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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

4.1 27
by Margot Lee Shetterly

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The #1 New York Times bestseller

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

Before John Glenn orbited


The #1 New York Times bestseller

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Janna Levin
…Margot Lee Shetterly does not play the austere historian in Hidden Figures. She is right there at the beginning with evocative memories of her childhood, visiting her father—an engineer turned climate scientist—at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia…Hidden Figures…is clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine transcendence and camaraderie. The story warmly conveys the dignity and refinements of these women. They defied barriers for the privilege of offering their desperately needed technical abilities.
Publishers Weekly
★ 08/29/2016
Shetterly, founder of the Human Computer Project, passionately brings to light the important and little-known story of the black women mathematicians hired to work as computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's precursor). The first women NACA brought on took advantage of a WWII opportunity to work in a segregated section of Langley, doing the calculations necessary to support the projects of white male engineers. Shetterly writes of these women as core contributors to American success in the midst of a cultural "collision between race, gender, science, and war," teasing out how the personal and professional are intimately related. She celebrates the skills of mathematicians such as Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Hoover, whose brilliant work eventually earned them slow advancement but never equal footing. Shetterly collects much of her material directly from those who were there, using personal anecdotes to illuminate the larger forces at play. Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights. A star-studded feature film based on Shetterly's book is due out in late 2016. (Sept.)
Library Journal
★ 09/01/2016
In this debut, Shetterly shines a much-needed light on the bright, talented, and wholly underappreciated geniuses of the institution that would become NASA. Called upon during the labor shortage of World War II, these women were asked to serve their country and put their previously overlooked skills to work—all while being segregated from their white coworkers. The author tells the compelling stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they navigated mathematical equations, the space race, and the civil rights movement over three decades of brilliant computing and discoveries. The professional and private lives of the ladies of Langley Research Center are documented through an impassioned and clearly well-researched narrative. Readers will learn how integral these women were to American aeronautics and be saddened by the racism and sexism that kept them from deserved recognition. VERDICT Shetterly's highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We'd do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there's no room for them at the scientific table. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/16; "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 27.]—Kate DiGirolomo, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
An inside look at the World War II–era black female mathematicians who assisted greatly in the United States’ aeronautics industry.Shetterly’s father, a 40-year veteran of what became Langley Research Center, used to tell her the stories of the black female “computers” who were hired in 1943 to work in the computing pool. The first female computing pool, begun in the mid-1930s, had caused an uproar; the men in the lab couldn’t believe a female mind could process the rigorous math and work the expensive calculating machine. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, desegregating the defense industry and paving the way for Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and others to begin work in 1943. The author never fully explains what machine they were using, but it was likely more advanced than the comptometer. What is perfectly clear is that the women who were hired were crack mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. It was hard enough to be a woman in the industry at that time, but the black women who worked at Langley also had to be strong, sharp, and sufficiently self-possessed to be able to question their superiors—and that is just what they did. They sought information, offered suggestions, caught errors, and authored research reports. The stories are amazing not because the women were extremely smart, but because they fought for and won recognition and devotedly supported each other’s work. Their work outside the office—as Scout leaders, public speakers, and leaders of seminars to promote science and engineering—was even more impressive. They were there from the beginning, perfecting World War II planes and proving to be invaluable to the nascent space program. Much of the work will be confusing to the mathematically disinclined, but their story is inspiring and enlightening.
Boston Globe
“Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories
“Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.”
Seattle Times
“Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)


Meet the Author

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in her book Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Great book
Anonymous 3 months ago
I loved the movie and the book. The gives you more details of what these women had to deal with...
Anonymous 18 days ago
To think such change occurred over one lifetime is utterly amazing. How quickly we accept and forget. Considering our current political uncertainty, it is most urgent that we are reminded of where we were just a few years ago and to consciously refuse to let us slip back. Thank you for this most revealing and thought-provoking read!
dragonfly753 24 days ago
I just saw the movie today, but I haven't read the book, yet. As other reviewers have stated, I never realized all the hands on mathematics and science that went on before the introduction of the main frame computer. The stories, individually and collectively, of these women, of their sheer brilliance and fortitude, holding their own, in a white/male dominated world and pursuits (even men of color treated them as if their brains were only good for domestic duties), were awe-inspiring. How these women persevered and fought sexism and racial prejudice is an inspiration for all women. The WAY they fought against these prejudices, with such quiet confidence, dignity and class, should be an inspiration for all people no matter their sex, sexual orientation, race or color. In my opinion, they exemplified the very best of humanity and we could all learn from their examples. The movie was one of the best I've seen in a long time, I can't wait to read the book.
Obsidian13 30 days ago
Everyone should read this book. It is a history lesson of what makes America great. Everyone no matter what race cream or colour working togetber. It emphases the need for math and science in our schools. Team work is the goal. When we put our minds together look what we can achieve. "What the mind can conceive it can achieve" Napoli an Hill. Douglas Herr
LeighKramer 5 months ago
What can I say about this remarkable book? I was drawn in from the moment the author described how the story first came to her- literally through an off-handed comment from her dad as they were driving through her hometown. She was the right person at the right time and place to discover, research, and then write about the women who directly impacted NASA's space race. Just as those women were in the right place at the right time to integrate NACA (what later became NASA) and then ascend its ranks, many going from computers to receiving the designation of mathematicians and even engineers. I had never heard heard about the West Computers before. Nor had I thought much about how the NASA program came to be or just how much math was involved, especially before electric computers were around. And I definitely didn't have a sense about how exciting this time was. I found this book to be incredibly educational on many fronts. Hidden Figures is part history book, part profile of several of these computers. It's in a similar vein as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Unbroken, and The Boys On The Boat. Hidden Figures covers more than 25 years between when the first black women were hired in 1943 to the successful launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 and a little of the years after. The story of what these women accomplished is incredible in itself. I'm not mathematically gifted so reading about the calculations they were figuring out and how it was used to invent plane and then space technology boggled my mind. Katherine Johnson, who is probably the most well known of the West Computers, directly contributed to the space launch. But if anything is evident after reading this book, it's that every single employee, from the janitor to the engineer, made that accomplishment happen and it is sad that history books tell us about the astronauts and maybe the engineers but that's it. Each of the women profiled deserve to have a book written about them alone! I do wish some of their stories had been further fleshed out. Overall, Shetterly did a great job bringing these amazing women to life. What elevates this book even further is its consideration of racism and sexism. Just because NACA was at the forefront of integration does not mean its black workers were treated fairly. There were separate bathrooms and a separate table in the cafeteria. They could work alongside white colleagues but they were still kept in their "place." Each person responded to this differently. And as the times changed, so too did NACA and this was gratifying to see. It also highlighted the disparity with the state of Virginia, which greatly resisted desegregation. This was also at a time when men didn't believe women's delicate brains could handle tricky mathematics so all women, black and white, started out as computers, even though men with the same experience were hired as mathematicians. Women had to prove themselves over and over again and some eventually got to pursue higher degrees and were promoted, though this often depended on which engineer they worked for. All people deserve to be treated fairly and to have the same rights because it's the right thing to do. Because we are better together. Because we have so much to learn from one another. It's a lesson we need to keep in mind these days. Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous 3 days ago
Thats me when i grow up
MontzieW 14 days ago
These gals rock(et)! 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 go girls!
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Anonymous 22 days ago
The movie was amazing an so was th book! Amazing women...amazing!
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KrittersRamblings 4 months ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Set in the town that I grew up and where my dad spent a lot of his career - Hampton, VA and Langley Air Force Base and NASA; I didn't know much about the history of the base and the NASA organization, so when I heard about this book and it coming out in a movie, I jumped at the chance to review it. I have watched the tv show The Astronaut's Wives Club and love seeing the movies that take a glimpse into the space program, but to hear the years of Langley before space was even a goal. Yes, this book takes a focus on the black women who were recruited to be the mathematicians/computers behind the tests they are doing and the data that needs to processed.
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Anonymous 10 days ago
I will read this again
Anonymous 11 days ago
It discuss mathematics & how we should be equal from what I understand.
Anonymous 3 months ago
I love the book cover. She was my first book choice and my second is called " SISTER LET ME TELL YA" by bernadine . Where women walk away for negative and find GOD. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/sister-let-me-tell-ya-bernadine/1026050501?ean=9781434953841
Anonymous 20 days ago
Ill get free sample of book...