Monday, March 13, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly (author), Robin Miles (narrator)

HarperAudio, September 2016

Superficially, this book covers the same territory as The Rise of the Rocket Girls, published earlier the same year. Although the books both tell the story of women breaking into mathematics, engineering, and the space program, starting int the early 20th century, via the originally rather mundane role of "computers," in reality there's a very important difference. The Rocket Girls at what became NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were overwhelmingly white. Shetterly follows black women charting the same course at Langley, in Virginia, where in addition to facing the obstacles women faced simply for being women, the black women were also challenging institutionalized racism in one of the states where it was most entrenched. They had an opening because the demand for mathematicians who could do the work was so high that white men, especially in the WWII years, weren't available in the numbers needed. Holding on and moving ahead depended on their own talent and hard work, plus the persistence and resilience to overcome the discrimination.

The women, both black and white, started out when the word "computer" meant a person doing the calculations by hand that were needed for astronomy, engineering, and other areas that needed high-level math in quantity and at speed. As it became one of the few jobs other than nursing or teaching that a woman of education could pursue, it attracted women of the same education and ability as many of the men who were being hired as engineers. That set up a dynamic that would play out over the years, as blacks both male and female, and women both black and white, began insisting on being recognized for their real contributions, and a percentage of it.

Virginia law required that workplaces be segregated, so the black women hired as computers worked in a separate building that came to be known as West Computing. The white women were in East Computing.

This book follows the stories of the women of West Computing, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, and West Computing itself from its earliest days with just twenty women, through the expansion during the war years and the space program. the women worked initially isolated at West Computing, but gradually began to work closely with various engineering groups, on airplane design, missiles, and eventually spacecraft and their guidance systems. Though it's now said they were known as "human computers," that's not quite right. The machines we now call early computers were late arrivals, here and everywhere else that the women known as computers worked. These women became the programmers of those machine computers, as the machines became reliable enough and powerful enough, and the engineers considered it beneath them.

The women of West Computing struggled with both racism and sexism, but they were tough, smart, and persistent. As they more and more proved their value, increasing numbers of them became recognized as--and accorded the employment status of--mathematicians and engineers. In the 1950s and 1960s, Virginia resisted integration more than some other states, and even this federal facility had to work around that, but as time passed, individual computers and mathematicians became assigned permanently to the engineering groups they were working with most closely. When these women were from West Computing, that created a de facto integrated work group. It was a slow eating away at segregation, but it happened, whittling down the separate and segregated West Computing over years. Finally, when the Langley facility became part of NASA, segregation at all NASA facilities, and therefore West Computing, was abolished.

We follow the personal lives of these women as well as their professional lives. The two interacted, as each was affected by World War II, the post-war years and the rising tension with the Soviet Union, and the growth of the space program and the space race. These women, along with their white counterparts at East Computing, and at JPL and elsewhere, were crucial to the success of the space program. It's a fascinating look at a corner of history that's generally overlooked, and it held my interest all the way through.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.