A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s father was an engineer, defying the odds stacked against him in segregation-era America. As she says in the introduction to her book, “as late as 1970, just 1 percent of all American engineers were black – a number that doubled to a whopping 2 percent by 1984.” She grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where her father worked for NACA (which later became NASA), and while visiting one day as an adult, she caught up with her favourite Sunday school teacher, Mrs Kathleen Land. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think. Except as well as being a much-loved Sunday school teacher, Mrs Land was also a retired NASA mathematician.
Once Shetterly, by now a researcher, started looking into it, she realised that even as a young black girl growing up in the shadow of NACA/NASA, she had no idea how many African American women had been working as mathematicians, or “computers”, in the facility. Her research earned her a Virginia Foundation of the Humanities grant and became this book, Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women who Helped Win the Space Race. The book is to be released as a film at the beginning of 2017.
Hidden Figures concentrates on a small group of these human computers – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, an others – and their routes into the most unlikely of professions for them at the time. As she points out, smart black people in the 1940s generally didn’t have many options in Jim Crow’s America, and many ended up teaching in disgracefully underfunded schools. However, during the Second World War caused an employment crisis and in 1941 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, ordering the desegregation of the defence industry, and Executive Order 9346, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor the national project of economic inclusion. These Orders paved the way for black men and women to be able to work at the NACA laboratories in Hampton, and for women, those with mathematical talent ended up as computers. Segregation still existed within the workplace itself, however. The black women were separated from the white women, and had separate bathrooms and tables in the canteen. In fact, Shetterly recounts the story of Miriam Mann snatching the cafeteria sign on a daily basis, though a replacement appeared every day.
The “Colored Computers”, as they were titled, quickly proved their worth. Some were even requested to go and work with the engineers on specific projects, and as the years went by – the end of the war, followed by developments in jet propulsion, and later the Space Race against the Russians – brought about ever-expanding new and exciting projects for them to get stuck into. And how they got stuck in. They worked hard, asked questions, questioned their superiors, and even demanded a seat at important meetings… and deservedly got it.
“Early in her career at Langley, Dorothy Lee was interviewed for the Daily Press… ‘Do you believe,’ she was asked, ‘that women working with men have to think like a man, work like a dog, and act like a lady?’ ‘Yes, I do,’ Lee said, who was then mildly mortified to read her words in the Sunday paper.”
Hidden Figures is an impressive and inspiring book. While the computers were working hard in Virginia, close by in West Virginia there was a vicious battle playing out to prevent the end of desegregation in the school system, throwing the achievements of Shetterly’s subjects into sharp relief. So often, women’s contributions to important achievements are hidden and/or sidelined, and you can multiply that effect exponentially for women of colour. This, therefore, is an important book, especially when we are still having to work hard to encourage women into STEM professions.
Even if you are not yourself scientifically-inclined – and I’m not – this is a wonderful and satisfying read. I eagerly await the film’s release.
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women who Helped Win the Space Race (London: William Collins, 2016). ISBN 978-0-00-820128-9. RRP £16.99.