort during World War II, more opportunities became available for African Americans. Likewise, because so many Black and White men were away fighting the war, women had greater access to employment than ever before. Dorothy Vaughan was the first of the main characters hired as a mathematician by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (later Langley Research Center). She was one of the female African American “computers” (as they then called people who did calculations) who made up the West Computing area. She eventually rose to become head of the area for nearly a decade before it was closed.

Mary Jackson began working for Dorothy in 1951. After a couple of years, Mary joined an engineering group and would go on to become an engineer. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson joined West Computing two years after Mary, but soon joined the Flight Research Division, leading to a distinguished career that directly contributed to the space program in the 1960s. The flight trajectories she calculated were used for Project Mercury and the Moon landings of 1969 and subsequent years. Finally, Christine Darden was hired by NASA in 1967, worked in sonic boom research, and went on to earn her PhD. Each found success by persevering in the face of direct and indirect discrimination based on both their race and gender.

In addition to the careers of the four women profiled, Shetterly tells of their personal lives—the struggles they endured on the road to success, their community involvement, and the times in which they lived. The last becomes a thread in the book, as Shetterly weaves her tale of NASA with one outlining the development of the civil rights movement. By comparing their respective trajectories in 20th-century history, she shows how the latter influenced the former and their narratives merged into one.