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Shetterly discusses history of ‘Hidden Figures’

Author talks motivation behind book, urges audience to rethink image of American scientist

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” gave the keynote address for Women’s History Month at the University March 13. The event was hosted by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the Science Center.

“Hidden Figures,” which was recently adapted into a film, tells the story of a group of African-American women who were a part of a larger cohort of women helping to advance the U.S. in the space race. Shetterly was inspired to write the book when she and her husband went to visit her father, a research scientist at NASA, during 2010 in her hometown of Hampton, VA. Her father spoke about some of the women he worked with, such as mathematician Katherine Johnson. Shetterly was amazed that women she had known all her life were such an integral part to the aerospace industry in the 1960s and took it upon herself to tell their stories.

“I wanted this great adventure story with protagonists who looked like me. I wanted to write the book that I wanted to read,” said Shetterly.

The number of women of all backgrounds involved in the space program surprised Shetterly when researching information for her book. Computing was seen as “women’s work,” which is why the women of NASA were called “computers.”

Though the film adaptation only shows a piece of the story that Shetterly tells in her book, the movie was able to introduce a much wider audience to the women of “Hidden Figures,” whose stories were still widely unknown.

“I discovered that there’s a lot of history and knowledge behind ‘Hidden Figures’ that isn’t shown in the movie, so I think there’s definitely value in reading the book in addition to watching the movie,” Ayisha Jackson ’18 said.

Shetterly’s book brings together issues of race and gender in the field of science. The intersectionality of the questions raised in “Hidden Figures” is what led the SDWC to bring the author in as the keynote speaker for Women’s History Month.

“We wanted an event that’s inspirational, not only for women who are working in science, but (also) other fields where (women) are underrepresented,” said Felicia Salinas-Moniz MA’06 PhD’13, assistant director of the SDWC.

Shetterly’s lecture centered on the fact that there are many people who often get sidelined in history or are shuffled into categories such as “black history” or “women’s history.” Shetterly wanted to put these women at the center of American history, redefining the image that pops into a person’s head when they imagine an “American” or a “scientist.” She wanted to challenge notions of what it meant to be an American, not just show readers what it was like to be a black woman in science at that time. 

“It’s important to always display a variety of people who do science and to make sure they have a voice,” said Gelonia Dent PhD'99, director of the Science Center.

Isabel Scherl ’17 was surprised by how unaware Shetterly seemed of her influence on so many women through “Hidden Figures.” “It just shows that any woman can be inspired by these stories and have an impact,” Scherl said.

Correction: A previous version of this article did not include the alumni designation of Gelonia Dent PhD'99, director of the Science Center. The Herald regrets the error.


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