Book Club: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures Book review

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

I first watched the movie Hidden Figures on a plane ride from Hawaii, though it wasn't just because I was bored. A movie about women of color kicking ass in NASA during a time they were written off? Sign me up! I hadn't read the book though and had been wondering how it held up against the movie adaptation. I was so excited to read the review for it when my best librarian friend, Jen, offered to write it. 

I started reading Hidden Figures having already seen the movie and I definitely had a few expectations of the book. Throughout the reading of it, I was struck by how different the book was in tone, characters, and plot.

The book starts by explaining how World War II impacted the employment of female computers (basically female mathematicians who computed figures all day long) in National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would eventually be absorbed in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. According to NASA’s website, "The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed on March 3, 1915, with a charter to ‘supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution.'"

In 1935, NACA began hiring women as computers, and though at first people thought women weren’t smart enough to do the math, they soon found that these women excelled at it and were often better than their male counterparts. After World War II NACA began to hire black men and women in Langley, VA working as computers. 

In contrast to the movie, the book initially focused on Dorothy Vaughn as one of the first waves of black female computers in 1943, who later became one of the first black female supervisors in Langley at NACA. She also became well versed as an expert programmer in FORTRAN, which was a precursor to the programming language that IBM computers that were used to help propel NASA to space. 

Mary Jackson was a part of a later wave of black female computers after Dorthy. Mary was my favorite character in both the book and the movie. Mary was one of the first black female engineers and was worked in the wind tunnels doing flight experiments. When she wasn’t at work she was volunteering with Girl Scouts, helping at church, training others, and helping her son be the first black boy to win the roller derby in their area. What struck me most about Mary in the books was a section later in the book, when Mary was explaining how she benefited from women like Dorthy Vaughn paving the way for her to succeed by knocking small holes in the wall of a patriarchal and racist society, and Mary was dead set on knocking a massive hole through that wall so as many people as possible could follow. I found Mary Jackson to be very inspiring and found myself tearing up a bit by the end of the book over her storyline. 

Katherine Gobble (Johnson after she remarried) came to NACA in 1937, as a computer was immediately assigned to work computing data for test flights. And in 1953, the space race was the catalyst for her career in theoretical math. There is a scene in the book when the Space Task Group is working on sending John Glenn to space and Katherine is doing math against the machine computers. Unlike in the movie, her marriage was not interrupted by an urgent issue with the launch, but Katherine was very dedicated to her job, spending late nights and long hours at the office. Katherine is a very compelling person to read about as well because when her first husband died, she became a more resolute person and raised her three kids on her own. Like Mary, Katherine was involved in Girl Scouts, volunteering, her sorority charter, college and NACA sports teams, and was one of the only females and one of the only black people at industry conferences.  Katherine later was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

While reading the book, at first I was very frustrated with these difference in a non-fiction story. The plot of the book felt more like exposition until chapter 19, when first Katherine goes to NACA. Before chapter 19, the book talks about the history of black people and women in NACA until the mid-1950s when it would become NASA. As a government employee in an engineering agency, I found I identified with this story and found the information to be written similarly to how we write our reports - factual and to the point.  

Despite the writing feeling a bit technical at times, I found the author’s use of literary devices were peppered throughout the book. Early on in the book, Dorthy Vaughn, on her first day at NACA, is struck by how the sound of the computing machines in the mathematics room sounded like a symphony. 

A second example happens when on Katherine’s first day in a new unit and a coworker gives her a bit of an odd look. While describing the end of segregation in the workplace the author explains “the insecurity of black people as they tried to figure out the new languages and customs of integrated life” and goes on to compare how it was a change of the black community to learn when a subtle glance was just a glance or when it meant something more.  This compares prejudices in the workplace to McCarthyism for both white and black people. While I am not sure I agree with this allusion, it was an interesting section that made me think for a while. 

These literary devices were interesting to me because they seasoned an otherwise dry book with a bit more flavor. 

Speaking of adding flavor, for a good three quarters of the book, I was strongly preferred the movie, because the story was more focused, but once I hit chapter 14, I realized the movie exaggerated certain elements of the book to simplify the plot structure, to appeal to a wider audience, and to make the workforce appear to be more prejudice than they were in the book. While the book does illustrate how progressive NACA was for the time, it doesn't gloss over the fact that Langley, VA was in the segregated south so issues were bound to arise. In the book, society outside of NACA demonstrated larger threats of segregation than the workforce of NACA, who were largely a diverse mix of demographics which included Americans from the Northern states, Jewish people, middle-class southern folk, black people, and others. For example inside NACA, one of the few black male engineers' experiments was sabotaged by southern mechanical lab assistants. However, the very next scene illustrates the saboteur being reprimanded. Outside NACA, the school system and the state of Virginia resisted integration so intensely, certain areas of the state canceled public school for up to five years. The book seems to demonstrate NACA suffered from systemic racism and worked hard over the 20th century to integrate and excel.

The relationship between book and movie here demonstrates a fine line between historical fiction and historical reference. After finishing the book I felt the movie shortchanged so many important moments and people in order to tell the story in an easily digestible plot. For example, the movie Katherine’s bathroom drama where her supervisor is so appalled with the serration of bathrooms, he literally takes a stanchion and bangs the “colored” sign off the bathroom wall. In the movie, the audience feels a sense of resolve that, while the supervisor might be a bit of a tough cookie, he still has her back. In reality, this scene seems to be derived from two people’s story in the book, one black woman was working in an area where there was no “colored” bathroom for women, so simply used the none-marked bathroom. The second woman is was an older lady who would steal the “colored” sign on their lunch table, and she would do this until they eventually stopped replacing it. These two women's stories in the book are two of many examples of how black people in NACA found ways to make a change or live their lives without the humiliation that was segregation. While these scenes aren’t as riveting as the movie scene, I felt they didn't illustrate the character of the people hired by NACA and caused the agency to evolve. 

My last thought about this book is about how similar today's political climate is to the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, I felt inspired after reading this book, because it was World War II that created a more diverse workplace for these women, it was the Cold War that pushed Congress to invest in science and engineering programs like NACA/NASA, and it was the international pressure that highlighted the hypocrisy of segregation in the south. Right now the US has similar tensions internationally and internally, and I am hoping we use the pressure to drive us to be better. 

The women highlighted in both the book and movie aspired to succeed no matter the circumstance and I found their stories be very inspiring. I recommend if you enjoy a bit of history and like seeing diversity and feminism in action.