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Profile Image for Amber.
393 reviews14 followers
July 20, 2016
Man I really really wanted to like this book. I enjoy nonfiction and I loved the subject matter the author went after. However, this was just so dry. It felt very clinical as opposed to experiencing life with these women. Also some of the facts that the author was trying to get across were so repeated their value lost meaning. Bummer because it could have been SOOO good.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,056 reviews1,863 followers
November 25, 2017
CARMEN: *sighs*
*drinks coffee*
Okay, I've put off writing this long enough. Let's do this thing.

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.


- Feminism! Smash the patriarchy! Sisters are doin' it for themselves!

- Break down those race barriers!

I'm totally on board with this message.

Even more on board with calling attention to something that most Americans are ignorant about - Women's roles and black people's roles in NASA during the Space Race and WWII. The simple fact that this news was shocking to a lot of people means this story is important and should be told. The fact that it was made into a movie is even better - because, let's face it, a lot of people don't read books.

Black history in America (beyond going over the Civil War and slavery and MLK, Jr. ad nauseam) is, as Shetterly points out, hidden. Or perhaps hidden is too active of a word. Completely ignored and disregarded might be better. It's very important to have books like this.


But I'm here to review books. BOOKS. So I have to review this as a book, not as an ideal or a concept or an 'important work for society.' I mean, is this book important? Yes, it is important. Is it good that it was written? Yes, it is good that it was written and even better that Hollywood picked it up.

Is it well-written? NO. No, it is not.

I'm sorry to say this. I wanted to love it. But Shetterly is not a good writer.

I mean, she's competent... The book isn't STUPID, and it isn't abysmal trash with bad grammar and poor spelling.

But she is a poor writer for a plethora of reasons.

1.) She is unable to distinguish characters from one another. I literally could not tell you the difference between Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary. What they did, what their roles were... it all blurred together due to Shetterly's inability to develop characters or personalities for any of them.

2.) She often switches from person to person, and from time period to time period in the same chapter. This is confusing and annoying and just adds to the inability to differentiate the three women focused on here.

3.) The book is almost mind-numbingly boring. The details (on math and science) are one thing - I can get through that - but overall, even when talking about racism or segregation, Shetterly is boring and not engaging. This is horrible - the subject material in this book is naturally interesting IMO. It should not have been such a struggle for Shetterly to make this book interesting. I often found myself wondering how she could make such an interesting topic so boring.

4.) She is not a good writer. I was getting so frustrated with her terrible writing. Again, it was not any grammar, spelling or sentence problems. Instead, it is her schmaltzy, emotionally manipulative and bogged-down writing style which was grating my cheese.

Let me give you some examples:

Katherine listened intently as her brother-in-law described the work, her thumb cradling her chin, her index finger extended along her cheek, the signal that she was listening carefully.

Why would she...? Ugh. Seeing this in non-fiction is really jarring. For one thing, she was reporting on a conversation she was not present at. Secondly, she is hearing about it from someone who is relating something that happened nearly 60 years ago. Third, it's just bad writing. I mean, look at it. So bad. Why would you feel the need to put a sentence like this in your book?

Spaceship-flying computers might be the future, but it didn't mean John Glenn had to trust them. He did, however, trust the brainy fellas who controlled the computers. And the brainy fellas who controlled the computers trusted THEIR computer, Katherine Johnson. It was as simple as eighth-grade math: by the transitive property of equality, therefore, John Glenn trusted Katherine Johnson.

*Carmen massages her temples* Stop, just stop. Ugh, this writing is atrocious. For one thing, It was as simple as eighth-grade math: by the transitive property of equality,... What the heck is Shetterly doing? Does she think this is cute? I just... can't with this. Secondly, why is Shetterly pushing this so hard? Glenn asked the men to check the numbers. The men asked Katherine because she was competent and smart. Shetterly shouldn't feel the need to play this up as if Glenn went to Katherine Johnson herself and humbly put his trust in her to double-check the numbers. He didn't. He gave the work to some men and they shunted it to her because she had skillz. That makes this EVEN MORE POWERFUL in the context of the book. Why try and manipulate the reader into having some feelings about 'strong, revered' white astronaut Glenn going hat-in-hand to a black woman computer for trusted essential information?

What about this particularly egregious passage?

Many years later, Katherine Johnson would say it was just luck that of all the computers being sent to engineering groups, she was the one sent to the Flight Research Division to work with the core of the team staffed on an adventure that hadn't yet been conceived. But simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless. When seasoned by the subtleties of accident, harmony, favor, wisdom, and inevitability, luck takes on the cast of serendipity. Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance. It was serendipity that called her in the countdown to John Glenn's flight.

WHY. WHY. Shetterly doesn't have to do this. She doesn't have to get all schmaltzy and whimsical when describing this. I'm reading this and looking like o.O what are you going on about, Shetterly?

In short, Shetterly's writing style really grated on me. I thought it was terrible.

Now, I really enjoyed the talk about race, segregation, and what was going on with how black Americans were treated during the '40s, '50s and '60s. It was (or should have been) a fascinating topic.

The absolute best parts of the book were when Shetterly quoted other sources. Which is a very bad sign.

"While we were forming mobs to drive an Autherine Lucy [the black woman who integrated the University of Alabama in 1956] from an Alabama campus, the Russians were compelling ALL children to attend the best possible schools," opined the Chicago Defender.


"Who can say that it was not the institution of the Jim Crow School that has deprived this nation of the black scientist who might have solved the technological kinks delaying our satellite launching?" wrote the paper's editor and publisher, Charles H. Loeb.


"Eighty percent of the world's population is colored," the NACA's chief legal counsel Paul Dembling had written in a 1956 file memo. "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. Those countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States."

Okay, but Carmen, if not for Shetterly's hard work and initiative, this story would never have come to light.

True. And it is important.

So lay off!

No, sorry. A badly written book is a badly written book.

TL;DR I give Shetterly points for working hard to research this book, get it published, and call attention to this important brushed-aside part of American history. That's why this isn't getting one star.

But the writing is poor. Dull, meandering, sentimental, and muddy. A terrible way to write a non-fiction book IMO. I wonder what this book might have become in more capable hands. Not that we would ever know, because of course Shetterly was the sole cause of this coming to light (kudos to her), but in the hands of someone with more writing talent this could really shine.

If you didn't bother to read the book, but instead watched the film.... I have to say you are not missing much. Rare words from this book-lover.

Others were in the full bloom of youth, their eyes like diamonds, reflecting a bright future.


UPDATE: 11/24/2017
Okay, I saw the movie. It was much better than the book. Excellent cast. Skip the book and see the movie. <--- Might be one of the very few times I say this.
Profile Image for Lauren Cecile.
Author 4 books317 followers
February 10, 2017
The book was as amazing as the movie. I had occasion to meet the author who is the niece of one of these remarkable women. It is unbelievable that we did not know about the contributions of these women until now. This shows how history and historians are extremely selective and do not stray from the pre-established political narrative. I'm sure there are countless other untold stories about women and minorities. Thanks to Margot Shetterly for introducing us to these (s)heroes of rocket science(!) of all things!
Profile Image for Julie .
4,030 reviews58.9k followers
February 9, 2017
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is a 2016 William Morrow publication.

America is for Everybody!!

It wouldn’t have mattered when or where I happened along this book, I would have loved it!!
But, with so many core values at stake in our immediate future, with the contributions of the best and the brightest on the line, this story reminds us of why we need maths and science, and how much we can accomplish if we all work together as people, with a common goal in mind.

The work of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, at a time when women and minorities were not treated equally, nor given the credit they so obviously deserved, is a testament to what can happen if you forge through barriers, focus on your goals, and meet challenges with determination, grace and dignity.
The excitement of the space program and the rapid advances of the time jumped off the page and hammered home the powerful impact these ladies had. It is also frustrating that their contributions were buried for so long. The segregation and humiliations they endured, while common for the time period, is no less outrageous, and still raised my ire at the absurdity of it.

But, ultimately, the author gives us a special insight into what inspired these exceptional women, highlighted their many talents, their personal convictions, and led us on an exciting journey that paved the way for so many of the wonderful achievements of our country.
The book is meticulously researched, well written, and achieves its ultimate goal. Mathematics and science are cool, and not just for guys, which is a misconception we still fight off today. No matter how late in coming, the accolades these women are now receiving is sure to promote a vigorous interest in these fields as the become a role model for future generations.
It is more important than ever that we fight for science, that we continue to promote education for all, and remember those who came before us, who paved the way and made sacrifices so we can enjoy the way of life we have now.

This is a fascinating book, rich in details, both historically and technically, some of which sailed over my head a little, but that only encouraged me to learn more.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, no matter what genre you typically prefer reading. This book is a learning experience and an extremely interesting peak at the 'behind the scenes' beginnings of the space program, proving that every person’s role and contribution is important and makes a difference. Best of all, it’s a true story!!

I can’t wait to see the movie now. I’ve heard it was really good!

5 stars!!

Profile Image for AMEERA.
277 reviews316 followers
March 6, 2017
Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow , Wow
Profile Image for Amanda Lichtenstein.
98 reviews21 followers
February 28, 2018
This was such an extraordinary, exhilarating and important story to tell, but the writing was so dry, repetitive and full of platitudes that it began to dull the edges of this sharp tale. I really hope that the author was able to get through some revisions to work out some of the weaknesses in the writing because the story is so important -- it's about African-American women in the South who, because of the war, are temporarily able to secure jobs as 'human computers' at NACA -- which later becomes NASA, despite living in a Jim Crow era of extreme racism and segregation. The convergence / overlap of the lives of these women with the collective dreams of the nation and its obsessive space race are fraught with contradiction and celebration. It's really exciting to see how the Langley Research Institute continues to grow and expand over the arch of the story, and to see how the laws transform during the course of these women's careers. Yet the tone is at times so flowery and glib that the women become caricatured heroes as opposed to complex women in extraordinary times. I wish the writing was more creative, narrative-driven and sensory to give us a real sense of who they really were as opposed to casting them as emblematic symbols of a people and a nation. I am actually excited in this case that there's a major motion picture b/c I think it'll bring the narrative structure into clearer relief -- the lives of the main characters -- Dorothy, Katherine and Mary -- are so intertwined and overlapping that it's hard to keep track of whose story is being told at any given moment. The author bounces around and, combined with the intensive technical language, whole passages are muddled with confusion. Still, it's a fascinating moment in US history and these women's stories are truly remarkable.
Profile Image for Amanda.
106 reviews58 followers
March 4, 2017
Hidden Figures tells the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African-American women who blazed the trail for others to follow in the fields of mathematics and engineering at NASA.

NASA, originally known as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) began hiring women during WWII as female computers. These women essentially did the work of mathematicians but were labeled as subprofessionals in order to be paid less. In 1943 there was a push to hire qualified black women because the demand could not be satisfied with white employees only.

I particularly enjoyed how this book focused on the individual stories of each woman. I was so inspired by the sacrifice, determination, and intelligence of these ladies. The book incorporates the history that coincides with the stories moving from WWII and aviation research to the Cold War and the Space Race. The book focuses a lot on the Civil Rights Movement and the push to end school segregation. At the onset of the story, the black mathematicians are forced to work on the west side of the Langley campus until the 60s when integration occurs. One quote from the Chicago Defender that stood out to me follows: "While we were forming mobs to drive Autherine Lucy (the black woman who integrated the University of Alabama in 1956) from the Alabama campus, the Russians were compelling ALL children to attend the best possible schools." It's disheartening to imagine all the brilliant minds that never realized their potentials because of factors like race, gender, and income.

My favorite anecdote was when the astronauts didn't quite trust the calculations of the electric IBM computers. In one instance John Glenn requested that Katherine Johnson (referred to as "the girl" ) personally double check the numbers for the trajectories of the orbital mission.

Great nonfiction read, particularly recommend for females interested in STEM.
Profile Image for Tim Null.
104 reviews63 followers
March 11, 2023
Loved both the book and the movie. NASA women rock!
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,228 reviews1,063 followers
December 5, 2022
I first heard of Katherine Johnson just a few months ago, when I was watching a Sci-Fi time travel series on television. “Timeless” was a lot of hokum, but fun, and interestingly, many of the historical figures in the stories were real, and portrayed as authentically as they could. So when I became aware of this particular black woman, a high-flying mathematician with the ability to think outside the box – and learned that she had played a great part in the space race – I investigated further.

To my astonishment I found that there were more … and yet more. A whole department of black women, in fact, all with superlative mathematical abilities, usually holding master’s degrees, and all highly specialised in their fields. All had played an essential part in the aeronautics industry, and eventually the space race. They were human computers, long before the term was ever applied to machines.

I cast my mind back to the 1960s. An image of walls of screens, banks of technical equipment and the experts talking to the astronauts flashed into my mind. And without fail, all those people shouting excitedly into the microphones or beavering away in the corner were male, and all white. Even the astronauts were all male, and all white, if they were American. Living in England we were just as caught up in the awe and enthusiasm for the space race as any other country. But the progress made by Russia (who incidentally had female astronauts at this time) was just as exciting for us as the progress made by the USA.

When I discovered that there was a book called Hidden Figures: the Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, all about these women who seemed to have been erased from history, it became a must-read. What a clever title: “Hidden Figures”! A pun on figures; a double meaning of “numbers”, and also the word for an important person in history – and triple if one considers the association with the female form. Like it or not, the word “figure” in terms of vital statistics (there’s another one!) is rarely applied to the male of the species. Almost immediately, it seemed, a film came out too. I saw the film “Hidden Figures”, and what a triumph it was. Some of the events depicted seemed so far-fetched, and jaw-droppingly bigoted. But this was in a country, and an era, when segregation was the law, I reminded myself. It was probably largely factual, but more of a “feel-good” film which glossed over a lot of the detail.

So then I read the original book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race which had been published in 2016. I was hoping to gain more background and insight into the scientific and engineering discoveries, as well as the history of civil rights. I wanted facts and figures – and I certainly found them. The amount of information presented was almost overwhelming. Usually in a review of a nonfiction book I will attempt to provide an overview, and perhaps précis parts of it, since there are less likely to be “spoilers”. But with this book I found it very hard to identify the focus.

The author herself comments on this:

“For better or for worse, there is history, there is the book and then there’s the movie. Timelines had to be conflated and [there were] composite characters, and for most people [who have seen the movie] have already taken that as the literal fact. ... You might get the indication in the movie that these were the only people doing those jobs, when in reality we know they worked in teams, and those teams had other teams. There were sections, branches, divisions, and they all went up to a director. There were so many people required to make this happen. ... It would be great for people to understand that there were so many more people. Even though Katherine Johnson, in this role, was a hero, there were so many others that were required to do other kinds of tests and checks to make [Glenn's] mission come to fruition. But I understand you can’t make a movie with 300 characters. It is simply not possible.”

The early chapters seem to mainly follow Dorothy Vaughan, and I enjoyed reading the story of her life. But the narrative switched around so much. Interspersed with technical information about aeronautics, was historical information about how American politics was shaping views and legislation on segregation. The characters were changing too. Was I following her story or someone else’s? Or was I learning how the Research Centre at Langley, which was eventually to become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Centre (NASA), developed. The truth was, Margot Lee Shetterly was attempting to cover all these bases. I was heartily glad I had seen the film first (and it’s not often that is true for me, as I generally feel that books have far more substance).

The film follows three women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. A fair amount of dramatic license is used, since these three women were not working together, nor even following career paths at the same time. The book clarifies the facts about them, but also of many other women’s lives and career paths – dozens more. This is not an exaggeration. It is not helped by the fact that women may have more than one surname through their lives, if they change their name on marriage, and possibly again when widowed. Dotting around between them, darting backwards and forwards in different decades, is very confusing.

The narrative is roughly chronological, but proceeds in a zigzag fashion, according to which woman is featured at the time. Margot Lee Shetterly may be describing the progress made in one aspect of engineering in great detail. Or she will describe the break-up of one department and moving around of the staff. Or she may be focusing on the situation as regards segregation in the different States, which had a bearing on the intake of the Langley Research Centre. The book’s history is followed logically, but trying to follow the life of one of the women involved, then another, then another, Dorothy Hoover, Dorothy Vaughan, Amry Jackson, Kathryn Peddrew, Ophelia Taylor, Sue Wilder, Christine Darden and many many more, proves practically impossible. There seem to be several different books here. They would all be interesting, but I feel it needs simplifying in some way for ease of reading.

“In the early stages of researching my book, I shared details of what I had found with experts on the history of the space agency. To a person, they encouraged what they viewed as a valuable addition to the body of knowledge, though some questioned the magnitude of the story.
“How many women are we talking about? Five or six?”
I had known more than that number just growing up in Hampton, but even I was surprised at how the numbers kept adding up.”

“a 1994 study, estimated that Langley had employed “several hundred” women as human computers. On the tail end of the research for Hidden Figures, I can now see how that number might top 1,000.”

Surely the warning bells should have rung at this point. Define your task. What are you writing – a survey? A history? A compendium of human statistics? A report? A story?

Perhaps the author should have stayed with her first idea, starting in 1935, when a few women were hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), to be their first computer pool at the Langley campus. The unusual decision to select only females, and furthermore, only from the segregated black community, has been explained by NASA’s historian:

“The women were meticulous and accurate ... and they didn’t have to pay them very much.”

Yet even so it had caused an uproar. The men in the laboratory could not believe that a female mind could calculate such rigorous mathematics, or handle the expensive advanced comptometers (or calculating machines). But the women who were hired were top-notch mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. What a basis for a riveting story, describing the trajectory of those first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943: the women later known as the “West Computers”! Dorothy Vaughan was one of the earliest; a natural leader, she soon became the spokeswoman for the West Computers. By 1948 she had become NACA’s first black supervisor, and later, an expert FORTRAN programmer.

The story of these “West Computer”’s lives would have made a fascinating tale in itself.

One of the high points comes with astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe. Katherine Johnson’s main task in the lead-up to this, and during the mission itself, was to double-check and then reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090’s trajectory calculations. John Glenn did not completely trust the computer and asked the head engineers to:

“get the girl to check the numbers ... If she says the numbers are good ... I’m ready to go.”

Hollywood of course demanded that this scene occur at a dramatically tense moment in the film. Nevertheless, it is based on a true occurrence. The words were said, and the events are just “tightened up” a bit. Other scenes, perhaps largely invented to illustrate changing attitudes, include one cheer-rousing sequence when the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison, destroys the “colored ladies room” bathroom sign. Did it actually happen? Perhaps not. But many thousands of similar episodes did.

The film streamlined it all nicely. By selecting just three women, and missing out much of the science, it made for a very smooth storyline. Often with the book I felt I was just reading a lot of facts and figures, yet in between there would be interesting anecdotal material, expressed in a lucid and readable way. This was Margot Lee Shetterly’s first book, and she can write very well. We are rooting for the women as they overcome discrimination, and feel strong indignation as they were kept in the background and suffered gross insults. It was so startling to me, as an English reader. I never knew there were specialist “Negro Colleges” until recently. Sadly, even in living memory, the UK also used to be prejudiced in favour of white people, and there was also a (strongly contested) idea that black children underachieved academically. But the schools and colleges were always multiracial. It was unquestioned. Therefore for English readers there is a sense of shock every time the fact of racial segregation in a country so similar to our own, and so recently, rears its ugly head. We cannot escape the appalling drama of it all.

But I become lost in the vastness of America, only having a vague sense of where these geographical locations are, never mind the institutions which are being described. When I also have time switches back and forth, and as the author herself admits a “cast” of over 300 characters, and a fairly detailed history of scientific developments, areas where I only have a cursory knowledge of present trends, I am lost. Victorian novels with casts of hundreds hold no terrors for me, but even careful reading did not really help here. I had no framework; no “hook” such as a story, to hang the facts on, neither could I remember these people very easily, except in terms of the film.

Margot Lee Shetterly remembered visiting her father’s workplace:

“Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”

“As a child … I knew so many African Americans working in science, maths and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race is a startling story on many levels, showing how black females have always comprised a significant part of the mathematical and engineering workforce at NASA, defying both the double whammy of being female and being black:

“As late as 1970, just 1% of all American engineers were black, a number that doubled to a whopping 2% by 1984. Still, the federal government was the most reliable employer of African Americans in the sciences and technology; in 1984, 8.4% of Nasa’s engineers were black.”

“Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the moon.”

I am thoroughly glad that Margot Lee Shetterly devoted so much time and care to researching and telling this story. However, a good author knows what to select, and what to reject, and does not just stick all her research in somewhere, regardless. The confused structure of this book means reading flow is extremely patchy.

“I’m sensitive to the cognitive dissonance conjured by the phrase ‘black female mathematicians at Nasa’”.

Oh yes! How I would love to say the book is amazing; the facts certainly are. I cannot in my heart give this an average rating. But in all fairness I cannot rate it as higher than 4 stars, and I feel that even this is on the generous side.

The film is fictionalised, as the author clearly said, whereas the book is scrupulously factual. But the book is just too complicated. I know which of them I am likely to revisit.

Extra Quotations:

“There was Dorothy Hoover, working for Robert T Jones in 1946 and publishing theoretical research on his famed triangle-shaped delta wings in 1951. There was Dorothy Vaughan, working with the white “East Computers” to write a textbook on algebraic methods for the mechanical calculating machines that were their constant companions.

There was Mary Jackson, defending her analysis against John Becker, one of the world’s top aerodynamicists. There was Katherine Johnson, describing the orbital trajectory of John Glenn’s flight, the maths in her trailblazing 1959 report as elegant, precise and grand as a symphony. There was Marge Hannah, the white computer who served as the black women’s first boss, co-authoring a report with Sam Katzoff, who became the laboratory’s chief scientist. There was Doris Cohen, setting the bar for them all with her first research report – the NACA’s first female author – back in 1941.

My investigation became more like an obsession; I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end. I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant they would never again be lost to history.”
Profile Image for Kai Spellmeier.
Author 6 books13.6k followers
June 30, 2017
“Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.”

I don't even read nonfiction if it doesn't involve making-of Harry Potter books (which I still consider fiction in a way). So this was a good change for once.
I'm not sure when I first heard of this story. I'm not even 100% sure if I discovered the book before I heard about the film adaption, but I think I did.

All in all this book was highly informative, though I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was more interested in science, space and aerodynamics. My understanding for these topics is lacking, which is the reason why I often skimmed some overly technical paragraphs.
However, the life stories this book depicts are awe inspiring and moving, and this is what I'm here for. Strong and educated women of every race and heritage, jumping over (metaphorical) fences, taking a stand, breaking down stereotypes, making a career, proving that they have the brains it takes to work in one of the most prestigious scientific facilities in the world (and everywhere else as well). All of that, while so many hindrances were put in their ways, because of their gender, because of their race. Because of prejudice, ignorance and hate.
This book shows - and reminds us - that there are people who take opportunities and master them with grace, people who hold doors open for the less fortunate and give them a chance to shine, people who value bravery and kindess more than anything else.
This is what made this book worth reading.

I'm so excited for the film, I've been excited for months, and can't wait to finally see it. There's a high probability of goosebumps and tears.

Find more of my books on Instagram
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,643 followers
February 21, 2017
"In July 1969, a hundred or so black women crowded into a room, their attention commanded by the sounds and grainy images issuing forth from a small black-and-white television. The flickering light of the TV illuminated the women’s faces, the history of their country written in the great diversity of their features and hair and skin color, which ranged from near-ivory to almost-ebony, hues of beige and coffee and cocoa and topaz filling in between. Some of the women were approaching their golden years, the passage of time and experience etched in their faces and bearing. Others were in full bloom of youth, their eyes like diamonds, reflecting a bright future."

Hidden Figures is a remarkable account of a small number of intelligent, hard-working, driven and admirable African-American women who made significant contributions to the Space Race and to the fields of math, science and engineering. At a time when many parts of the United States still practiced segregation and racial prejudices were still widespread, their story is even more extraordinary. What a day it must have been for those women standing in that room in 1969 as the culmination of their dedication and perseverance was about to peak as the first man made his way to the moon!

This book is thoroughly researched and introduces us to four of these gifted women and their stories as they took the plunge into careers as mathematicians - or ‘computers’, as they were called before the age of information technology and digital electronics. Author Margot Lee Shetterly also provides us with many details of the civil rights movement, school segregation and eventual integration, and the aeronautic industry. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden faced obstacles and discrimination in the workplace, as they lived in a country where being a white male provided the best probability of equitable pay and chance of advancement. However, their brilliant minds did not go unnoticed and they garnered the respect from their coworkers and supervisors that they undeniably deserved. Their fighting spirits led them to opportunities that were previously unimaginable. And yet they still faced the ugly reality of “colored only” bathrooms and cafeteria tables in the workplace. It is extraordinary to think that while these women worked at a place as technologically progressive as Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, that this same state was steeped with the injustice imposed by the Jim Crow laws. The government fought against integrating schools, even to the point of closing down schools that attempted to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Some schools offered incentives to black families that agreed to enroll their children in the black districts.

"Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth."

I feel I should mention just a couple of minor quibbles I had which kept this from being a 5-star book for me. First, I had hoped to feel more of an emotional or personal connection to these four awesome ladies. This piece was missing perhaps because we didn’t really get to learn as much about how they felt, but rather more about what they did. Second, the narrative jumped around quite a bit – both in time and between individuals. I think a more linear story with sections devoted to the individual women would have worked better for me. Nevertheless, it is a truly inspirational story that I think everyone should discover – whether through this book or by watching the movie (which I have yet to do myself). I think the best experience would include both.

"I want to be an engineer like my mother." - Levi Jackson to his mom, Mary Jackson – what a proud mom moment those words must have provided back in 1960!
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,839 followers
June 15, 2017
How far we have come in the last 100 years! Both scientifically and as people. I know in many ways we still have a long way to go, but this book shows how much has changed for the better through the persistance of those unlikely to be given a chance.

Less than 80 years ago, in many places, people of different colors still couldn't share bathrooms, tables in cafeterias, etc. Women were only given base level positions and pay because that was just how it was. Ask a man leading a department why the less qualified person got the job, he would say legitimately, with a straight-face, and without thinking anything was wrong, "why, it is because the more qualified person is a black woman - everyone knows you can give jobs like this to a black woman. Black people are janitors and women are secretaries. Thinking otherwise is crazy!" It is so hard to believe! Luckily, despite some areas and businesses where thoughts like this may still be found, generally this feeling has changed.

Hidden Figures tells the story of several key players who helped change the mentality to believing that everyone can succeed if they put their mind to it no matter their color or sex. The back drop is post-WWII in Langley, Virgina where scientists and engineers were working to improve flight and take us into space. While at first the feeling was that only white men could lead the charge, several strong, intelligent, and determined black women showed that they had what it takes to work on an equal level based on skills and accomplishments instead of their physical appearance.

If you like science, American history, stories about Civil Rights, this is a must read. There is a bit of a drag at a couple of points as it gets deep into science and mathematics, but I think that serves to show the amazing things these women were accomplishing.
Profile Image for Britany.
967 reviews417 followers
April 9, 2017
This book was everything I thought it would be, which unfortunately is why I didn't want to read it. So many friends told me that it wasn't what I thought, and one friend literally pushed her copy into my hands, and guess what, my fellow book nerds?? I should've stuck with my gut.

Non-Fiction with a lacking narrative makes for tough reading. Add in subject matters that do not appeal to me: Space, Science, and Math. Finally, my biggest non-fiction pet peeve: no chronological sense whatsoever. Why do authors do this to readers? It makes my brain too muddy to enjoy the actual events. One chapter we are referencing events in the 30's and then quickly switch to something that happens in the '50's, oh- and then we go back. My brain doesn't want to process a timeline that jumps around constantly. I never connected to these amazing women and am going to rely on the movie to give me the "feels" and throw my fist up in the air to support them in our battle for equality.

This one could be for you if you love the things I don't listed above. I'm glad that I powered through, but it was painfully slow and dragged almost from the start. It never connected or picked up the tension for me.
Profile Image for Kat.
Author 8 books353 followers
May 25, 2023
Incredible look at some of the brilliant female African-American mathematicians and engineers who worked for NASA and its predecessor in a time when integration was being challenged, schools were being closed in Virginia, and the portrayal of mathematicians and scientists was usually a bunch of white guys in shirts and ties.

This was dual parts biographical and also in places a very technical read with lots of science and talk of wind tunnels and minor adjustments to trajectories… I would say it’s not told in quite as much of a narrative sense as some of the other similar books I’ve recently read, but it’s definitely an awesome look at a part of history that is neatly sliced from the history books, and should be read, especially if you’re into the technical angle. Recommended for science lovers!

July 22, 2019
A fascinating subject. An inspiring story. Peppered through with facts and fiction and more facts. Of course, some of the things must have been embellished (or not! or yes?), still, the inspiration is there!

All the 'segregation' and 'women can't do this or that job' is such damn bullshit! That seemingly sensible and not senile people managed to actually believe in it will probably never stop trumping me. I just can't wrap my mind around it.

The departmental policy's probably a bit skewed? I've no idea how it actually was but it feels to be that way. Foe example:
Katherine and Al Hamer had already started thinking about what it would take to plot a course to Mars; their colleagues Marge Hannah and John Young would look even farther into the cosmos, dreaming up a “grand tour” of the outer planets. (c) I'm pretty sure this is just unfortunate phrasing which makes it sound like there were 2 (4?) people doing the 'thinking'. There must have been many more, we're just making these one visible, since they are the subject of the book.
Still, this is not making the book any worse, it's a really difficult task to pinpoint how large groups of people work. And anyway, the readers probably wouldn't have appreciated the thing: just how interesting can it get listening to dull day-to-day departmental meetings? I guess, not too interesting to anyone but an efficiency consultant.

I also find that 1 of the girls was, well, not too African American (she was of fair complexion and everything) isn't taking anything from the story. Just imagine being a fair African American: it would definitely be an issue, still, from all sides. This is not a fun position to be in, maths or no maths.

The heroes were independent and well-rounded and idealistic which got balanced by a plethora of researched details and non-fiction style. More's the power to the book, had it not been that way, I probably wouldn't have even believed a word from this book.

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.(c) Totally great.
There was something in her bearing that transcended her soft voice and diminutive stature. Her eyes dominated her lovely, caramel-hued face—almond-shaped, wide-set, intense eyes that seemed to see everything. Education topped her list of ideals; it was the surest hedge against a world that would require more of her children than white children, and attempt to give them less in return. (c)
No one knew better than Katherine Johnson that luck favored the prepared. (c)
Profile Image for Holly.
1,007 reviews220 followers
December 27, 2016
My original "review" was this - two flippant little sentences to serve as a placeholder for an eventual "real" review:
Glad that's over. Not bad but strangely boring.
(In the interim 8 people "liked" that review IDK why?) Too much time has passed for me to write something detailed, but I just want to explain that though the book didn't impress me the women depicted are important and it will makes a great movie that I'm going to see soon. But maybe the execution of the story/ies just wasn't to my taste. The pacing and structure jumped around too much for it to make a good audiobook experience for me, and it was frustrating to listen to. (I just read that the movie deal was made before Shetterley had fully finished the book?) Of course I'm happy that we're getting these new works uncovering the lives and careers of unsung women in science: Girls of Atomic City, Rise of the Rocket Girls, the new Dava Sobel book (The Glass Universe) - and at least Shetterley's subtitle is about WOMEN and not GIRLS!
Profile Image for Obsidian.
2,736 reviews941 followers
January 17, 2017
Wow. Just wow. I saw this movie two weeks ago and was blown away by it. Reading the book just gave me even more details about the African American women who came out as human computers (I had no idea that was where the word computers came from, they computed so were seen as computers) and helped shaped the United States space program.

Shetterly has historian disease (yeah I use to suffer from this as well, historians unite!) so the flow was off a few times. And there are details sprinkled in sometimes that I honestly didn't think were adding anything to what central point I think she was trying to get across. That said, I was blown away by the time I got to the end of this book. I am embarrassed that I had no clue about any of these women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan) that Shetterly follows in "Hidden Figures".

Shetterly does a great job in her prologue in setting up the town of Hampton, Virginia, where she grew up as a kid. Can you imagine a town full of African American scientists, teachers, doctors, mathematicians? I honestly was astonished reading about how Shetterly grew up. It sounds like paradise to me. This introduction is a great set-up to what caused Shetterly to find out more about Katherine Johnson, one of the central figures in "Hidden Figures." From there Shetterly goes back to the U.S. during World War II where many agencies were looking for anyone that had any mathematician skills to apply. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) needed people and due to a lot of legislation that was being passed at the time, it was a good time for many African Americans to apply since they could be assured more money than what they would receive teaching.

Shetterly then moves between the years of NACA eventually becoming NASA, the space race with the Russians, and the African American women who were there for it all.

This book primarily focuses on Dorothy Vaughan and jumps back and forth between her being the central figure and adding in details about Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. I honestly would have loved to read one book for each of these women. Shetterly does a great job of showing the growing Civil Rights issues that were going on that seemed to not affect NASA personnel much. If you could do your job that is all anyone cared about. There were still little things like colored tables to eat at in the cafeteria, separate bathrooms, etc. but I loved how most of the women Shetterly mentions ignored it or just blatantly took down signs. There were also issues with some of these women having to take a step down in order to go further once they were all at the end of their promotion opportunities they could have at certain jobs. Do not get me started talking about the GS-schedule. I can be here all day.

The writing at times had me sitting up and saying amen.

“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.

“But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.”

“Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal. Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on their path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America's model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?”

“She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom...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.”

As I said earlier, the flow was not that great. I think that Shetterly had a tough time deciding what to include and what to take out. I can see how she tried to make some of the pieces fit so you can see how each of these women were important to the space race and how they worked together. Also Shetterly includes details about how African American men in the military at the time were still treated horribly by white Americans who saw them in uniform. Reading this right before Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend definitely made me appreciate all of these men and women who went first in order to make it easier for those in my generation. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, but when I read about what went on back in the 1940s-1970s I don't know if I could have been that brave or strong to deal with it.

The setting of Hampton, Virginia during this time sounds great. It really does sound like the nerdiest place alive and I loved it.

For me, this book was deeply personal. I honestly didn't even think I could be anything more than a wife and mother. I was raised to believe that was the best job out there. College was something that the white kids I went to school with aspired to. Just because I was one of the smartest kids in school did not figure in at all to it. My parents flat out did not have the money to send me to college. My older brother luckily got an athletic scholarship to go to college, and even he did not graduate on time due to him not watching to make sure he met all of his requirements to graduate. However, lucky for me, my parents via financial aid and scholarships that my church told my mother about made sure I got into school. And luckily for me when I was about to graduate from college, I was given the opportunity to interview for graduate school. Due to my GRE schools and undergraduate grades and other activities I managed to go to graduate school for free. Even now at the age of 36 I realize that even though I loved to read, was seen as one of the smartest kids in school, my life could have so easily went another way if I didn't have someone stepping up along the way to make sure that I got the same opportunity that many people take for granted.

Thank you to all three of these women and other women that the book mentions for doing the impossible.

This is definitely going to become one of my permanent books on my bookshelf at home.
Profile Image for Truman32.
344 reviews100 followers
October 25, 2016
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly should just be a glowing ball of jaw dropping greatness heavily slathered in awesome sauce. Something Marsellus Wallace would keep locked up in a secure briefcase. The subject: black female mathematician’s hidden but tremendously influential impact on the United States aeronautic superiority during the second World War as well as helping win the Space Race seems compelling, important, exciting, and timely. The book is historical so I can feel like a responsible grown up for reading something other than fiction, it’s about minorities so I can pat myself on the back (what a great job this white man has done broadening his horizons by reading about some diversity), also, this book will soon become a movie so I can also feel trendy having read something you will all be seeing in the theaters next summer.

In other words, Hidden Figures has so much going for it that it should be an incredible grand-slam homerun of a book. Yet it ultimately ends up disappointing. It’s the t-shirt gun of books. Should be awesome, but as you sit there afterwards with only a wrinkled t-shirt in your hands you can’t help but wonder, “is that all there is to it?

Alas, something seems lacking. The writing is dry and uninvolving. Shetterly has the alarming talent for making a somewhat slender 265 pages feel like 2,650,000 pages (a talent employed by the folks who make high school clocks hanging in last-period classrooms everyday). For every interesting vignette –Mary Jackson using the skills from her engineering aeronautic job to help her son make a winning soap box derby car; or the backstory of Dorothy Vaughan leaving her young children and husband for months (“I’ll be back a Christmas”) to work in the foreign and possibly hostile predominately white environment of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory; there are several spiritless chapters of textbook caliber prose to drudge through. Maybe it’s the fact that these brave and very smart women are never portrayed as less then super heroic—they seem to effortlessly glide through their everyday encounters of prejudice and discrimination with grace, perfection and little drama. They’re not relatable. Maybe it’s the fact that the job of being a NASA computer as these women were is hard to describe and contains little conflict. Maybe, it is just the fact that the story of every important historical figure does not make riveting reading.

While Hidden Figures was interesting as a subject matter and it does make me want to learn more math, the book did not come across as anything special.
Profile Image for Brown Girl Reading.
349 reviews1,589 followers
January 30, 2018
This is an excellent nonfiction novel to learn about the African-American women who largely contributed to America's race to space. What I especially appreciated was the way Shetterley always grounded the story in history. The reader is always reminded of what else is going on in the world as well as other American historical events. Hidden Figures is a must read.
Profile Image for Andrew.
772 reviews
October 20, 2016
From my youth, I have always been interested in the space race. So all the way through reading "Hidden Figures", I was asking myself why haven't I ever heard about the African American Women Scientist involved in the US Space Program from it's earliest days!

Margot Lee Shetterly does a great job of telling their story. For me one of the most telling statements she makes is "as a child, I grew up knowing so many Black people in Science, Math, and Engineering that I thought that was just what Black folks did..." which only goes to show the type of environment that created this group of remarkable Black Women Scientist.

Overall an excellent book that I would recommend to others. This is not just a fascinating true-life tale, but should also be seen as an inspirational story. The Film, based on the "Hidden Figures" is due to be released early next year and should be something to look forward to.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,613 reviews192 followers
February 7, 2017
Short of just gushing about the brainy women featured in this engaging book, I'll say that I wish I could have known some of these women. Coming from a STEM background myself, I found it fascinating to hear about the personal and the professional lives of the women who worked at NACA (before it was known as NASA). Three of these women are followed in detail: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson. They, and all the other West Computers, worked unbelievably hard and with often flawless accuracy, and were responsible for calculating the math for the designs of numerous planes and missiles, and for getting men into orbit and to the moon.
The author describes the women's personal struggles from the Second World War to the 1960s against a background of racism (Jim Crow and all its ugliness of segregation and humiliation and the growing Civil right movement). In fact, it's impossible to talk about any aspect of these women's lives without discussing the racism and misogyny that circumscribed their efforts to improve their and their families' lives. Margot Lee Shetterly never lets you forget the atmosphere of the times, and all the big and the little things that stood in the way of African Americans.
That said, these women were extraordinary. They were big brains, incredibly determined and worked hard to ensure the correctness of their work. One thing that also came through in Shetterly's book is the sense of community and support the West Computers had for each other. Everyone gained from each step forward, each new freedom, each new achievement.
These women were critical to improvements the US made to its defense during wartime and later to its efforts in the Cold War. And the efforts and examples of these women carried on to following generations women and men in NASA. I'm so glad that I got a chance to learn of some of their stories.
On a separate note, I recently saw the movie, and alternately cried and laughed.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,893 reviews430 followers
February 19, 2019
I did not expect to become tearful upon finishing a history book, especially one about mathematicians and engineers, but I did.

Many things had to happen before women were considered to do the work of engineers and mathematicians by the government of the United States: Parents who believed the natural mathematics talent of their daughters was worthy of their support; local schools that had enough resources and talented teachers to provide a quality education and scholarships; and finally, employers willing to hire 1. women, 2. women who were mathematicians, but especially 3. Black women, 4. Black women who were mathematicians.

In 1941, these elements were all in place (incredibly, Black colleges and academics had been heroically building an educated base of Black-Americans despite Jim Crow laws). Except for that last one of employers willing to hire women of any race as mathematicians.

Then World War II happened. It vacuumed up men and sent them all out into the world with a gun and marching orders. So. Employers finally unlocked the door which had been closed against employing women to work in engineering by a new key - desperation.

‘Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians’ is glorious. The book is an excellent history of NASA, and an even better history of some of the Black women who quietly went about their work as mathematicians and engineers without recognition or appropriate pay or titles despite having the same college degrees and work expectations (many hitting glass ceilings quickly) when hired at the same time as the men.

The book also includes a short history of the civil rights movement from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. This linkage is appropriate because it all happened in lockstep; the women, many of whom were college educated, working with exotic (to me) maths which were building airplanes, rockets, and eventually, helping men walk on the moon, the women working with math often for ten-hour days, still had to live outside of the grounds of Langley because of laws designed for slaves restricting where they could live, eat, or travel. Women who were plotting launches had to sit at the back of the bus. Heaven help them if they needed a restroom and none were available that had the sign ‘for colored’. Golf courses and hotel conferences and restaurants where white male engineers and their bosses relaxed and discussed work problems forbid access to Black people. Everyone went, “oh well”, until the civil rights movement began.

Before NASA was NASA it was Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. In 1943, Melvin Butler, the personnel officer of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory ,was desperate for mathematicians, as well as physicists, computers (this is what some mathematicians were called), laboratory assistants, helper trainees, stenographers and typists. America needed better and faster airplanes and jets to fight the Nazis and Japanese, and that meant engineers and scientists, not just technicians. The laboratory had begun with 500 employees, but soon had 1,500 men working at research on how to build better airplanes. It wasn’t enough. But the only possible pool of employees left, after all available men were hired, were females. Women.

Sigh, said the men.

These women worked hard and eventually helped to put Neil Armstrong’s foot into the dust on the moon, besides helping to win World War II and save the lives of uncountable Navy and Air Force pilots. They had babies, marriages and homes to take care of. They did it with secretary salaries and no promotions or any recognition by the world. Bite me.

The book has an extensive Notes section, Bibliography and Index, as well as a Reading Guide.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,947 reviews3,405 followers
March 13, 2023
This is an extraordinry story. It's also a true story.

Imagine, if you will, a time with no computers whatsoever. No smartphones, no tablets, no notebooks or other such gadgets. Shit still had to get calculated. But even the calculaters (the early electronic ones existing back then) were extremely limited. So what to do? Correct: you had to calculate your damned self. What a nightmare! I'm a linguist, was never good in higher mathematics so this is a version of hell for me. *lol*
Also, in case you didn't know: the computer on board the space shuttle that flew Neil Armstrong and the others to the moon had the same computing power as a musical gift card!

At the beginning of this book, there wasn't even a NASA yet, it hadn't been founded yet. It's the time of the civil rights movement and African American women (alongside whites) used pen and paper to do calculations that boggle my mind. Yes, eventually, those calculations put a man on the Moon and won the Space Race for America. All while having to endure segregated bathrooms and more.

The book also tells of the Cold War and the women's rights movement, but I think I'm not the only one who thinks the Space Race was the most thrilling part.

The three women this story is mostly about are Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson:

Katherine Johnson is the focus of the movie as well as the book. She was one of the first three people to integrate West Virginia’s graduate school, and a summa cum laude college graduate at age 18. Her most memorable accomplishment, however, is that she got mankind into orbit. She followed the team she had been working with when it got re-assigned to the John Glenn program. Eventually, she wrote her own equations. Famously, John Glenn himself said that if she reviewed the equations and numbers for his flight, then he felt safe and was ready to take off.

Dorothy Vaughn was hired as a computer after Roosevelt signed a law banning racial discrimination in public defense. She was eventually promoted to lead the black female computers, making her NASA’s first black supervisor. She was thus given access to the whole laboratory, not just the segregated wing. She worked with white computers on projects like writing a handbook about calculating machines. When engineers had difficult tasks, they would request her to work on it. She went on to work in the de-segregated Analysis and Computation Division and became an expert in FORTRAN programming.

Mary Jackson worked under Dorothy Vaughan as a computer but wanted more. Eventually, she was hired to work on NASA’s Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. In order to be able to fill that position, she needed to return to school and take engineering classes. She was working full-time, so her only option was night classes offered at a local segregated high school. She took her case to the city court to fight for her ability to participate in an all-white class and not only won but also excelled in her courses. Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer and went on to study the behavior of the layer of air around airplanes, writing around a dozen papers on the subject during her fruitful career.

There are other notable characters here (male and female) but the heart of the book is about these three.

The only "complaint" I have is that the story took a while to get to the actual point (NASA and the computing there). I don't mind getting a good look at the people before we get to the actual achievements, but it needs to be in the right proportion to the rest of the book and that was not the case here. The writing overall wasn't as good as I've seen in some other biographies, sadly.

Also (not the book's fault), as impressive as these women and their achievements are/were, this is a different type of impressive. They were masters in maths but most of them weren't active in jumpstarting or promoting change - they "just" lived in the right place at the right time.
Nevertheless, seriously impressive extraordinary women in seriously impressive extraordinary circumstances.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,564 reviews2,312 followers
February 7, 2017
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is a book not only about strong women but more. It is a book about society, struggles, overcoming prejudices, spirit, strong will, and brains. This is a history lesson for all of us not to repeat mistakes. This book follows a handful of smart and tough women as they work their way through a society rigged against them in every way until they get a small break and they let their brilliance shine. They deserved more credit then but society still wasn't ready and is it still? I wonder watching the news...I am glad they finally got some kind of recognition for their service and tenacity. You girls rock(et)!
Profile Image for Poonam.
605 reviews503 followers
April 1, 2017
This is my Book Of the Month- February-March 2017, with GR group- The Reading For Pleasure Book Club, Category: Non-Fiction Group Read.

This is one of the most celebrated books of this time and I had very high expectations from this book. I wanted to read this before watching the movie.

Now, the thing is the movie trailer somehow makes it come off as a motivational story with humorous undertones but in fact the book has absolutely NO humor in it!! And I say this because I found the writing very very dry. The content and the subject matter is fabulous because of which I cannot give it anything under 3 stars.

The problem which most of the non-fiction books generally have occurred here too. There is too much information dump, too many people mentioned that have no major role or any great significance in the story.

There are three main characters, Dorothy, Katheryn and Mary. Every-time we got a bit of interest in their stories the plot suddenly veered off mentioning other random people.*Sigh*.

Coming to the good parts- the content. This book was definitely an eye-opener for me. Things I did not realise--

People were heavily oppressed based on their skin color in America till 1960's.
"There were black jobs and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folk's houses, stemming in the tobacco plant- those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter- those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer- now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training."

Those times were definitely confusing as there we soo many apparent reasons a person could be mistreated.
"Bemused, Katherine considered the engineer's sudden departure. The moment that passed between them could have been because she was black and he was white. But then again, it could have been because she was a woman and he was a man. Or maybe the moment was an interaction between a professional and a subprofessional, an engineer and a girl."

And then there is the whole space program and the landing on the moon.
"Because of the overwhelming white public face of the space program, the black engineers, scientists, and mathematicians who were deeply involved with the space race nevertheless lived in its shadows, even within the black community."

It is appalling to read about the segregation which went on till about 1960's. Shocking that such things happened 50 or so yrs ago!!

It could have easily been a 4 or even a 5 star read but it was such a slow read for me. I could not even read it continuously and needed to put it down to digest all that information dump (that I ended up reading 4 other books while reading this one!)

I would recommend this to anyone who has lot's of patience and likes the subject matter mentioned in the above review.

P.S- I am planning to watch the movie soon. Have you seen it and what did you think about it?
Profile Image for Myrna.
708 reviews
January 6, 2017
A very well researched book on a fascinating topic very few of us knew about until now. Glad the author brought to light these extraordinarily talented “human computers”. Be forewarned: this book has lots historical and technical information and not a lot of personal stories. Look forward to the movie!
Profile Image for Calista.
3,885 reviews31.2k followers
May 2, 2018
An Amazing book. I saw the movie when it came out and I LOVED the movie. I was excited for the book. I like the book, but it's not a story. Margot Shetterly is writing a history. She is not writing a story - there is a difference. Margot is telling and not showing. She doesn't put us inside Katherine's perspective, she tells us about Katherine's perspective. She also gives histories of many of the people and she goes into many of the historical backgrounds that got us here starting with World War II. I mean it is fascinating. It really is, but don't expect some sweeping story. This really is a history and I learned so much from it I had no clue about. It's amazing.

The movie takes all this history and goes in a makes a story from the middle part. Part of the plot in the movies was about the bathrooms. Well, all that happened in the 50s before the whole 60s get a man in space thing so the movie took many liberties to make a very engaging story, but it wasn't in the correct order. Katherine never used the African American bathroom; from the start she used the regular bathrooms.

Isn't it interesting how bathrooms always seem to come up with minority issues at some point in their history before a class of people is excepted. Society can be so strange.

I like how Margot drove home the point that as we fought the Nazi's and as we tried to be the leader in the world, our backward stance on treating people equal always stood in our way to lead. How could the rest of the people want what we had when 80% of the people in the world are people of color and the US just 50 years ago treated them like 2nd class citizens. Such a contradiction in our stance on freedom and so weird.

I'm so glad this book is here for the ages and documents the important contributions that women and especially women of color have made to the history of our nation and getting us in space. Several of those women are the foundation of some of our math theory still to this day. They need statues. I think we need memorials to these women, but it will probably have to wait until we get a president who isn't racist himself.

I'm so glad I read this. It was fantastic.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,923 reviews1,259 followers
January 13, 2017
No, but seriously, did you expect anything less of a rating from me? This book is kickass. It is literally everything I have wanted in a science history book for a while.

Hidden Figures details the lives and achievements of the Black women who worked first as computers, then as mathematicians and engineers, for NACA (the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics) and its successor, NASA. Margot Lee Shetterly pulls back the curtain on an aspect of science history that has remained obscured and neglected. As she explains in the afterword, it’s not that these women and their roles in history were deliberately suppressed; instead, no one had really bothered to piece together their stories and tell the general public. Shetterly, in her first book, pulls together the threads of several women’s lives, creating a compelling book that doesn’t just tell us their story but actually tells the story of NACA/NASA, and the transformation of the American aeronautics industry from World War II to the moonshot.

If you’re a woman, you don’t need me to mansplain to you why this book is important. In fact, you’re probably good just skipping the rest of this review and going out and buying a copy right now.

If you’re a man, particularly a white man, and you’re having trouble comprehending why I’m gushing so unreservedly at this book, then let me point you to Kameron Hurley’s essay, “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”:

I had no idea what to say to this. I had been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history. History was full of Great Men. I had to take separate Women’s History courses just to learn about what women were doing while all the men were killing each other. It turned out many of them were governing countries and figuring out rather effective methods of birth control that had sweeping ramifications on the makeup of particular states, especially Greece and Rome.

Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.

What Hurley says of women fighting is true for women in STEM. There have always been women in STEM. Unfortunately, it’s just so much easier to name prominent men in STEM than women, thanks to the way our historical narrative has been constructed. Sure, when pressed I can name a handful of women mathematicians off the top of my head—Ada Lovelace, obvs., Emmy Noether, Sofia Kovalevskaya, Sophie Germain. Even when I do this, however, all I’m doing is stretching the Great Man theory to accommodate another sex; in doing this, I erase the contributions of thousands of unnamed women who laboured and calculated and thought.

Shetterly avoids succumbing to this temptation. True, she focuses more on some women than others, like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble Johnson—but she names and briefly explores the lives of many more. Although she relates biographical details, this is not a biography. It’s a history, a history of the early twentieth-century United States and how its technological prowess in air and space allowed it to become a global superpower. Oh, and by the way, that prowess was built on the computations of Black women. Or, as Shetterly observes at one memorable point, there is precious little in aeronautics and space history that women have not been involved in or somehow helped to build.

Before we had electronic computers, we had human computers. People—by which I mean, women, because computing was seen as women’s work—sat at rows of desks and did the math required by engineers designing and prototyping aircraft for the war effort. We’re not talking about sums and differences on a calculator here; we’re talking about complicated algebraic operations the likes of which would dazzle you unless you happen to have an undergrad math degree—which most of these women did. Yes, women graduated from university math programs in the 1930s. And, like Dorothy Vaughan, they almost always went into teaching (especially if they were also Black), until the war came along and the demand for women in the workforce—and for computers.

There were white women computers as well, and Shetterly names several of them and mentions their contributions at NACA. By focusing on West Computing and its Black computers, however, she can use this history to examine the paradox of racism in the American South during and after World War II. And this is where Hidden Figures transcends merely flipping the script on forgotten women to become a comprehensive and edifying history. I learned so much about discrimination, segregation, and the civil rights movement from this book!

As a Canadian, of course, I didn’t learn an awful lot about the American civil rights movement (nor, sadly, do we learn much about our own country’s anti-Black policies). But I thought I knew the gist of it: Black and white people sent their children to separate schools, had separate bathrooms and water fountains and separate seating on buses and at movie theatres. I knew of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. I didn’t know about the numerous other legal challenges involving higher education, nor was I aware that following Brown, Virginia was basically like, “Welp, we’ll just defund public education instead.” I had no idea that for five years a county in Virginia closed all of its public schools in an effort to stop integration. Smh. So wild.

(It seems wild to me, sitting here and writing this from my relatively enlightened position in 2017. Yet I’m aware that I benefit from hindsight, and I spun off a rant about blindspots in the present day into a separate blog post.)

Even in the history of civil rights, I think it’s easy to get caught up in how Black men fought for, advocated for, agitated for freedom from discrimination. Aside from a few token women, like Rosa Parks, mythologized for a single act of defiance, the movement is defined by masculine resistance. Shetterly shatters this conception, showing us how Black women resisted every single day: Miriam Mann’s quiet war to remove the “Colored” sign from the lunchroom table; Mary Jackson working with her son to build the most aerodynamic soap box derby racer; Katherine Johnson literally demanding that she be allowed to sit in on editorial meetings—this is a story where women are not just wives and mothers and cheerleaders of others but actors and makers of history in their own right.

Similarly, Hidden Figures is the story of the States’ transition from wartime boom to post-war bustle. Shetterly captures the tension and patriotism ignited by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, and how it galvanized the States to transform NACA into NASA and begin aiming for space. If her exposition into the administrative intricacies of how this transformation happened gets a bit much at times, I cannot fault her dedication to such details. Despite such digressions, the book remains fascinating through and through.

I can only hope the movie based on Hidden Figures is as good as this book. It’s past due for women like Vaughan and Johnson to get the recognition they deserve, and it’s time that we change the way we tell stories about the history of science and technology. Writers like Shetterly remind us that there is so much more to the story than a few Great Men having leaps of intuition or spearheading intense, improbable projects. Some “untold story” books fizzle, failing to deliver on their promises of a brand new perspective on an old story. Not so with Hidden Figures. This is one untold story that you need to hear.

I saw the movie, and I blogged about it!

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Ayse_.
155 reviews72 followers
February 21, 2017
I liked this book very much. It covers an important time in history when things were changing fast and for the better. It is a product of thorough research and is full of events and anecdotes that make us re-live the tough times black women had to endure during 50s and 60s. The efforts of many courageous people that paved the road of social freedom for women and black people are amazing. It is also very interesting to read about this era; since the kids of today are born with an ipad; but before all this; at a time where there wasn't a computer as we know it, there were Human computers. Although women were treated as equal in many parts of the world such as the Soviet Union, in US women were treated as lower in rank; and segregation was considered the norm until 2nd civil rights act was signed in 1964. Information such as 'State of Virginia was paying the colored students' tuition so that they don't bother the whites and go to colleges outside Virginia' is still shocking to know.

The book starts at the time of WWII, continues with the cold war, space race, civil rights movement, and brings the untold stories of everyday heroes into daylight. The movie fails to bring the depth of the book to the screen, however I enjoyed it also. I didn't know about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who carried US to new fronts and heights, until I read the book. I recommend this book to everyone, especially young girls, so that they can understand their importance and acclaim their own power.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
February 7, 2017

Janelle Monáe, Margot Lee Shetterly, and Melissa Harris-Perry on the Importance of Portraying Nuanced Black Female Characters

Just WOW, and on so many levels of brilliance. You can take La La Land and give it away to any charity shop, maybe iron it out a bit first. (the dancing was less than a week three Strictly level)

So, Oscar-wise:

6* Hidden Figures
2* La La Land
TW Florence Foster Jenkins
TW Fences
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