Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow, 2016)

During the Second World War, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) expanded its research operations at its Langley base in Virginia. The flight engineering advances being made required a huge amount of calculations, all of which were undertaken by human computers. As part of its recruitment drive the NACA started to hire black women as computers, most of whom had college degrees in mathematics and often worked as school teachers. Segregated into the West Computing pool, the women worked diligently for the engineers. While the site had separate seating in the cafeteria and segregated toilets, the women started to break down the race barrier and advance into management and engineering roles, particularly in the late 1950s and 60s as the wider civil rights campaigns were underway and the NACA got subsumed into NASA, though they continued to be hampered by a race and gender glass ceiling. Nonetheless, they all made a valuable contribution to the work at Langley, with a number making significant contributions to aerospace research and the space race.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the black women at NACA and later NASA from the mid-1940s through to the early 1970s. While Shetterly provides the broad scope of the women’s lives and work at the Langley site, and discusses a number of women, she focuses in particular on the four lives to tell her history: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden. To provide wider context, she frames the these biographies in relation to both their non-work lives, the development of the local community around Langley, and the wider treatment of black people and the civil rights movement. The result is an interesting uncovering of the important work of the women, not only in NACA/NASA, but also the local community and in encouraging other black women to pursue careers in science. Shetterly does a nice job of constructing the social history and of balancing the various strands to create an informative narrative. She tells a story of resilience, willpower, dignity, pride, intellect, and a fierce commitment to family, community and science. However, in her desire to promote and celebrate the work of the women the book lacks a critical edge, is full of platitudes, and becomes a little too repetitive.  Overall, an engaging and important social history.

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