I should start out by admitting that this book, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, is only a World War II book in the loosest of terms. It’s really a book about the power and conviction of African-American women. However, the war is essential to the story because it creates the foundation on which these amazing women worked.
During WWII, there was a huge market for jobs and not enough workers. Help was needed in munitions factories and plants. Brains were needed in aerospace development (so that we could get our best fighter planes to our pilots). Women starting filling the slots. They became welders and truck drivers. They became the brains behind the B-29 superfortress, a bomber.
You see, black women had very little recourse. They could get an education—an excellent education with a Masters degree in mathematics and physics (which our heroines did)—and have to teach. There was nothing more than teaching. That was considered an extremely good job among African-Americans for men or women in the early to mid-1900s.
But once WWII started, the world opened up, but it wasn’t easy. A group of the first ever black women were hired as computers in the early 40s to do the computations and incredibly complicated mathematical formulas necessary in the development of more efficient, faster, and deadlier airplanes. This was before computers so they were, literally, computers. And they were brilliant.
So, WWII opened up the door, and once that door cracked open, those women, those amazing, brilliant, ambitious, fierce women refused to leave. They were smart, and the engineers and brains behind NACA (the predecessor to NASA), knew they were smart and looked beyond race and gender to see and embrace this.
These women continued coming and working in the sciences at NACA/NASA throughout the war and in the aftermath, through the space program, and beyond. Those moon landings and rocket launches? So much of that was them, and yet very few people ever knew. This book is their story, and it’s amazing.
I love how Hidden Figures is told. It starts with Dorothy Vaughn, in the first group of black computers, and tells her story, stopping through the next 40 years to include other big players as they came such as Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson. Other black women and white women working in NACA/NASA are mentioned, but these three are the main ones and in them you see the whole gamut of emotion and work. One rose to become a manager, another an engineer. They—especially—are the giants upon whose shoulders subsequent women and African-Americans stood.
The story is amazing and inspiring, and it makes me love this country as well as weep for the bitter periods of racism and segregation. But I believe we, as a human race and Americans in particular, have overcome our petty resentments and fears (though it is a process).
There’s not much I would change. Except the epilogue. It’s really quite long as an epilogue and a new character is introduced, which I think is just silly. She should have been included in the book if she was that important.
This book tells a story that’s been almost lost in history and desperately needs to be heard. I’m not making a political statement. It should be read for how it inspires, for how it illustrates hard work and determination and a lack of self-pity can go so far, for how it shows people of all genders and races and nationalities can accomplish so much together:
“It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities—legalized segregation, racial discrimination—there 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.”