Summary of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Overview

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 history of black women who were mathematicians and engineers in twentieth-century aeronautics and space programs. It focuses particularly on black women who served as human computers as they performed calculations at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia during and after World War II.

During the war, the United States was desperate for mathematicians and engineers to work in aeronautics. With many men fighting in the war, women took on professional jobs. A number of black women applied for positions at Langley. Among them was Dorothy Vaughan, who had excelled in mathematics as a young woman and had then gone into teaching. Pay in segregated schools was much less than Vaughan could make as a human computer performing calculations for engineers. So she changed careers. As more black women came to work at Langley, they were segregated in the West Computing Area. Eventually, in 1949, Vaughan was promoted to head of the section.

While most black women at Langley worked as human computers, some were promoted to work as engineers. Among these were Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson. Jackson eventually stepped down as an engineer to work in human resources where she believed she could help advance the careers of more women and black people at NASA. Johnson became closely involved in the space program and was responsible for double-checking the calculations for John Glenn’s historic space flight in which he became the first American in orbit. She was an essential part of the successful American moon landing in 1969.

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