Hidden Figures|Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
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The #1 New York Times bestseller


The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA at the leading edge of the feminist and civil rights movement, whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space--a powerful, revelatory contribution that is as essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America as Between the World and Me and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The basis for the smash Academy Award-nominated film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as "human computers" used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South's segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America's aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam's call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia's Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley's all-black "West Computing" group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA's greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country's future.


  • ISBN-13: 9780062363596
  • ISBN-10: 006236359X
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Company
  • Publish Date: September 2016
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.25 pounds
  • Page Count: 368

Smashing stereotypes, solving equations

The “hidden figures” in the title of Margot Lee Shetterly’s new book will not be hidden much longer. This story of African-American female mathematicians who made a significant impact on the Space Race has already been optioned for a film due out in January. It’s a surprising story, even more so for how long it took to be told.

Shetterly profiles several of the women who, upon realizing that their math skills qualified them for a better living than they could make doing virtually anything else, pulled up stakes and decamped for Hampton, Virginia, in some cases leaving husbands and children behind. Once there, they attempted to make their way into the middle class even as they chafed at the restrictions placed on them by segregation. One of the “Colored Computers,” as they were called, drew the line at a cafeteria sign designating one table as theirs. Sick of the reminder, she pulled down the sign and shoved it in her purse. 

Working for the NACA, as it was then known, to design the bombers flown during World War II led to employment with NASA as the Cold War generated frantic U.S. efforts to surpass Russia. If Shetterly’s prose is sometimes dry, the material it covers is fascinating and loaded with victories large and small for these highly skilled and tenacious workers. 

Shetterly writes about Katherine Johnson, one of the “computers” described in near-mythic terms by a growing fan club, as representative of the America we aspire to be. Her description could apply to any of the women profiled in Hidden Figures: “She has been standing in the future for years, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.”


This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.