I’m going to be up front with you about this: I saw the movie before I read the book. Yes, I knew about the book first. Yes, I had every intention of reading the book first. No, I did not actually manage to do that. No, I did not actually get to the theatre to see this; by the time I had space to breathe, it was already out on DVD (story of my life since beginning my PhD). Yes, I am properly ashamed of myself. And yes, this was sitting on a shelf in my house for months before I was actually able to get to it.
Now that that’s over with; Hidden Figures.
First of all, let me count the ways I adore thee. This is such a fantastic book, seriously, top 5 of 2017. And 2017 isn’t even finished yet, so there you are. I honestly, honestly regret and will continue to regret the fact that it has taken me so long to pick up this book, because it truly is one that I think everyone should read. Not only does Margot Lee Shetterly shed light on the truly unbelievable history of African American women in mathematics and sciences in the United States, it is a heartfelt and gripping rendition on life under Jim Crow for some of the smartest people that you and I will never have the opportunity to meet and thank in person.
Reading about these women, these mathematicians, these engineers, these scientists, these unbelievably intelligent, graceful, and determined women made for three of the best days of reading ever in my life. A charm offensive, indeed. What the women in this book managed to accomplish, not only for themselves and their peers but for the generations of women that succeeded them in their efforts to drive past the limits of the possible, to reach the stars in the face of what must at times have seemed to be insurmountable racial discrimination is a lesson in courage and grace that most of the world could do with today.
It was also, to me, a heartbreaking account of how far we haven’t progressed, in terms of both female and minority representation in traditionally male-dominated fields. I could never, and would never make the claim that I know or understand exactly what Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dot Vaughan experienced while working their way of from the West Area Computing pool. I don’t have their strength, and I certainly don’t have their grace. I don’t believe that many do, today. And I am aware that due to an accident of birth, I was born to the privileged position of being white in a world that, rather stupidly, still acts like that makes a blind bit of difference to somebody’s worth. But I was also born female, and I believe that Katherine, Mary and Dot would affirm that being female is a stumbling block all on it’s own. And it still is. I was born and live in Australia, and grew up in New Zealand. I thought they were fairly forward-thinking countries, and I was fortunate to grow up in a liberal family where the only thing stopping me from being the best was myself. My mother, my strong, intelligent, brave single mother worked her fingers to the bone to make sure that my sister and I had every possible opportunity she could give us. And then came the day. Most women will know the day I’m talking about. The day that you realize no matter how well you do, and courteous or smart or well-behaved or highly educated you are, for some people that will never be good enough because of the sheer fact that you are a woman.
For me, that day was six months into my first Masters degree. I had heard through the grapevine that an internship program was being instituted for my Masters program; not only would the internship look fantastic on a resume and be great for experience, it would count for course credit and trim the required time for my degree by an entire semester! There were two options, if I recall correctly: military intelligence, and policing intelligence. Policing intelligence is something I respect greatly, but it wasn’t the field I was interested in. I wanted to do the military internship, the electronic intelligence internship (I specialize in cyberspace research, now). I was fully prepared to up sticks and relocate for the length of the internship, and armed with my academic history and full-blown excitement to get this career experience, I called the internship coordinator. I introduced myself, told him I’d heard about the internship program and wanted to apply. He said that sounded great, and asked about the my reasons for wanting the internship, and that I might have to move for the six months, etc etc. I told him no problem, I expected that and it was all systems go, I had already completed a dissertation about intelligence but wanted to specialize so I would be applying to the military internship.
And that’s when the crickets started. After a moment or two, I was flat out informed that he would not sponsor my application to the military internship because “he did not feel comfortable placing a woman on a military base.” I will never forget the sound of those words in my ears. And this was a man, a Kiwi, in his late thirties, early forties. As I perceived my plans crashing down around me, slightly numb from the sheer shock of what I just heard, I tried to assure him that I was fully capable, a woman grown, with five years of martial arts under my belt, no less.
No go. I could apply for the policing internship or nothing.
I didn’t apply for the policing internship. That wasn’t my field.
Reading this book really brought this situation back, reminded me what it was like to realize that this man truly didn’t care about how good I was in my field, how hard I worked or what kind of future I wanted. I was female, so he wouldn’t play ball. Reading about the grace under pressure displayed by the women of Hidden Figures and the many hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘computers’ who helped to launch NASA and the world into the Space Age, is inspiring. These women, Katherine G. Johnson foremost among them, sent men into space based on the accuracy of advanced mathematical calculations completed with pencil and paper. Just imagine that. Imagine the sheer guts it must have taken just to walk into their offices every day, let alone to stand up to their detractors and become so, so successful in white male-dominated fields. Think about that for a moment. There is something said in this book, I forget what page, but it really stuck with me: a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get half as far. The reason that stuck with me is because I don’t think that has changed, not really. But these women, albeit working about four times as hard from what I read, managed to get further than many of their white, male contemporaries. And they managed it with class, with grace, with aplomb. And that, right there, is something to aspire to.
Five star read. If there was a higher grade, I would give it.