Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures Study Guide

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.

Brief Biography of Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly was raised in a middle class black community in Hampton, Virginia. Her father was a climate scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center and her mother was an English Professor at Hampton University. She attended the University of Virginia, where she studied business, and then she moved to New York, where she worked at several prestigious investment banking firms and media startups. After marrying writer Aran Shetterly, the two moved to Mexico in 2005 to start a magazine for Anglophone expats in Mexico, and Shetterly began writing and researching Hidden Figures while living in Mexico in 2010. To support her writing, Shetterly has received fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Hidden Figures was released as both a book and an Oscar-nominated movie in 2016. Shetterly is also the founder of the Human Computer Project, which aims to be a complete record of women who contributed to research at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
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Historical Context of Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures begins during World War II and takes place largely during the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a nuclear arms race and competed to be the first nation to master spaceflight. During this time, the United States government poured money into science and technology that could help the war effort (such as fighter jets) and lend the country international prestige (the space program), both of which meant investment in the Langley Research Center where the book is set. While the 1950s and 60s were a time in which the country progressed rapidly in science and technology, social progress was more complex. By examining the gradual integration of the workplace at Langley over the course of several decades, Hidden Figures shows the shift from Jim Crow laws (which enforced segregation in the Southern United States) to the effects of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (which ushered in an era of increased integration of American institutions) to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which outlawed discrimination based on race, color or creed). Shetterly depicts the mid-twentieth century as a time of social and technological progress in the United States, but she shows that science moved forward more swiftly than social equality.

Other Books Related to Hidden Figures

For more information about African-Americans’ role in the development of NASA, read We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul. The Rise of the Rocket Girls, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt offers a look at the forgotten female scientists who helped get the first Americans into space. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a black woman whose life played an integral and essential role in science—in this case, the development of life-saving medical technology. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II provides further insight into the role of women in the advancement of military technology. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy also provides an inside look at this same topic.
Key Facts about 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.