Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction novel Hidden Figures tells the story of the African American females who were employed by NASA as human computers in the mid twentieth century and the struggles they faced with discrimination. It focuses on Katherine Johnson, the main character, as well as Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Throughout the book, the argument is made that many women during this time faced significant repression and subjectification due to their gender as well as their race. Shetterly highlights the fact that these women were highly integral to NASA’s operations but that they were often overlooked or placed in the background while the men were the ones in the forefront making the big decisions. Ultimately, women at the time were restricted on the basis of their gender and the book’s central premise is that they were essential for the United States to win the Space Race that was a prominent aspect of life in the time period.
Hidden Figures begins with a little bit of background about society at the time, with segregation of African American people and the reluctance of businesses to hire women as well as African Americans. The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory began to accept African American female applicants, realizing that “if anything, they came with more experience than the white women applicants” (Shetterly 19). The three main women of the book are subsequently introduced into their roles as human computers, and their backstories are introduced as well as their qualifications and achievements for the specific positions that they work. Throughout the book, there are various stories about the struggles of discrimination and segregation that these women had to face in their everyday lives. For example, when Dorothy Vaughan arrives at the Laboratory, she soon finds out that all of the employee housing is segregated by race in order to “avoid embarrassment” (Shetterly 43). On top of this, as Dorothy and the other women continue to make significant contributions to the Laboratory’s efforts, they are undermined by the white men who have the ultimate control positions, and placed in the background where they can perform the math without being in the public eye. Their work largely went uncredited and unnoticed, and their salaries were less than the male engineers were receiving, but the book aims to shed light on how important their roles actually were.
While the women are working to overcome the limits of the condition they have to work within, they do not give up working and continue to make significant contributions that have a profound impact on the outcome of the space race. For example, the book describes in detail Katherine Johnson and her calculations that were responsible for ensuring that the first astronaut launches were successful. Johnson’s specialization was calculating mathematics that related to orbiting and projection, and she was important for making sure that the launches were aimed properly to go where they needed to go. The women were likened simply to computers, which meant that their accomplishments were not attributed to people and went overlooked for a significant amount of time. However, they established actual computer programs, supervised other engineers, and made sure that all of the mathematical equations were correct and properly calculated to help advance all of the aerospace developments at the laboratory. Therefore, Shetterly’s goal is to showcase the fact that these women made these contributions, and that there were some powerful African American female minds behind some of these amazing space discoveries and successful campaigns.
In regard to the book’s sources, Margot Lee Shetterly relies primarily on her own firsthand knowledge of the situation because she knew these women personally. In the prologue, she states that her father worked at Langley from 1964 to 2004 as a climate scientist (Shetterly 6). As a result, he was able to describe what the working conditions were actually like with accurate detail, and also introduce Shetterly to the real women who became the subjects of the book. Being raised in an African American family, Shetterly also learned about the limitations of her race from her father, as well as the roles that different people were supposed to take up within society and within NASA’s structure. The prologue also describes the interview processes that Shetterly went through as she began writing the book, thus ensuring that the primary sources from interviews and other witness documents were integrated thoroughly to tell the story properly and from the inside. These women were able to tell Shetterly about their own stories, such as having to use a separate colored washroom and taking a different bus than the other people who worked there (Shetterly 8). This use of historical witness accounts and firsthand experiences provide a genuine angle to the story and a unique, insightful glance into history.
Overall, Shetterly is successful in achieving the points and arguments that she is trying to make, by stressing the importance of these women and shedding light on the contributions that they made to aerospace engineering. The author made substantial and valid arguments because they were backed up by the real stories that the women went through and the real events that took place at NASA’s laboratory. These witness accounts and testimonies are one of the book’s core strengths because it brings the sense of truth to the story and provides the non-fiction account that is so compelling for people in today’s world to read. Shetterly makes her point that these women deserve recognition by creating that sense of recognition and exposing the reality of what life was like for them. If the book has any weaknesses, it would be that it can be dry at times when it is referring to the historical background, but this is included because it needs to be in order to ensure that the audience has the right timeline and perspective on why it was so important that these African American women were doing what they were doing. Ultimately, the book sheds a positive and encouraging light on an important argument that everyone should read and be inspired by.
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