Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is a must read! The women featured in the book are such an inspiration. Gifted mathematicians, as black women during the Jim crow era, there were few avenues available to them to fulfill their thirst to best apply their skills. War brought these women to National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the institution on the forefront of Aeronautical research specifically to cater to the high air craft demands of warfare. They were employed as manual computers or number crunchers that made sure an engineer’s calculations in airplane design were accurate. Although they were surrounded by people who were also exceptionally well educated and brilliant and mostly male scientists, these women went through double the discrimination for being female and black. Even still, the women went about doing their jobs with quiet dignity and where they could, waged small battles against discrimination and scored a few wins too. Here is one example at the very beginning of the book that was inspiring to me.
Thirty minutes and back to work. Just enough time for a hot lunch and a little conversation. Most groups sat together out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white sign beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS…..
It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take…..The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment……When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, may be longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s……
….At some point during the war, the COLORED COMPUTERS sign disappeared into Miriam Mann’s purse and never came back……the unseen hand had been forced to concede victory to its petite but relentless adversary.
The black men faced discrimination from not only their peers but also the white blue collar workers. For instance, one black engineer James William had to spend a long time on his first day trying to convince the guards at the security gate that he was an engineer and they should let him pass through so he could go do his job!
The chief protagonists Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were always walking a fine line between being patriotic, and serving a country that was treating them as second class citizens. Much before the civil rights movement that many of us associate with Martin Luther King Jr, there were other leaders who pushed for inclusion of black men and women in lucrative war jobs such as A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the largest black labor union. “Hidden Figures” pays homage to Mr Randolph’s efforts and vision that led to the signing of two important executive orders by President Roosevelt and opened doors to employment at the federal defense industry to black people. The black men and women at NACA were always having to be better at everything for a chance to be treated equally to their white peers. The women also kept up with changing times in the form of introduction of electronic computers that could do their work faster and the needs of the research in focus which changed from air to space research. After a full day’s work, they also took courses on Aerodynamics, Differential Equations, Theory of equations etc. Most of these courses were taught at NACA and some in the whites-only school. Although these women were gaining this additional knowledge for the technological betterment of their country, they had to still obtain permission to enter the premises (the whites-only school) where the courses were being taught. All this was apart from their life of being a mother and wife in their families. But they did whatever it took! What grit!
What several of us take for granted now including the ability to obtain an education in any institution one chooses to go to, were hard fought battles forced on ordinary people. Particularly for the discriminated, every rule made by the privileged class boxed them in so tight that any fight they got into was so much more hard to win. Having always led a privileged life and having never had to face discrimination, I am humbled by reading the experiences of black men and women in this country and reminded of the discrimination faced by Dalits in my birth country India. Margot Shetterly gives a glimpse of how the world perceived America at that time. Black and brown nations newly freed from colonization watched closely America’s treatment of its black population and saw in them their own future. They felt Russians would be better allies. The work at NACA including that of the women featured in Hidden figures contributed significantly to making sure America emerged as the world leader post World war II. The author also describes how Russians invested in training women to be scientists many of whom would have contributed to big technological advancements such as designing ballistic missiles and launching the first ever earth satellite ‘Sputnik’ into orbit. America’s treatment of women and black people made sure that a significant proportion of great minds were either not being used at all or under-used leaving it trailing behind the Russians in conquering the outer space! Ultimately, the work of many ‘Hidden Figures’ made sure America emerged triumphant in the space race.
Go on this journey with Margot Shetterly, and discover the unseen contributions made by these incredible women to science!