Hidden figures Book summary

Margot Lee Shetterly



Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is a historical account of black women’s contributions to the field of Aeronautics from the 1940s until the late 1960s. It details the numerous challenges that black women had to overcome while working as human computers, and how they persevered through those challenges to create an undeniable legacy. Margot Shetterly masterfully weaves the important American socio-political developments of the time into the narrative of these powerful women. Readers are given the opportunity to understand how WWII, the Cold War, and the Space race affected the process of desecration in the American south. The author began researching the book in 2010 when she accidentally learned about some of the black female computers that had worked alongside her father in Langley. The book was released in 2016 and was quickly followed by a feature film of the same name that very year. The movie went on to be nominated for several Academy Awards in the following years.


Plot Summary


Hidden Figures is a non-fictional account of the contribution of black women to the field of aeronautics from 1943 until the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. The book provides a detailed overview of the socio-political conditions in America that aided desegregation, along with a biography of three of the most impactful black women that worked at the Langley during the trying time of segregation. Margot Shetterly begins her account in the early 1940s, during the height of WWII. At the time, NACA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was tasked with aiding Aircraft manufacturers to perfect their plane designs using aerodynamic research. The Langley Aeronautic Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, began hiring black women as computers when they could not continue to source enough white women for the growing workload. This first batch of black women computers began working in a segregated part of the West section in the laboratory during 1943. Most of these jobs were temporary, and the women worried that they would be deprived of them at the end of the war. However, the end of the war signaled an increase in their work rather than a decrease, as the US government created the Air Force, which was headquartered at Langley and then proceeded to tackle the question of Supersonic flight. The Korean War proved to be another precipitating factor in the growth of NACA, as the USSR proved superiority in the air through the use of their supersonic jets. A similar pattern was repeated when the USSR began to make the news with its space program, which led to the conversion of NACA into NASA. The challenging problem of space flight served as a further push towards desegregation along with the rising tumult of the Civil Rights movement. Eventually, in 1969, NASA was successful in winning the space race by landing the first man on the moon with significant help from black engineers and mathematicians.

Dorothy Vaughan is featured as one of the central figures in the book. She is a gifted student from an early age as indicated by her rapid progression through school and the scholarships she received to study in college and university. However, she could not pursue her university education as the onset of the Great Depression forced her to aid her family by finding work. She got married to Howard Vaughan while she was working as a teacher in FarmVille Virginia, where she then settled with her husband and children. Dorothy learns about NACA’s job vacancies for black women with an aptitude for mathematics while she is working at a laundry. She applies for the job, and she begins to work at the West Computing pool in 1943. Dorothy is soon able to move her children to the rapidly growing region of Newsome News, and she is eventually confirmed as a permanent employee after the end of WWII. She progresses rapidly through the limited ranks that are open to black women and ends up as the Section head. However, the presence of a segregated computing pool begins to be a matter of concern to the rapidly advancing agency, and it is eventually dissolved, which is a severe setback for Dorothy. However, Dorothy’s diligence in learning about computers allows her to join a newly created division of NASA, where she works to program the IBM machines that now perform most of the calculations. In 1963, Dorothy Vaughan is recognized for twenty years of service at Langley.

Mary Jackson is another important figure in the book. She is born to a family of teachers that have mostly been educated at the Hampton institute, which is a career path that she chooses to follow. Mary is prevented from working as a teacher due to the nepotism laws of the state, so she takes on a job at Langley’s west computing pool. Mary proves her mettle when working with a special engineering group, but suffers humiliating discrimination at the hand of her coworkers. She speaks candidly about the matter with an assistant section head, who appreciates her work as well as her character. He offers her a permanent position with his department, and noting her acumen for engineering, he encourages her to pursue further education to qualify as a NACA engineer. Mary petitions the local court for permission to attend the still segregated high school so that she can pursue a distance course with the University of Virginia. She eventually becomes the first black female engineer at NACA.

Katherine Coleman proves to have a superior acumen for maths from a young age. She continues to hone her skills through a specialized mathematics course at college, and a short stint at Howard university. Katherine is forced to quit her course due to her pregnancy, and she begins to work as a teacher. She eventually learns of the opportunities that are available to black women at Langley from a relative, and she relocates to Hampton to find such an opportunity for herself. Katherine is accepted into the West Computing pool, but she is soon assigned to assist an engineering group. She is a crucial component of NASA’s space flight division, and she distinguishes herself when John Glenn asks for Katherine to confirm the calculations for the launch that would make him the first American to orbit the earth.

  • Author(s)

    Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Publication date

    6th December 2016

  • Language


  • Classification


  • Pages



Feminism, Non-Fiction


William Morrow Paperbacks

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