Outside of the Langley campus very little was known about the teams of female mathematicians or “human computers” who worked on the massive amounts of calculations that drove the NASA space program in its early days. Margot Lee Shetterly has set out to change that with her book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which covers the the true stories of several of these women and their amazing contributions to aerospace engineering.
Now this phenomenal true stories comes to theaters from director Theodore Melfi and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. Recently, I sat down with Shetterly to discuss the impact of her work, why these stories hold significance to everyone, and what it was like to see it translated to the big screen.
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FOG!: Why did it take so long for this story to be told?
Margot Lee Shetterly: I think there are a bunch of reasons. One is that the women started working in World War II and a lot of the work was classified. But obviously for the black woman they were literally segregated in a separate office so they were kind of in a place where people might not have seen them. I think the bigger reason that applied to all the women – not just the black women but all of them – is that this was considered “women’s work”. The men did the engineering and the women did the computing and the math. The engineering was seen as sort of a higher level, more analytical, more intellectually rigorous kind of work, and the work that the women did was absolutely necessary but seen as more rote and routine.
Even when the women were doing a lot of the more rigorous engineering work they still got paid less and had lower status, so honestly I really think that’s the biggest reason – that we didn’t value this work. It’s like saying “hey let’s talk about the desktop calculators and its’ important role in the work that they did” and to a certain extent I think the engineers often saw these women as kind of a living version of these desktop calculators.
Only now do we have enough distance and sensibility about the contributions, and the value of the contributions of different people to the American experience that we’re able to say, ”hey let’s stop and recognize the work that they did” and the fact that without those calculations and computations neither the space race nor the aeronautics industry would have evolved the way it did. It’s like “hey women do it, so why talk about it”.
There is a certain divide though between how the black computers are valued versus how the white computers were valued. Do you think that affected their own sense of morale or purpose?
In the movie there’s a visual representation of that with this scene where there’s this receiving line and you see the astronauts drive up in these Jeeps and everybody has turned out and there’s a band to receive the astronauts. And first there’s the white men, and there’s the white women. And then, you know, way at the end there are these black women who are waiting to receive the astronauts. The NASA people turned [the astronauts] away but then the astronauts insist on shaking their hands, and I think it’s a good visual film metaphor for that hierarchy.
It’s really interesting because while in the interviews and the conversations that happened before with the women where they talk about that they express, obviously, bitterness towards the systems; not so much towards the person or personnel or individuals that they worked with. But it really was sort of a complicated thing to have to come to work and do in some cases this very high-level professional mathematics and then have to go and ask where the colored girls’ bathroom is. That sort of dichotomy of being at one of those most elite scientific and technical organizations in the world and still having to be reminded when you had to go to the bathroom or eat lunch that you were legally a second-class citizen.
That being said, these women were always very aware that this was an opportunity to expand opportunities for women who look like them, to earn two to three times more than they were earning as teachers so they made these very long-term significant impacts on the prospects of their families, their kids went to school, they bought homes I mean all the aspects of the American dream these things that everyone wants for themselves. They enjoyed their work, they found it to be really fulfilling because they were using the talents that they had. They enjoyed their colleagues by and large; interesting people, smart people. And over time they really were able to increase the prospects for black women, for women in general, and for the black men. By the time black male Engineers came to Langley in the 1950s these women were already a decade in proving what black people could do in science and technology.
Writing the book, I never wanted to not look at those really hard aspects of that history but at the same time I didn’t want this to be a book that was just about the racism. I think a lot of times these stories – especially if they’re about African Americans or women – it leads with the racism and it leads with the sexism and we always or often forget that these are three-dimensional people who are also scientists who really loved math, who had all of these different things that they experienced aside from the sexism or the racism. You know, I really wanted it to be about all of those things: the great parts, the complicated part, all of the parts.
It definitely came across in the story.
I love that, and that’s the way the women were, very much three-dimensional fascinating people.
In the movie, you’ll have three main characters who are telling three very specific stories in different ways in which they’ve were interacted with the entire time period.
Yeah, and in the book there’s actually a fourth woman Christine Darden who’s 74, she’s a baby of the group and her experience was totally different. She was able to stand on the shoulders of those women and rise to the top of NASA and become this internationally recognized expert on sonic boom phenomena in supersonic flight. She was kind of the culmination of the dream, and Dorothy Vaughn -who was this brilliant, talented, hard-working ambitious woman you know – she was just before her time. She was too early. She was never able to fully realize what she wanted at the end of her career. Learning her story was always a bittersweet part for me.
As the author of the book, writing this and doing this research, what did you learn about yourself?
One is that I really love the research! I just loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I was obsessed with finding out about these women – the details, where they lived, what their houses looked like, what they wore to work each day, what their dreams were. I looked at photographs; you can learn so much from the photographs. NASA has done a spectacular job of archiving documentary evidence of the work of their people. That was a really big part of it. Another part, honestly, this was sort of a love letter to my hometown.
I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. I lived in New York and Mexico for a long time and this story is really about where I’m from. The love for where I’m from and for the people where I’m from. There are things about my hometown and the sort of deep love and respect that tapped into a well of emotion and sentimentality that I wouldn’t have expected that I actually had for my hometown. You go away, but you’re always from a place and there’s always that love, and that was also part of this book for me.
So when you talk in the beginning about your hometown and how you grew up in an environment where you thought everyone was into science, or an engineer, or accomplished in some kind of way, how did it shape your lens when you were looking at these women who were the first ones and had to do this where no one had done it before?
I think what it allowed me to do was to say “You know what, I’m the end result”. I am kind of the product of these women who were then able to open the door for my dad, who had this great career as a research scientist, and I got to grow up as this middle-class person who was expected to go to college and be educated and all of these things. I really wanted to show that in the book, and I think they also did a very good job of communicating that in the movie. That was my reality. It was kind of normal.
And it wasn’t some super dramatic bourgeois ruse. It was just so middle-America normal. That was also something I really wanted to show; these people who were African American or women or both who had to face certain barriers because of their gender or their race, but who also had all of these other ambitions and who wanted these normal things and were passionate about the work that they did – who are not the first or the only.
This was a community of people who had all of these different aspects of community: they were scientist, they were black, they were women, they were mothers, they were Girl Scout leaders, they were all these different things and they weren’t in conflict. That was really important to me, that this wasn’t some story of the hopelessly perfect one and only that we’re going to hold on to a pedestal and worship. No, these were normal people living a normal life that wanted things that are totally understandable to anyone – a better life for your family, meaningful work, all of this stuff. And they just happened to be black and female.
That really was important to me, to make it normal. To show the hard parts and show the specific parts but also to make it accessible to people in a way to people, whoever you are. We all have these experience where you’re just like “how am I going to get this boss to see that I am the right person to do this work” and the guts that it takes regardless of who you are. Everyone has been in that circumstance so I really wanted that to be the case here too.
How important is a story like this to little girls even now, and especially to little girls in the black community?
I think it is really important, and again I do think this is a story that transcends and that can be inspiring to people of all backgrounds. I think particularly for women and then more specifically for black women and black girls, the kind of portrayals that are reflected back to you that are so limited are getting better recently; the super expansion in television and film and books. For example, when I screened the movie, all these amazing things are happening in these moments and you laugh and you cry and all these things. I think for me one of the most powerful things is when the actress playing Katherine Johnson, the young Katherine Johnson, is factoring quadratic equations at the blackboard. And she’s going through the proof and I’m like “oh my God.” My dad’s a great scientist and he’s like “you will sit down, you will do your algebra, you will do your calculus homework, and you will not get up from the kitchen table till it’s done.” So I’m sitting there probably getting triggered, having flashbacks or something, but you know it’s a little black girl with big glasses doing quadratic equations at a blackboard!
That is super radical in terms of portrayal on a screen, and so I really hope that it expands that if there is a little black girl like I was, right? With big glasses? That these girls will say “hey I can be that too.” Even if I don’t want to, the idea that I could, or I might, or that someone who looks like me might be doing that I think is really powerful. And then for everyone else to say “hey, next time I see a little black girl with glasses maybe she’s the kind of person who factors quadratic equations on a blackboard,” well that’s fantastic too! We all kind of have an effort to bring to our interactions with people, not just who they are or who they appear to be but who they might be. I think that’s really what the story is about.
Earlier you said that one of the things you loved the most was the research. Was there anything surprising that you found?
You know I think the most surprising thing that came out of the research was just how many women there were. It really did just begin with Katherine Johnson, and she’s very well known, and she is somebody who in Hampton Roads that a lot of people have known for a long time. She’s sort of this person whose achievements have been on record since the 1960s. Then talking to her I learned about Dorothy Vaughn, and then Dorothy Vaughn’s family they’re like “okay now you gotta get Mary” and this whole long list. There was that group of black women and they were part of this really large group of women from all backgrounds and so you know it was just like, there are A LOT of women here!
This is really big and it’s not like we have to dance around and canonize one woman; we’ve got the backup that there were tons of them. And not only that – I’m sitting in the room looking at the research reports of women and there were women, this black woman named Dorothy Hoover who was doing this amazing research back in 1952…There was a white woman whose name is Doris Cohen, she had originally come from New York, who had done quite a bit of groundbreaking research starting in 1941. So, at every turn I was sort of like “well, wow.”
Anything that any of us had ever thought about the participation of women in something like this was overturned and so I would say that was the biggest surprise in the research, which was a wonderful surprise, was just how many women there were and just how deep the bench was in terms of the quality and the variety of the research that these women were putting out way doing back in the day. I mean it was just thrilling, totally thrilling. I mean I’m still turning up research and still turning up names of women, and people send obituaries. I hear from the grandnieces of people. There are so many of them.
I just find it tremendously confidence-inspiring and it underscores the fact that if you look for talented people you will find them. You just have to look. And if you put them to work in a situation like that they will contribute greatly to whatever the effort is. It’s just hard numerical evidence of that. That’s what these women are.
How involved were you in the production of the movie?
They hired me as a consultant and I did not write the script. I mean, you know it was my first book, I had to learn how to write a book first, right? But they really did a good job of keeping me in the loop as the script was being developed and listening to my opinion. I would see drafts of the script and say “no, no, no, that’s not right,” or “we have to have it a different way,” and they were really very good about listening to my input even as I was understanding the difference between a book and a movie. You cannot just take four decades of history of a book and turn it into a movie that people are going to be interested in sitting through for 2 hours.
I really enjoyed and just learned so much about both the creative process of what it takes to turn a book into a movie and the business process of boy, what it takes to put together the pieces to make a movie happen. Donna Gigliotti, who’s the producer of the movie, if she wants to maybe she should get a cabinet post. The woman is amazing! She knows how to make things happen and run things, and to see how challenging that is and how a movie getting made really depends on having somebody who is a genius when it comes to that kind of organization, which I think she is.
So it’s just great; and now I’m really happy at the end of this process, and it’s actually happened. The day is coming, I can’t believe it. I couldn’t be more thrilled but you know what? These women, they totally deserve this. I’m so happy for them. I wish that Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson and all of these other women were around to see this day but I’m really grateful that Katherine Johnson is and a few of the other women, black and white, are. I feel like absolutely the luckiest person that this has all come together in this way. These women are and were spectacular. Totally, totally spectacular.
I feel like with the success of this we’ll see a lot more of these stories going forward.
I hope so! I mean there’s so many great stories. I mean so many stories. America has always been this place with so many people from so many different backgrounds and I think it’s just a matter of “recovering” the stories and telling them. These big sweeping American stories are amazing and there really are a lot of them. But the big sweeping stories, but with kind of ordinary extraordinary people, I think those are the best. Like the kings and queens and presidents, that’s all great –
But we’ve heard that.
We’ve heard them! We want the ordinary superheroes, like that’s what gets me super excited
I think it’s a lot easier for people to see themselves in those situations too.
I totally agree with you. The accessibility to say “I’m like that person,” or “I’m like them”…There’s a lot to be said for that. There is so much to be said for that.