Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race was eventually adopted into a popular, financially successful 2017 movie, but it was first a nonfiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly and published by William Morrow and Company. Shetterly researched the book for eight years. The NASA mathematicians called "human computers" are the emphasis of the book. Specifically, the story centers around three African American women—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—whose contributions to the American space program had gone unrecognized and unheralded for far too long. It also introduces readers to Christine Darden, the first woman of color promoted to the US civil service's Senior Executive Services classification. 

In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country.

The above quote is from attorney Paul Dembling. While Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy were paving the way in NASA, the world was changing rapidly. The women who helped advance the United States in the space race were simultaneously discriminated against. They assisted in the American mission to “beat the communists,” yet inequality ran rampant in their vicinity. This quote emphasizes the hypocrisy that the women at NASA experienced and witnessed.

Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was the part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night.

Katherine, well-known for her contributions, clearly saw the big picture as well as the details. While the world was fascinated by the idea of getting a person into space, those working to make it happen were thinking beyond—they were thinking about what comes next. 

There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities—legalized segregation, racial discrimination—here is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us. 

Here, Shetterly touches on the wonder of Hidden Figures. It is a story that brings people together in hope, especially in a time when there are many causes for despair. 

Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.

The Black women working for NASA as engineers and mathematicians paved the way for more women to do so later on. Their perseverance and hard work paid off, and it didn’t stop with their generation. It was the work of women like Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy that allowed Christine—younger than the main three women—to join the NASA team.

In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.

The odds of breaking into mathematics were stacked against women of all sorts—especially Black women in the United States. As disappointing as that is, these “hidden figures” went forth into science, math, and engineering with the bravery and intelligence to change the game.

How could Katherine [Johnson] not be a [Star Trek ] fan? Everything about space had fascinated her from the...

(This entire section contains 704 words.)

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very beginning, and there, on television, was a black woman in space, doing her job and doing it well.

This quote touches on just how important representation in media can be. Having someone who looks like you, behaves the way you do, and/or cares about the same things as you in a show as popular as Stark Trek is no small feat. It can be motivation to keep working and believing in your ability. The women who contributed to the space program went on to be these role model figures for other young girls.