Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly

Published: 2016-09-06
Hardcover : 368 pages
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 Instant 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 ...

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 Instant 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. Soon to be a major motion picture 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.


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Discussion Questions

1.In what ways does the race for space parallel the civil rights movement? What kinds of freedoms are being explored in each?

2. In Chapter 23 we learn that some people thought that spending money on space exploration was wasteful when there were so many other problems in the United States. Do you think the U.S. achieved a balance between innovation in space exploration and advancing the civil rights of all its citizens during this time period? Would you have done things differently?

3. Would you consider NACA and NASA socially progressive institutions for their time? Why or why not?

4. In advocating for herself to work on the Mercury capsule launch, Katherine says to her bosses, “Tell me where you want the man to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up.” How are the women in Hidden Figures able to express confidence in their work and abilities? In what ways is that confidence validated by their coworkers? Why is this emotional experience such an important part of their story?
(Questions from a teaching guide issued by the publisher.)

Suggested by Members

Will you look at Star Trek films differently from reading this book?
What forces kept these women going, while facing so many obstacles?
How have racial issues changed today?
by sputnam@firstam.com (see profile) 04/27/17

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Book Club Recommendations

Book first, movie next.
by sputnam@firstam.com (see profile) 04/27/17
Like with many books/movies, the book has so much more information and yet sets the stage for the movie.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by bgibney (see profile) 07/19/17

by lroverly50@aol.com (see profile) 06/09/17

Loved it!

by Bryn. (see profile) 05/14/17

A but dry, and sometimes over explanatory in historical information. Very inspirational for all races and sexes to have equal opportunity to pursue their passions and dreams! Must enjoy non fiction and... (read more)

  "Could have been better"by baramsay (see profile) 05/13/17

The historical information presented was what we were looking for but the writing style made it difficult to follow and was rather dry. Jumping from character to character made it somewhat difficult to... (read more)

  "Amazing Women in a Very Tough Era"by sputnam@firstam.com (see profile) 04/27/17

These women were incredible-so intelligent and the support behind the space race, but never given credit for all they did. The book was more historical and a little technical. Most in our ... (read more)

  "Hidden Figures"by paulalew (see profile) 04/08/17

Great content that gets drowned in boring facts. Watch the movie instead!!!

  "Amazing Women, Unamazing Writing"by LER (see profile) 03/03/17

Enlightening glimpse in the world of the 1940-50's when computers were actually human and black american women were quietly and competently using their education and skills in non-traditional female fields.... (read more)

  "Disappointed"by LSakay (see profile) 02/25/17

I had high hope for this read with the movie release and all the positive buzz. Unfortunately, I think this is an unusual situation in which the movie is definitely better than the book. This read was... (read more)

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