“There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians.”
That might not come up in math class at school, but it’s evident on every page of Hidden Figures.
“What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.”
From the 1950, the golden age of aeronautics – when “America existed in the urgent present” – to 1960s space-age America, Margot Lee Shetterly works to solve for ‘x’, to fill in the scholarly blanks where these women deserve to appear. “Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences it was to fit in because of their talent.”
This is non-fiction with a rich and compelling narrative style. Readers who more often choose to read fiction will readily settle into this volume, both language and pacing crafted with intention and deliberation.
This is an exciting time and the light-handed use of metaphors assists in creating an atmosphere filled with possibility. So, for instance, government buildings are “as full as a pod ripe with peas” and men in canvas jumpsuits are hovering like “pollinating insects” as they move from plane to plane.
Margot Lee Shetterly has a knack for creating atmosphere and for summarizing social movements which span significant swaths of time.
In this era, women “struggled to find the balance between spending time with her children at home and spending time for them, for her family at a job” (today, too, many women will find it easy to relate to this).
They faced discrimination at a variety of levels. “Women…had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations”.
But the women of West Computing in Virginia were the only black professionals at the laboratory “not exactly excluded, but not quite included either”. Even after Executive Order 8802 some were more equal than others.
These women were “racial synecdoches”, who were “keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community”.
From the beginning, the author is clear about her decision to use terms which might be “discordant to modern ears” (including Negro, Colored, Indian and Girls), as part of her effort to remain true to the time period and to the voices of the individuals represented in the story.
She does not hesitate to expose inequity, though neither does she dwell upon it. (This volume explores the content which I longed for in Natalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls which seemed to avoid consideration of deeply rooted prejudices and injustices.)
For instance, in only a few paragraphs, Shetterly’s description of one woman’s request for directions to the bathroom succinctly reveals the racism which continued to flourish, even in a seeminly inclusive environment. “In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.”
Her skill with summarizing social trends does not come at the expense of details. Margot Lee Shetterly has a wealth of statistics and specifics to offer as well.
Data is shared in a context which invites readers to make connections between social trends and the experiences of specific women whose lives are considered in greater detail on the pages of Hidden Figures. So, for example, it is interesting to note that one of the women discussed earned an annual salary of $2000; but the significance grows when readers learn that the average monthly wage for a black woman at the time was $96.
Similarly, details about the efforts to alleviate the housing crisis which arose in the wake of the industry’s rapid expansion are also revealing. In 1945, five out of ten people in southeastern VA worked for the U.S. government, either directly or indirectly. The housing development in the East End of Newport News contained 5200 prefabricated demountable homes. Of these, 4000 were in Copeland Park for whites and designated for whites and 1200 were in Newsome Park and designated for blacks. The percentages are significant, but perhaps even more relevant is the explicit reality of segregation.
Not-so-science-y readers need not be concerned that the material will be inaccessible. There are technical aspects to the material of course. So, readers learn that the formula for Area Rule predicts the correct ratio of the area of a crosssection of a plane’s wing to the area of the crosssection of the body. They also learn that the press called this the Marilyn Monroe effect or the wasp-waisted effect, which offers yet another point of accessibility to aid in readers’ understanding of the importance of the point where a plane’s wings connected to the fuselage.
Ultimately, however, all this talk of transonic planes and turbulence is a bonus. If readers simply grasp the fact that this information was meaningful for the women whose lives are considered in Hidden Figures, that’s the underlying idea of importance. “Together they shared the secret language of pericynthion altitudes and/ orbital planes and lunar equators.” This community not only existed but flourished.
“For too long history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.”
Margot Lee Shettley’s Hidden Figures is both informative and inspiring: an overt invitation to rethink and relearn.
Thank you to HarperCollins and TLC Tours for the invitation to read and discuss this work.
Want to read more? Other participants include:
December 6th: Broken Teepee
December 7th: Ms. Nose in a Book
December 8th: Dwell in Possibility
December 9th: G. Jacks Writes
December 12th: Lit and Life
December 13th: As I turn the pages
December 15th: Reading Lark
December 16th: Art @ Home
December 19th: Leigh Kramer
December 20th: Emerald City Book Review
December 21st: Bibliotica
December 22nd: Helen’s Book Blog
December 23rd: Based on a True Story