Hidden Figures Summary, Characters and Themes

“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly is a nonfiction book that brings to light the incredible contributions of African American women mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race era. 

It focuses specifically on Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, whose intellectual brilliance was pivotal to major successes like launching John Glenn into orbit. The book highlights their struggle against racial and gender barriers, celebrating their perseverance and the undeniable impact they made on American history .

In the racially segregated America of the 1940s, a group of brilliant African American women mathematicians made history at NASA’s Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. While facing both racial and gender discrimination, these women defied societal constraints to become an indispensable force behind America’s early space exploration triumphs.

Dorothy Vaughan, a natural leader , arrived at Langley in 1943. Heading the all-Black West Area Computing unit, she masterfully matched her “computers” with the assignments they were best equipped for. Her determined spirit later earned her a promotion to supervisor. 

As technology evolved, the West Area unit was eventually disbanded, the women integrating into various engineering teams and some jobs taken over by electronic computers.

Mary Jackson, with a confident and outspoken nature, joined Dorothy’s team in 1951. Her love of hands-on work led her to wind-tunnel research. 

Driven by an engineer’s encouragement, she bravely petitioned the City of Hampton to attend classes at an all-white high school, earning her engineering degree and paving a new path for herself.

Katherine Johnson, possessing an extraordinary mind and exceptional math skills, joined West Area Computing in 1953. Her unique ability to filter out societal prejudices allowed her to work as an equal among white male engineers. 

Her expertise earned the trust of the Flight Research team, her talent so vital that John Glenn himself requested her to double-check the electronic computers’ calculations for his historic space flight.

As society slowly progressed, Mary and Katherine actively mentored and encouraged the next generation of Black scientists and engineers at Langley. 

Christine Mann, a friend of Katherine’s daughter, became one such beneficiary. By 1969, the year America landed on the Moon, deep-rooted prejudice still lingered. 

However, a new generation embodied by Christine followed in the trailblazing footsteps of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, ensuring their legacy would shape NASA’s future.

Hidden Figures Summary, Characters and Themes

Dorothy Vaughan  

Dorothy embodies a spirit of both quiet leadership and determined advocacy. A pragmatist by nature, she excels at understanding the system and working within its confines to maximize the potential of her team. Her keen eye for talent allows her to match each of her “computers” perfectly to their assigned projects. 

As a supervisor, Dorothy isn’t afraid to speak out for the advancement of herself and the women she manages. 

Her insight into the rise of electronic computers leads her to proactively prepare her team, ensuring they not only survive the technological shift but thrive within it. Dorothy’s actions serve as a testament to her strength as a manager and as a mentor, championing progress even within a system built against her.

Mary Jackson

Mary stands out with her fiery personality and outspokenness. She possesses a strong sense of justice and a willingness to confront inequalities head-on. Her passion for engineering shines through her hands-on work ethic and eagerness to embrace challenges within the wind tunnel. 

While societal constraints constantly chip away at her, she refuses to compromise her dreams. Her bold decision to petition for access to education , even within a racially segregated system, speaks to her resilience and unwavering drive for progress. 

Mary embodies a force of change, paving the way for those who follow with her courage and determination.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine’s genius is undeniable, yet paired with a disarming humility. She doesn’t directly confront racial barriers but possesses a unique ability to mentally filter them out, allowing her to navigate a world designed to suppress her brilliance. 

The white male engineers readily recognize her exceptional mathematical abilities, and she gains their trust through her undeniable talent. Her expertise isn’t merely computational – she possesses a deep analytical mind, capable of interpreting complex data in a way machines cannot. 

Her calm demeanor in the face of immense pressure, symbolized by John Glenn’s absolute faith in her calculations, showcases her strength of mind and the sheer weight of her contributions.

Overcoming the Barriers of Race and Gender

“Hidden Figures” powerfully highlights the relentless struggle black women faced in the scientific world, confronting deeply ingrained racism and sexism within a society structured against them. The protagonists navigate a workplace where bathrooms, cafeterias, and even workspaces are segregated. 

They encounter blatant disrespect and skepticism from colleagues, while promotions or access to specialized training can feel unattainable. Despite these obstacles, their brilliance and tenacity shine through. 

They strategically utilize the limited opportunities available to them, finding ways to excel and make their contributions undeniable. Shetterly’s work emphasizes that the fight for civil rights and the strive for gender equality were, and often still are, inextricably linked for black women.

The Power of Perseverance and Resilience

The narrative of “Hidden Figures” is one of relentless determination against all odds. Dorothy, Katherine, Mary, and countless other women fought not only for their own advancement but also to pave the way for future generations. 

They endured microaggressions and unfair treatment with steadfastness, refusing to let prejudice define them. For example, Mary Jackson braved the hostile environment of an all-white school to pursue her engineering ambitions. The women supported each other, fostering a sense of community while navigating a harsh environment. 

Their resilience becomes a testament to the human spirit, their refusal to give up inspiring future generations.

The Hidden Cost of Segregation on Progress

Shetterly expertly demonstrates how systemic racism and discrimination ultimately harm everyone, not just the targeted groups. 

By segregating its workforce, NASA effectively wasted valuable talent and hindered its own progress. Dorothy Vaughan’s difficulty obtaining a well-deserved promotion due to her race is a stark example. These institutional limitations held back brilliant mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. 

Moreover, the book reveals how social constructs and prejudices blinded many to contributions that were vital to projects like launching John Glenn into orbit. The brilliance of these women was denied recognition, not due to a lack of ability, but purely due to the color of their skin. 

“Hidden Figures” thus challenges the reader to consider how much innovation and progress has been sacrificed throughout history in the name of unjust social structures.

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Hidden Figures

Margot lee shetterly, ask litcharts ai: the answer to your questions.

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Hidden Figures: Introduction

Hidden figures: plot summary, hidden figures: detailed summary & analysis, hidden figures: themes, hidden figures: quotes, hidden figures: characters, hidden figures: symbols, hidden figures: theme wheel, brief biography of margot lee shetterly.

Hidden Figures PDF

Historical Context of Hidden Figures

Other books related to hidden figures.

  • Full Title: Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
  • When Written: 2010-2014
  • Where Written: Mexico and Virginia
  • When Published: 2014
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Non-fiction, 20th century American history
  • Setting: Hampton, VA

Extra Credit for Hidden Figures

All in the Family. Margot Lee Shetterly was raised near the Langley Research Center, where her father worked for forty years, ultimately becoming an internationally renowned climate scientist. One of the women featured in the book, Mary Jackson, was once Shetterly’s father’s employees.

And the Oscar Goes To… Hidden Figures was made into a film the same year it was published. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.

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Hidden Figures

By margot lee shetterly, hidden figures study guide.

Margot Lee Shetterly ’s Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is a nonfiction novel about the “human computers” who performed the calculations that launched humanity into space.

Hidden Figures follows the interwoven lives of four black women—Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson , Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden—in third-person point of view, with their stories tied into broader historical context. Though the novel centers around their work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, it also covers American events over three decades, starting with World War II and ending with the lunar landing. The women are some of the many black women hired into the “West Computing” group at the NACA, which becomes NASA. They are exceptional mathematicians, and even at the height of Virginia’s Jim Crow segregation, their calculations ensure pilots’ safety in WWII and eventually land the Apollo 11 mission on the Moon.

Published in 2016, Hidden Figures was a #1 New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a critically and financially successful movie. Shetterly says in interviews that stories “tend to put these histories in silos,” even though “all of those things are American history”—women’s history, black history, space history, and civil rights history are all part of the same story—one section of which is told in Hidden Figures.

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Hidden Figures Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Hidden Figures is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

What is the area rule?

I think this has something to do with professional blacks not having the same areas as whites. Not knowing her way around the East Area, Mary asks the white women she is working with for directions to the bathroom. She is humiliated by their...

How are societal norms changed economic need

All of the women featured in Hidden Figures serve as examples of the power of hard work. This theme is explored in their professional achievements as well as their personal lives, where their reliability and engagement boosts their community. On...


They analyzed data and performed mathematical calculations for the research taking place at NACA.

Study Guide for Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures study guide contains a biography of Margot Lee Shetterly, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Hidden Figures
  • Hidden Figures Summary
  • Character List

Lesson Plan for Hidden Figures

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to Hidden Figures
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
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  • Hidden Figures Bibliography

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Hidden Figures : Book summary and reviews of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Critics' Opinion:

Readers' rating:

Published Sep 2016 368 pages Genre: History, Current Affairs and Religion Publication Information

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About this book

Book summary.

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA at the leading edge of the feminist and civil rights movement, whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space—a powerful, revelatory contribution that is as essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America as Between the World and Me and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks . The basis for the smash Academy Award-nominated film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as "human computers" used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South's segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America's aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam's call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Even as Virginia's Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley's all-black "West Computing" group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA's greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country's future.

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Media Reviews

Reader reviews.

The #1 New York Times bestseller Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction Winner Black Caucus of American Library Association Best Nonfiction Book Winner NAACP Image Award Best Nonfiction Book Winner National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Communication Award "Much as Tom Wolfe did in The Right Stuff , Shetterly moves gracefully between the women's lives and the broader sweep of history ... Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories" - Boston Globe "Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book's strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come." - Seattle Times "Margot Lee Shetterly does not play the austere historian in Hidden Figures . She is right there at the beginning with evocative memories of her childhood, visiting her father—an engineer turned climate scientist—at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia…Hidden Figures…is clearly fueled by pride and admiration, a tender account of genuine transcendence and camaraderie. The story warmly conveys the dignity and refinements of these women. They defied barriers for the privilege of offering their desperately needed technical abilities." - The New York Times Book Review - Janna Levin "Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights." - Publishers Weekly (starred review) "Shetterly's highly recommended work offers up a crucial history that had previously and unforgivably been lost. We'd do well to put this book into the hands of young women who have long since been told that there's no room for them at the scientific table." - Library Journal (starred review) "Much of the work will be confusing to the mathematically disinclined, but their story is inspiring and enlightening." - Kirkus

Author Information

Margot lee shetterly.

Margot Lee Shetterly is a writer who grew up in Hampton Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures . She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation of the Humanities grant for her research into the history of women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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Book Summary Hidden Figures , by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African-American women who, over a period of over 25 years, made major contributions to the US space program. Working in the American South during the Civil Rights Era, they overcame both race- and gender-based discrimination to launch brilliant and storied careers as mathematicians and engineers. These women were the unsung protagonists who shaped America’s destiny, playing a major role in the great drama of the nation’s history.

1-Page Summary 1-Page Book Summary of Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race tells the story of a group of African-American women who, over a period of over 25 years, made major contributions to the US space program during its golden age. Overcoming racist and sexist discrimination, these women established themselves as brilliant mathematicians and engineers and helped lead the United States to victory in some of the pivotal moments of the Cold War-era space race—including John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of the Earth and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

The scene of their success was the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. It was here, in the heartland of American segregation, that a group of extraordinary women, including Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, helped their country break through the color barrier and leap into the great unknown.

World War Two

During World War Two, the gradual dismantling of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation began, as the demands of the war economy brought African-Americans and women into jobs and industries from which they had previously been excluded . This was especially true of the aeronautics and defense industry, which was crucial to the American war effort.

Facilities like Langley began to hire qualified women in large numbers to work as mathematicians and number-crunchers. Aeronautics was an intensely quantitative field: designing and testing combat planes produced a deluge of numerical data that needed to be processed and analyzed. And that meant hiring an army of number-crunchers (“computers” as they were known at the time) .

Under pressure from African-American civil rights leaders, the Roosevelt Administration took steps to desegregate the industry and open up defense jobs to black female applicants as well. This enabled the first generation of black female professionals to get in the door at Langley. The opportunity for a black person to work as a computer in an aeronautical laboratory (and not as a janitor or cafeteria worker) was something altogether new and extraordinary. In spring 1943, Dorothy Vaughan, a schoolteacher from Virginia, filled out her application. In the fall, she received her answer: she was hired to work as a Grade P-1 Mathematician at Langley for the duration of the war. It was a position that would last over 30 years.


Despite the opportunity, new arrivals to Langley like Dorothy still had to face the prejudice of living and working in a segregated city of the American South at the height of the Jim Crow era. Black people had to use separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate entrances on buses, send their children to separate schools, and live in separate neighborhoods —or face severe repercussions. Indeed, segregation was powerfully entrenched in the nation’s historical experience and was an all-encompassing feature of life in Virginia.

The prejudice even followed these women into the laboratory at Langley. A separate area of the facility, known as West Area Computing, was reserved for the new black female computers . Langley was generally a place where colleagues worked closely with one another. Because of the color of their skin, however, the West Area Computers were largely excluded from this collegial atmosphere. This was symbolized most hurtfully by the sign on the table where they sat at the back of the cafeteria that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” In an act of defiance, the women of West Computing began tearing the sign down each day they saw it, a first shot across the bow for equality and dignity.

Facing this climate of discrimination, the first generation of West Computers established their own culturally vibrant and cohesive communities all throughout Hampton Roads. Such communities enabled mobile young black families who’d moved to Virginia to keep their morale high and served to welcome and acclimate new waves of black migrants to the region.

After the Allied victory in the war, Hampton Roads became a focal point of the US defense industry during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This meant that most of the West Computers who had initially come to Langley on temporary assignment ended up receiving permanent offers of employment, as Dorothy did in 1946.

The Cold War also marked a turning point in the struggle for black civil rights, contributing to the eventual breakdown of Jim Crow . As the United States sought international allies in its fight against worldwide Soviet Communism, American policymakers began to realize that segregation at home had become a significant liability, one that made America’s self-proclaimed leadership of “the free world” look hypocritical and handed a significant propaganda coup to the Soviet Union. The federal government began putting more resources toward desegregation and slowly started to side with the civil rights protesters over the die-hard segregationists.

As women began advancing through the ranks at Langley in the postwar years, they saw that their sex was still a barrier to advancement in a field that was built and run by men . There was a whole universe of networking, consisting of lunches, cocktail hours, and men-only smoking sessions from which the women were excluded. Moreover, the decentralized nature of their work also disadvantaged the female computers. Because they were only given small portions...

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Hidden Figures Summary Part One: New Opportunities

World War Two was the most devastating conflict in human history. Although the United States was spared from the ravages of combat on its own soil, the war nevertheless profoundly reshaped the country’s economic, social, and political system. Perhaps the most lasting and significant domestic effect of World War Two was its role in accelerating the dismantling of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation that had prevailed throughout much of the American South for over a century following the end of the US Civil War.

The demands of the war economy brought African-Americans and women into jobs and industries from which they had previously been excluded. This was an important factor in breaking down racial apartheid all across the country, as African-Americans refused to accept second-class citizenship in a nation for which they had served, fought, and even died. It was in this context that a pioneering generation of black women first began to break down the color bar at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.

Wartime Demands

At the height of the war in 1943, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which operated the...

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Hidden Figures Summary Part Two: Life in Hampton Roads

Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, where the Langley lab was located, was a wartime boomtown, bustling with economic activity and new migrants from all over the world participating in the American war effort. There were new black regiments, legions of female and African-American civilian workers, as well as German, Japanese, and Italian POWs. Between 1940 and 1942, the region’s civilian population grew from 393,000 to 575,000. On top of that, the number of military personnel stationed in the area’s bases grew tenfold, from 15,000 to 150,000. By 1945, half the adults in Southern Virginia would be working for the federal government. This influx of new people from all over the country and the world radically reshaped the small southern town’s cultural and economic life.

A Segregated City

As progressive and forward-looking as Hampton Roads may have seemed at first glance to someone like Dorothy Vaughan, it was still a segregated city of the American South at the height of the Jim Crow era . Black people and white people had separate entrances to get on buses, and blacks were expected to give up their seats to whites if the white section was filled. African-Americans who were...

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Shortform Exercise: Unpacking Prejudice

Think about how prejudice and discrimination inhibit lives and careers.

Has prejudice ever prevented you from doing something you wanted to do and were capable of doing? Describe what happened in a few sentences.

Hidden Figures Summary Part Three: After the War

The research and innovation coming from Langley played a major role in the ultimate Allied victory in World War Two, which finally came when Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. Although few Americans knew it, a small contingent of black female computers had made vital contributions to the superior aircraft production that had enabled the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

But while the end of the war ushered in a nationwide wave of euphoria, it was a source of anxiety for Langley computers like Dorothy Vaughan. Their contracts had only guaranteed employment for the duration of the war. Now that the war was over, what lay ahead for the black computers of Langley? Would the extraordinary opportunity they’d been given be taken away?

Peacetime Transition

The much-feared rollback of federal jobs began quickly. Just three weeks after V-J Day, newspapers announced a planned layoff of 1,500 Newport News shipyard workers as well as downsizings in other parts of the government’s civilian workforce. This would hit women particularly hard, as the returning GIs were expected to have first claim to these jobs. Women who’d earned an unprecedented level of economic...

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hidden figures book summary essay

Hidden Figures Summary Part Four: The Space Age Dawns

Dorothy Vaughan was a tireless advocate for the computers who worked under her . After hearing how well Katherine was performing in the Flight Research Division, she presented the head of the division with an ultimatum: either give Katherine the raise and permanent position in the division she deserved, or return her to West Computing. The division chief, the formidable and intimidating Henry Pearson, acceded to Dorothy’s pressure: Katherine was given a salary increase and a permanent job in his Maneuver Loads Branch in 1953.

This group was working on the aerodynamics of airplanes as they moved in and out of steady, stable flight—a key subject area of research in the Cold War 1950s. It was a very masculine, [restricted term]-fueled workplace, one which didn’t seem outwardly hospitable to a female computer. But Katherine held her own and impressed the engineers with her insatiable intellectual curiosity and her obvious passion for the work. What she relished most of all was the intelligence of her colleagues—she respected their intellectual capacity, and they respected hers right back. **They stopped seeing her as the “black computer” and saw her simply as...

Shortform Exercise: Overcoming Adversity

Think about how people like the women of West Computing helped each other overcome obstacles.

Have you ever served as a mentor or guide to someone who was trying to follow in your footsteps? Briefly describe the experience.

Hidden Figures Summary Part Five: Ready to Launch

NASA assembled a brain trust at Langley, called the Space Task Group. This was a semi-autonomous working group, composed mainly of engineers from Flight Research and PARD. Their mission, codenamed Project Mercury, was to launch a manned craft into orbit, research the effect of space travel on humans, and ensure safe reentry to Earth of both the astronaut and the spacecraft.

Katherine’s workspace was abuzz with talk of space. NASA’s top engineers from Flight Research and PARD were discussing orbital mechanics, rocket propulsion, reentry, solar system physics, and trajectories. Katherine hung on every word of these discussions, angling for every opportunity she could get to hear even snippets of conversation. She yearned to be part of these meetings and conversations and knew that she had valuable skills to offer.

Langley presented engineers with a grueling research review process. To get a technical report published, an engineer needed to present it at an editorial meeting, during which a committee of subject matter experts would review and scrutinize every detail of the report while grilling the researcher on the soundness of the information within it. The committee was...

Hidden Figures Summary Part Six: New Frontiers

One young American who breathlessly followed the progress of Sputnik and the reaction to it was a rising high school senior from North Carolina named Christine Mann. While she was fully aware of the racism that defined so much of her experience as an African-American, she still thought of herself as an American—and a patriotic one, at that.

Christine had attended The Allen School, widely considered to be one of the finest all-black high schools in the country, with students from as far away as New York. In the eleventh grade, she discovered a passion for mathematics and began to consider a future that would allow her to explore this further. For her and her classmates, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education had been a moment for celebration, but also anxiety: if they were forced to attend school and compete with white students, would they be smart enough to succeed?

Christine had always been fascinated by the idea of space and now saw that the subject had been thrust to the forefront of the national conversation. As a proud American, she didn’t want to let the Soviets dominate the universe beyond the Earth’s orbit, and she was determined to help her country get into...

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Table of Contents

Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race

This essay will discuss the book and film “Hidden Figures,” which tell the story of the black women mathematicians at NASA who played a crucial role in the space race. It will explore themes of racial and gender discrimination, perseverance, and the pursuit of the American Dream. The piece will analyze how these women’s contributions challenged societal norms and advanced both civil rights and space exploration. At PapersOwl, you’ll also come across free essay samples that pertain to American Dream.

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“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” written by Margot Lee Shetterly was the book I had chosen for my first book review. This book illustrates a remarkable story about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. These unbelievably black women had to face impossible obstacles as they went to work as “calculators” at NASA but at the time was called, “National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics” also known as NACA.

Despite the amount of social and political challenges they have faced at the heights of Jim Crow, these women became an essential project that put the first man on the moon. Hidden Figures tells a story about four amazing women whose contribution to science led to NASA’s greatest successes. Not only does Margot Lee highlight an astonishing account of intelligent, hard-working, and devoted African-American women who made crucial contributions to the Space Race but they also changed history.

Firstly, I thought this book was researched by Author Margot Lee because she had provided us with many details of the civil rights movement, school segregation, and the aeronautic industry. These women had to face many difficult obstacles and discrimination in their workplace as they continued to live in a country where being a white male meant the best chances of fair pay and advancement. However, these women’s brilliant minds did not go unnoticed and they were able to get the respect from their coworkers that they deeply deserved. Their willpower soon led them to opportunities that they thought were unimaginable. Yet, after everything they all went through to get to where they were, they still had to face the ugly reality of a “colored only” bathroom in the workplace.

Although this may be true, women were not taken seriously as men when it came to this profession. NASA began hiring women during World War II as female computers. These women did the work of mathematicians but were considered less of a professional in order to be paid less. Each specific character in this story worked hard in their career but was not acknowledged for their hard work. In 1943, there was a push in hiring qualified black women because the demand could not be satisfied with white employees only. Many people of skin color were given an opportunity to show off their skills in the real world.

In addition, I enjoyed how this book focused a lot on the individual stories for each of the women. I was very inspired by the sacrifices, determination, and intelligence each of these ladies had to offer. The book incorporated few stories of history that moved from WWII to the Cold War and then the Space Race. The book also included the Civil Rights Movement and the push to end school segregation. These “human computer” women were forced to work on the west side of the Langley campus until the 60s when integration occurred. It is very disappointing to imagine all the brilliant minds that never realized their potentials because of influences like race, gender, and income.

Hidden Figures includes a lot of feminism and breaking down race barriers which I enjoyed. Reading more into this book, I really respect the message that Margot Lee was writing about. Even more, I was on board to calling attention to something that most Americans were very ignorant about women’s roles and black people’s roles in NASA during the Space Race and WWII. The simple facts that this news was shocking to a lot of people means this story is important and should be shared. The story was soon made into a movie which was even better because a lot of people would not read the book. Black history in America, as Shetterly points out, is extremely hidden. Stories like this one can inspire young females to follow their dreams no matter what society may say we can or cannot do.

Despite the good messages in this book, I do have my opinions and reviews. While reading the book, I thought that the book was not well written. Shetterly was unable to distinguish characters from one another. As I was reading each chapter, I could not tell the difference at times between Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary. What they did, what their roles were, it was all blurred together due to Shetterly’s incapability to develop characters or personalities for any of them. She often also switches from person to person, and from time period to time period in the same chapter which made it very confusing. It also is hard to differentiate the three women focused on here. “Katherine listened intently as her brother-in-law described the work, her thumb cradling her chin, her index finger extended along her cheek, the signal that she was listening carefully” (118). She was reporting on a conversation she was not present at. Secondly, she is hearing about it from someone who is relating something that happened 60 years ago.

This book could be a learning experience and give an insight to the scenes’ making of the space program. It could also prove that every person’s role and contribution is important and makes a difference. Best of all, it’s a true story. This was such an extraordinary and important story to tell, but the writing was a bit dry and repetitive.

In Conclusion, this book was highly informative, though I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was more interested in science, space and aerodynamics. My understanding for these topics is lacking, which is the reason why I often skimmed some overly technical paragraphs.

However, the life stories this book depicts are awe inspiring and moving, and this is what I’m here for. Strong and educated women of every race and heritage, taking a stand, breaking down stereotypes, making a career, proving that they have the brains it takes to work in one of the most prestigious scientific facilities in the world (and everywhere else as well). All of that, while so many hindrances were put in their ways, because of their gender, because of their race. Because of prejudice, ignorance and hate. This book shows – and reminds us – that there are people who take opportunities and master them with grace, people who hold doors open for the less fortunate and give them a chance to shine, people who value bravery and kindness more than anything else. This is what made this book worth reading. 


Cite this page

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. (2021, Jun 27). Retrieved from

"Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." , 27 Jun 2021, (2021). Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race . [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 3 Jul. 2024]

"Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.", Jun 27, 2021. Accessed July 3, 2024.

"Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race," , 27-Jun-2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 3-Jul-2024] (2021). Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race . [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 3-Jul-2024]

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Hidden Figures

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67 pages • 2 hours read

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Prologue-Chapter 3

Chapters 4-7

Chapters 8-13

Chapters 14-19

Chapter 20-Epilogue

Key Figures

Index of Terms

Important Quotes

Essay Topics

Discussion Questions

Shetterly describes many of the activities the main characters were involved in outside of work, such as in their church or the community. Because the focus here is on their careers, why do you think Shetterly includes so much of their personal activities? What message does she give by doing so? Give specific examples, drawing on the lives of all four characters. 

Shetterly mentions A. Philip Randolph twice, during key moments 20 years apart. In 1941, he helps convince Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order banning discrimination in federal agencies and departments. In 1963, he has a large role in the groundbreaking March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Who was Randolph and how important was he in the civil rights movement? What were the key issues and accomplishments he was responsible for?

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What Sets the Smart Heroines of Hidden Figures Apart

Movies about brilliant scientific or mathematical minds often focus on their subject’s ego—not so with a new film about three African American women who worked at NASA in the ’60s.

When it comes to historical movies about brilliant minds, especially in the realms of math or the sciences, audiences can all but expect a tale of ego. Films such as A Beautiful Mind , The Theory of Everything , and The Imitation Game all lean in some way on the idea of the inaccessible genius—a mathematician, computer scientist, and theoretical physicist all somehow removed from the world.

Hidden Figures is not that kind of film: It’s a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It’s a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory. Set in 1960s Virginia, the film centers on three pioneering African American women whose calculations for NASA were integral to several historic space missions, including John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. These women—Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan—were superlative mathematicians and engineers despite starting their careers in segregation-era America and facing discrimination at home, at school, and at work.

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And yet Hidden Figures pays tribute to its subjects by doing the opposite of what many biopics have done in the past—it looks closely at the remarkable person in the context of a community. Directed by Theodore Melfi ( St. Vincent ) and based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film celebrates individual mettle, but also the way its characters consistently try to lift others up.  They’re phenomenal at what they do, but they’re also generous with their time, their energy, and their patience in a way that feels humane, not saintly. By refracting the overlooked lives and accomplishments of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson through this lens, Hidden Figures manages to be more than an inspiring history lesson with wonderful performances.

From the start, Hidden Figures makes clear that it is about a trio, not a lone heroine. Katherine (played by a radiant Taraji P. Henson) is the film’s ostensible protagonist and gets the most screen time. But her story is woven tightly with those of Mary (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer); the former became NASA’s first black female engineer , the latter was a mathematician who became NASA’s first African American manager . (It’s worth noting that, as a dramatization, the film makes tweaks to the timeline, characters, and events of the books.)

Hidden Figures begins in earnest in 1961. Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy are part of NASA’s pool of human “computers” —employees, usually women, charged with doing calculations before the use of digital computers. Due to Virginia’s segregation laws, African American female computers have to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. But the U.S. is so desperate to beat the Soviet Union into space that NASA becomes a reluctant meritocracy: Because of her expertise in analytic geometry, Katherine is assigned to a special task group trying to get Glenn into orbit. She arrives at her new job to find she’s the sole brown face in the room.

Katherine is closest to the excitement, but Hidden Figures widens its scope beyond her. Mary must navigate layers of racist bureaucratic hurdles in her quest to become an engineer. Dorothy is fighting for a long overdue promotion, while the arrival of an IBM machine threatens to put her team of computers out of work. The women consistently out-think their higher-ranked (usually white, male) colleagues, whether by learning a new programming language, solving problems in wind-tunnel experiments, or calculating narrow launch windows for space missions. Each is uniquely aware of the broader stakes of her success—for other women, for black people, for black women, and for America at large—and this knowledge is as much an inspiration as it is a heavy weight.

Early on, Dorothy shares her ambivalence about Katherine’s prestigious new assignment. “Any upward movement is movement for us all. It’s just not movement for me,” she says, disappointed after a setback at work. It’s a subtle, but loaded point, and one of the most thought-provoking lines in the film. Of course she’s proud of Katherine, and of course Katherine is paving the way for others. But individual victories are often simply that—Katherine knocking down one pillar of discrimination doesn’t mean countless more don’t remain. Still, Dorothy’s frustration with her stagnation at work doesn’t translate to defeatism or selfishness. She spends much of the film maneuvering to protect her team’s jobs, even if it means risking her own status and security.

Their intellect may not be broadly relatable (again, they’re exceptional for a reason), but their sense of rootedness is. Though most of their time and energy go to their careers, the women of Hidden Figures don’t take their relationships with each other and with their friends and families for granted. If one gets held up at work for hours, the other two wait in the parking lot until they can all drive home. On the weekends, they go to church and neighborhood barbecues and spend time with their children. They don’t “have it all,” but they do strive for balance and connection. (Another “feel-good film” from 2016, Queen of Katwe , also used the concept of community and interdependence to undermine the built-up notion of isolated talent.)

Despite the racism and sexism Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary face, Hidden Figures is a decidedly un-somber affair. The breezy script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder opts not to dwell much on the particulars of aeronautical science; instead, it revels in the intelligence and warmth of its subjects, in their successes both in and out of the office, and it wants viewers to do so too. Hidden Figures doesn’t hide its efforts to be a crowdpleaser—depending on audience size, you can expect clapping and cheering after moments of victory, and loud groans whenever egregious acts of racism take place (there are many). A buoyant soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch and regular doses of comic relief help keep the tone light and optimistic despite the serious issues at hand.

Rounding out Hidden Figures ’ all-star cast are Kevin Costner, as Katherine’s boss and eventual ally; an appropriately un-funny Jim Parsons as a new colleague of Katherine’s who can barely tolerate her presence; Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s manager and the epitome of the racist-who-thinks-she’s-not type; Glen Powell as an affable John Glenn; and Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s kindly love interest, Jim Johnson. Because of the engaging performances that Henson, Monáe, and Spencer give, each main character is fascinating to watch in her own right. But it’s their dynamic that makes it a joy to see them onscreen together.

Hidden Figures doesn’t try to push many artistic boundaries, but it tells its story so well that it doesn’t really have to. The film also avoids the most glaring missteps of historical movies that deal with race: At no point does it try to give viewers the impression that racism has been “solved,” and its white characters exist on a constantly shifting spectrum of racial enlightenment. What’s more, the film’s straightforward presentation belies its fairly radical subject matter. As K. Austin Collins notes at The Ringer , Hidden Figures “might be one of the few Hollywood movies about the civil rights era to imagine that black lives in the ’60s, particularly black women’s lives, were affected not only by racism but also by the space race and the Cold War.”

The Hidden Figures author, Shetterly, has discussed how the film only portrays a fraction of the individuals who worked on the space program— and how the movie was meant to speak to the experiences of the many African American women working at NASA at the time.  Watching this particular story unfurl on the big screen, it’s hard not to think of how many more movies and books could be made about women like Katherine Johnson—talented women shut out of promotions and meetings and elite programs and institutions and, thus history, because they weren’t white. Even today, barriers remain. A 2015 study found 100 percent of women of color in STEM fields report experiencing gender bias at work, an effect often influenced by their race. Black and Latina women, for example, reported being mistaken for janitors (a scene that, fittingly, takes place in Hidden Figures ).

With the complex social forces that shaped its characters’ lives still so relevant today, Hidden Figures is powerful precisely because it’s not a solo portrait or a close character study. Certainly, Hollywood will be a better industry when there are more films about the egos and personal demons and grand triumphs of black women who helped to change the world. But Hidden Figures shines with respect for sisterhood and the communistic spirit, and in casting its spotlight wide, the film imparts a profound appreciation for what was achieved in history’s shadows.

The Hidden Figures Film Analysis Essay

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Hidden Figures is a 2016 American drama film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder based on the science-fiction book of the same name by author Margot Lee Shetterly. The film was named one of the best ten films of 2016 and garnered several honors and nominations, including three Academy Award nominations (Cramblet Alvarez et al. 85). Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monet in the lead roles. The film was inspiring and gave me hope and faith that anything is possible if a person wants it and tries a little bit.

This film takes the viewer into NASA’s mysterious and fascinating Cold War universe. The story is told through the eyes of three black women working at the Langley Research Center (Cramblet Alvarez et al. 85). In this film, the viewer learns about all the difficulties Americans face in sending their astronauts into space and the black people who face the racism that prevails in the company. Since they live in the shadow of their male counterparts and a society rife with inequity, these girls’ experiences go undetected for a long time, but everything changes.

The picture is based on real people and events, the cast of the play is perfectly matched, and the high-class performance of the actors transports the viewer to another century in difficult times for America. Taraji P. Henson met with Catherine Johnson, who was 98 then, after signing a contract for the lead part to explore the character she would play (Cramblet Alvarez et al. 84). Each character in this motion picture has a different destiny. However, they are all bound together by a desire to change their country’s history, and connoisseurs follow their case with interest and admiration.

Pharrell Williams wrote the songs for this Theodore Melfi biographical film, and Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer wrote additional music. These soundtracks help to be transported and fully immersed in the atmosphere of the times during which the events unfold. The attempts to beg for a promotion and to change the working conditions of the heroines show how much the problem of inequality was. Women could not even buy a string of pearls with their salaries, which all female employees of NASA wore, which means that their profits were very different from those of the other races. The costumes are perfectly matched, immersing us in the atmosphere of those events.

All white characters, except for Al Harrison, are portrayed as helpless in science and hardened in disgusting racism, which is implausible. The movie itself is shot and acted rather academically. In places, though, it can create tension and empathy and provoke angry emotions toward Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons’ characters. However, even though the movie is written from real biographies and events, one gets the impression that everything is relatively easy for the heroines. If the film had been made now, the main characters’ story would have been more confusing and complicated. The movie flowed well from scene to scene; all the moments made sense to me. The director could have portrayed more of the hardships of the black women’s journey, which would have helped to bring it closer to the real story.

Thus, the film is dedicated to real women, their work successes, and their contributions to space exploration. The documentary proves that anyone can achieve anything if they work on themselves. The strong point is that the actors played well, transporting the viewer into the atmosphere of a time filled with inequality. The movie is surprisingly balanced: it has room for human relationships, families, children, love, friendship, and camaraderie, which are present in one way or another in everyone’s life. The film symbolizes that people should learn, develop, achieve, seek different ways to solve problems, and not be afraid to stand up for themselves. However, the downside may be the implausibility of some details in the film, namely the quick success of women and the incompetence of white employees. That is why my rating for this movie is nine points.

Cramblet Alvarez, Leslie D., et al. “ Psychology’s Hidden Figures: Undergraduate Psychology Majors’ (in)Ability to Recognize Our Diverse Pioneers .” Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research , vol. 24, no. 2, 2019, pp. 84–96., Web.

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Essays on Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a compelling and inspiring story that has captivated audiences around the world. As a result, it has become a popular choice for essay topics in various academic settings. However, with so many possible angles to explore, it can be challenging to choose the right topic for your essay. In this guide, we will discuss the importance of the topic, provide advice on choosing a topic, and offer a detailed list of recommended essay topics, divided by category.

The Importance of the Topic

Hidden Figures is a story that sheds light on the often-overlooked contributions of African American women to the field of space exploration. It is a powerful narrative that highlights the struggles and triumphs of these women in a time of segregation and discrimination. By choosing a topic related to Hidden Figures, you have the opportunity to explore important themes such as racial and gender inequality, perseverance, and the power of human potential.

Advice on Choosing a Topic

When choosing a topic related to Hidden Figures, it is important to consider your interests and the specific themes or aspects of the story that resonate with you. Think about the questions or issues that you find most compelling and consider how you can explore them in the context of the film or book. Additionally, consider the requirements of your assignment and ensure that the topic you choose aligns with the parameters provided by your instructor.

Recommended "Hidden Figures" Essay Topics

Historical and societal impact.

  • The role of African American women in the space race
  • The impact of segregation on the women featured in Hidden Figures
  • The significance of the Civil Rights Movement in the context of the story
  • The portrayal of gender roles and expectations in the 1960s

Scientific and Technological Advancements

  • The contributions of Katherine Johnson to the field of mathematics
  • The role of Dorothy Vaughan in advancing computer science
  • The importance of Mary Jackson's work in aeronautical engineering
  • The influence of Hidden Figures on the representation of women in STEM fields

Personal and Professional Development

  • The leadership qualities demonstrated by the women in Hidden Figures
  • The impact of mentorship and support in the characters' professional growth
  • The portrayal of resilience and determination in the face of adversity
  • The significance of family and community in the characters' lives

Representation and Media

  • The portrayal of African American women in mainstream media
  • The impact of Hidden Figures on popular culture and public perception
  • The importance of diverse storytelling in film and literature
  • The role of historical accuracy in cinematic adaptations

Educational and Institutional Systems

  • The challenges faced by the women in accessing education and career opportunities
  • The role of advocacy and activism in advancing equal access to education and employment
  • The significance of representation and diversity in educational settings
  • The impact of institutional policies and practices on marginalized communities

Psychological and Emotional Themes

  • The emotional journey of the characters in Hidden Figures
  • The psychological impact of discrimination and prejudice on the women's experiences
  • The portrayal of resilience and coping mechanisms in the face of adversity
  • The importance of self-empowerment and self-worth in the characters' narratives

Women in STEM

  • Role of women in the space race
  • Challenges faced by women in STEM fields
  • Impact of women in NASA's history
  • Representation of women in the film Hidden Figures
  • Gender discrimination in the workplace

Racial Segregation

  • Effects of racial segregation on education and career opportunities
  • Racial discrimination in the workplace
  • Segregation in the United States during the 1960s
  • Contribution of African American women to the civil rights movement
  • Portrayal of racial segregation in the film Hidden Figures

Mathematics and Engineering

  • Role of mathematics in space exploration
  • Contribution of African American women to the field of mathematics
  • Challenges faced by female mathematicians and engineers
  • Representation of mathematical concepts in the film Hidden Figures
  • Impact of engineering on space technology

Leadership and Empowerment

  • Leadership qualities of the main characters in Hidden Figures
  • Empowerment of women in the workplace
  • Importance of mentorship and support in career advancement
  • Overcoming adversity and achieving success in a male-dominated industry
  • Inspiring future generations of women in STEM

These essay topics provide a comprehensive look at the themes and issues presented in the film Hidden Figures. Whether you are interested in exploring the historical context, the challenges faced by women and minorities, or the impact of individuals in the STEM fields, there are plenty of thought-provoking topics to choose from. By delving into these topics, students can gain a deeper understanding of the contributions of women and African Americans to the fields of mathematics, engineering, and space exploration. Remember to choose a topic that resonates with you personally and allows you to explore the themes and questions that you find most compelling.

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    Hidden Figures Movie Summary. Hidden Figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi) is a movie that will simultaneously inspire and make people angry at the injustice African-American women face both in professional and daily life. The main characters of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan worked at NASA and saw many opportunities for their professional growth; however, their bosses ...

  16. The Hidden Figures Film Analysis

    The Hidden Figures Film Analysis Essay. Hidden Figures is a 2016 American drama film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder based on the science-fiction book of the same name by author Margot Lee Shetterly. The film was named one of the best ten films of 2016 and garnered several honors and nominations, including ...

  17. Essays on Hidden Figures

    2 pages / 808 words. Introduction The movie "Hidden Figures" directed by Theodore Melfi is based on the true story of three talented African American women who worked at NASA as mathematicians during the space race in the 1960s. This essay provides a summary and analysis of the movie's key... Hidden Figures.