The upcoming film Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of three black female NASA employees whose work was integral to astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around Earth in 1962. It’s also just one part of of a larger story. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) were—are—exceptional figures, but they were hardly anomalies. In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book upon which the movie was based, she chronicles the way these three were part of a wave of black women who worked as computers and mathematicians during the Space Race, and whose contributions history has largely swept aside.
“The title of this book is something of a misnomer,” she writes in the acknowledgements section of her book. “The history that has come together in these pages wasn’t so much hidden as unseen—fragments patiently biding their time in footnotes and family anecdotes and musty folders before returning to view.”
Shetterly’s father worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center, and so she grew up with a vague knowledge of the stories of Johnson, Vaughn, Jackson, et. al., but until she started her research on Hidden Figures, was largely unaware of their scope and impact. In 2014, she launched the Human Computer Project, an ongoing catalog of women who worked in the American space program.
I spoke with Shetterly on the phone the week after the election. She had a realistic but hopeful take on the work that needs to be done, looking to the women in her book as examples. Hidden Figures, both book and movie, could not have come at a more necessary time.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I started reading your book several weeks ago, and it picked it up again last week, immediately after the election. It had a different weight, reading about the protests and activism you depict. How are you feeling about things?
Since the book has come out, I’ve been on the road. It’s been interesting to talk to people about what happened. The thing about it is, there are so many times as I was writing the book, that things would happen—you know, the shooting at Pulse night club or at the church—and there were times when it was like, “Is it really going to make a difference? Why am I doing this?” Every time I turn to the history of these women and what they were able to do given the challenges that they faced, and their relentless pragmatic optimism forward, which I think is also very true for the space program, it makes me feel better. It gives me both a feeling of optimism and also an operating plan. I think there were a lot of practical things that these women did and that people at that time did that point the way for how you push America to live up to its founding ideals, which in a lot of ways is what this book is about. What it means to be American.
What were some of the practical things they did that you were looking at?
I think a lot of times we tend to think of protest or action as one thing or another, and the most visible ones are often the ones we think about. These women saw themselves as people who, once they were in this job at a time when they were segregated, their job was really to open the doors for people who looked like them. To present a role model of competence—which is bad in retrospect that it has to be that way, but that’s what their job was. To show that a woman, and a black woman, could be very good at this job. And then to use their network to bring other women in, and to really transform what the possibilities were of who could be a scientist or mathematician. I think they saw the work that they loved, the work that they considered patriotic, and in a practical sense, work that transformed their lives, their family’s lives, their communities’ lives, and that really was a transmission mechanism for so many of them—and for the community that I grew up in.
You grew up close to Langley—
In Hampton, Virginia, yeah.
What did you learn about these women growing up there?
When I was growing up, as a child they were really just adults in my community. I knew that many of them worked with my dad, but more than that, they were people that I saw at church, or parents of friends, or friends of friends. The identity that I saw of them was their community-based identity. I knew that they worked at NASA and saw them as professionals, but as a child I didn’t have the knowledge of the details of their work, or the circumstances of their work. Certainly not the history of their work.
Do you remember the first time you met Katherine Johnson?
I’m sure I met her before this, but I do have a memory of being like, 12 years old and Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority that my mom was in and that Katherine Johnson was also in, had an event for young women in the community. I was part of this series of like, get-togethers and teas for young women. I believe she was the president of the sorority of the time. I have image of her that’s this very impressive woman in a pantsuit.
When you started working on this project, how supportive was the community?
They were amazing, because they were all people my parents knew, people I knew, people my dad had worked with. People who really love Langley, love NASA, love the work that they did and were happy to talk about it. The NASA people have been exceptionally supportive from day one. Really knowledgeable. They do a really good job of categorizing this history. They’re thrilled about the book and the movie and everything. It’s been beautiful for me, because it’s like a love letter to my hometown.
That’s really lovely. What were you surprised to learn, when you started doing your research?
I came in really thinking that, you know, there was Katherine Johnson and there were these other women, and the idea was to do what I thought was going to be a profile of a couple of women, because there couldn’t have been that many women. I knew there were some, like, a number. A quantity. I didn’t know that there was so many of them. They had started working so much earlier than I would have expected. They’re still turning up. The thing that’s really confidence inspiring, is, this is not a story of one lonely woman doing math by herself. This is about an army of women proving individually and as a group that women are extremely good at this kind of work.
You get into that in your book. The press would talk about Katherine as if she was the only woman in a room full of men, or the first black woman to do this work, and you were saying that no, she’s not. People try to turn her into this exceptional figure—and she is exceptional—but she’s also part of this really important community, and that it’s important to remember that community as much as the individual figures.
Yeah. I think that’s really the strength of the story. There are always these first and only stories, where it’s like, the first black person to do this, or the first woman to do this, and we need those stores. They are super inspirational. But the thing that’s so exciting to me about this is that none of these women had to be the first or the only. Like the first white computer pool was five women, the first black computer pool was five women. Over time, each of those pools grew tremendously to prove over and over that women are very adaptive and have the right temperament, the right skill set, the right intellectual firepower for this work. That’s truly confidence-inspiring, because you don’t have to face the objections of like, “Yeah, well, there’s just one woman. We know that most women are like this.” It’s like, No, no, no. This is a revolution. The technological revolution that was the space race was carried out with two women and their mathematical talents, because of other women.
And because of the civil rights movement. You draw a lot of parallels with progress made in the space race and the social progress being made at the time, and how all these movements were interconnected. One of my favorite parts of the book was when you were talking about Star Trek, and how Nichelle Nichols [Uhura] was thinking about quitting the show to pursue other work, and then she met Martin Luther King Jr. who was like “No, you need to keep doing this show. We need a future that imagines black people in it.”
That part speaks to how important visibility and representation is to social progress, which is vital to scientific progress. And your book is part of that now, being turned into a movie starring Oscar-winning and -nominated actresses and a major pop star. How involved were you with the movie version?
I didn’t write the screenplay, but they hired me as a consultant. This is my first book, and I have zero experience in terms of writing screenplays. I got a chance to go down to the set, and that was very exciting to see. It’s this really weird moment of having seen Langley, the actual place, having known these actual women, written about them and learned way more than I ever knew before writing a book about them, about the history, about the Langley laboratory. To see it all come to life in a way that had come out of the book but had taken on a life of its own—there were all these people, actors, directors, and crane operators, and catering people. The scale of making a movie like this was just, I had no idea. I imagined, but to see it, it was unbelievable. Being there for this moment, that this isn’t the Hidden Figures book, this is the Hidden Figures world. [laughs] It was really amazing. It still has this air of unreality, but it’s been wonderful because these women deserve it and then some.
I loved reading about Mary Jackson’s wedding dress, that she wore something short, white dress with black sequins. It’s perfect that Janelle Monáe is playing her in the movie.
I know! She is like the most, charismatic beautiful person. I mean, just an entrancingly luminous kind of person. She’s a humanist spirit. That’s the thing about Mary Jackson. She’s a real humanist. A bridge builder, progressive, always went out of her way to help people, always concerned about the welfare of other people. I think Janelle Monáe is somebody who has that. It’s really amazing that she’s playing Mary Jackson.
Your own background is interesting. Like you said, this is your first book. You used to work in finance. Can you talk a bit about that transition?
It was a real trajectory. My first career was living in New York and working as an investment banker on Wall Street. Then I left that and transitioned to working in internet media. Since then I’ve worked in some kind of aspect in media. I was working at an internet startup in New York when I met my husband, and he and I picked up and literally drove to Mexico and started an English-language magazine. There’s a huge population of English speakers living in Mexico. We did that, then started another business consulting for the tourism industry. During that period, I started working on the book. A lot of the book was written when we were living there in Mexico. I think the distance from your own country helps you see things more clearly. I was able to disappear in the past in a very complete way because of the physical distance.
You’re also recently started the Human Computer Project, a chronicle of women who worked as mathematicians and engineers in the space program. Can you tell us more about that?
As I mentioned, I was really surprised at the large number of women of all backgrounds that had worked, not just at Langley, but at all of the NASA centers, starting in 1935 with the first computing pool and going on until the 1980s. Obviously, there’s no way to write about hundreds of women in one book and have it be worth its salt, unless it’s an encyclopedia. There were so many women I wanted to make mention of in some fashion. The Human Computer Project is really a way of giving them the credit that they’re due and they have not had, and also creating a data set. We’re always talking about women in STEM, underrepresented minorities in STEM, how do we increase retention, recruitment, all these things. This is a real data set that I don’t think really exists of the middle of the 20th century, hundreds of women who worked as professional mathematicians at NASA.
I think there’s a lot to be learned here. I’m really trying to track down not just their names, but where they went to school, the type of schooling they had, what type of work they did, and what kind of function they played, what roles, what groups they were in, were they working in wind tunnels, were they working in theoretical groups? Really trying to gather as much information about the work they did and the circumstances of their careers. This hopefully will have some kind of bearing on our ability to look at these questions today, and say, “How do we get more women in STEM? Well, hey, let’s look and see what happened with these women back in the 1940s.”
Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto-based writer. See more of her work here.