After Emma and I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I wanted to read the book on which it was based to find out the rest of the story. And indeed there was a lot more to the story; the movie focuses on three women in the months leading up to the first US manned space flight, while the movie covers a period of over thirty years and several more characters. It’s an overview of the roles of both women and African-Americans — and most specifically, of course, African-American women — in the US space program, beginning right back with the those who were recruited to work for the military in WW2 (before space flight was even seriously considered).
The story is obviously far more sprawling and complex and it’s easy to see how the movie condensed and simplified into something theatre audiences could enjoy in two hours. But the true story is more, not less, inspiring than the movie. I loved reading about the personal lives of some of these women as well as the social forces that shaped their world. Despite some of the discrimination dramatized in the movie, in fact, the African-American women were treated much more fairly within NASA than they were in the community outside, where segregation was still reality. They could work side-by-side with white NASA employees (and even use the same washrooms, unlike how it’s depicted at the start of the movie) but their children would not be able to attend the same schools for many years. I may have skimmed a bit over the engineering and aeronautical details of the story, but I loved the human element.
One thing I found interesting in this book (and here author Shetterly is writing from her own family background, which is similar to those of the women the book celebrates) is that most of what I’ve read about the lives of African-Americans during the pre-Civil Rights era focuses on lives of either urban or rural poverty, which was certainly the reality for many. However, I knew little about the lives of upwardly mobile, educated, middle-class black Americans during those years, and this is a world that is vividly revealed in this book. It’s a world of people who truly believed that education and hard work were the only way to climb out of poverty and that those things might eventually win them true equality with white America, who created a parallel universe of black churches, colleges, sororities, even holiday resorts, because they were denied access to those run by and for whites. It’s fascinating — and also sad to realize how much systemic racism still exists in American today despite the efforts of generations of people like these women.
The book depicts the challenges of both sexism and racism within the white male world of NASA, and highlights the efforts of women who challenged both those prejudices, and succeeded in carving out brilliant careers for themselves, while breaking down barriers for the generations that came after them.