July 2021: “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of African-American women mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. This exceptionally inspiring tale brings to life these historical figures who were hidden behind the men who led the “space race” at the time. Without these women, who knows how history would have turned out in this country. 

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (among others at the time) were “human computers” who could do hugely complicated math problems with only their minds, plus some pen and paper. Yet they played tremendously significant roles in the United States’ race to the moon and space. At the same time, however, they faced racial and gender discrimination at every turn. They faced challenges such as significant as being demeaned or overlooked, or as simple as not having access to bathrooms anywhere near where they worked because the buildings either did not have women’s bathrooms or, if they did, they were not permitted to use them because they were not white women. Despite all of this, they went on to make significant contributions to math and science – contributions that history neglected to tell until today. 

GEMs recommends this book because there are probably many, many hidden figures (i.e. women) in the history of society that we just don’t know about until we dig. Someone has to tell their story, like here, before they can come back to light. This book in particular shows the power of women, their brains, and how prejudice and discrimination could potentially hamper all of society if we do not let people succeed to their full potential. We note that while this book is technically non-fiction, it is really very well written and reads like a novel. Plus, there is also a young readers’ edition, so it is a good pick for GEMs of all ages.

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