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Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

June 14, 2018


This is the story, made popular by 2016 film, of the group of African-American computers who helped make the early days of space exploration possible in the 1960s. Back then, a computer was a job, not a machine. Computers were responsible for the complex mathematical calculations required to put a person into space. It was one of the few technical roles open to women at NASA.

As the title suggests, the three main women in the book—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—were uncelebrated heroes until recently. Not only did they make critical contributions to the space program behind the scenes, they did so in the face of layers of prejudice. Women faced sexism, particularly in a scientific field like aeronautics, and there was blatant institutionalized racism. The women had to walk to another building to use the “colored” restrooms. When they came to the cafeteria, there was a “colored” table (though after they stole the sign for the table enough times, it stopped appearing). Yet they carried on doing their job and doing it well, proving that mathematics doesn’t care about one’s race or gender. Math is about doing the correct calculations, period.

This is an enjoyable read, and these women are indeed heroes who should be celebrated for their contributions to the space program and their steadfastness in the face of racism and sexism. The only thing that bothered me was that it felt a little quaint, like this was a friendly aw-shucks version of casual racism, something deserving of a head shake and a “can you believe it was like that?” rather than vehement rejection. The women were calm and perseverant because it was the only way to keep their jobs, but the injustices deserved a bigger, angrier reaction.

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