First, the stories of these women go way beyond the snippets I’d heard about them. Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories, but also graduated from high school at 14, spoke fluent French, and was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. She also had three kids and two husbands. Dorothy Vaughan‘s story was amazing – a teacher looking for an extra summer job, she applied for the job as a computer and in the laundry. She got the job as a computer, and left everything she knew behind – gradually moving her children to be with her. She was the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at Langley. Mary Jackson was Langley’s first black woman engineer – and she had to petition the all white high school to be allowed to take the requisite classes to hold the “engineer” title.
These women were all impressive in their own right, and it was so wonderful to read their stories. The book entwines their stories with the broader state of civil rights in the US at that time. For instance, Prince Edward County (also in Virginia, not far from Langley) when ordered to integrate the public school system, instead shut down the entire public school system (of course, they made a provision for white children – finally ruled illegal in 1964). I learned things about the civil rights movements, but the contrast highlighted how much these women overcame to achieve what they did.
As I finished the book, the main thing that struck me is not how much has changed, but how much hasn’t. Black women (and men) still make up a vanishingly small percentage of tech roles, schools might be legally integrated but social segregation – and the opportunity gap – remains. The police continue to murder black people with impunity. To take this book (or movie) as a sign that black women can be successful in this field misses the point – because how many more have never been granted the opportunity?
This is a great and illuminating book. You should read it.