Hidden Figures

by

Margot Lee Shetterly

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Hidden Figures: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dorothy’s husband Howard Vaughan continues to work at the Greenbrier Hotel alongside Joshua Coleman, Katherine’s father. Dorothy and Howard have two more children, but the children move with Dorothy to Newport News. Dorothy returns to work because the family counts on her income at Langley.
Dorothy and Katherine are connected through their roles at the NACA and through their loved ones’ employment at a local upscale hotel. Their fates are intertwined from the very beginning.
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The other West Computing area women become surrogate aunts and uncles to Dorothy Vaughan’s children. They organize picnics and retreats along the river. This freeform socializing (different from the church outings and planned home visits that characterized most black communities in the South) helps bring them closer together.
Dorothy’s continued success at Langley comes in part because of the support that comes from other black women with their own families. Because she can’t be with her husband, she has to form her own network and carve out a new family at Langley.
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Dorothy worries that she might be fired after the war ends. Luckily, it turns out that she won’t have to leave. The country turns out to be on the edge of a defense industry boom that will keep her employed for decades. Local military installations grow. The defense industry tightens its grip on the economy of southeastern Virginia. Virginia becomes a warfare state, the embodiment of what Cold War president Dwight D. Eisenhower will call “the military-industrial complex.”
Virginia’s economy continues to boom as the aerospace industry flourishes—the state’s economic success has a direct impact on Dorothy’s own financial well-being, allowing her to maintain the foothold she’s managed to find for herself at Langley. With this, Shetterly indicates how the development of the sciences and the economic fortunes of black Virginians were deeply entangled.
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Dorothy has been at Langley for three years by this point. Her work is flawless and she consistently earns “excellents” on employee evaluations. In 1946, she is made a permanent Civil Service employee. All of the West Area computers have done their best to hold onto their seats. Now they have to learn how to advance in a world of white men.
Even though Dorothy is good enough to win a permanent role at Langley, her continued success is by no means ensured. She continues to be aware of how precarious her position is as a black worker among her white colleagues.
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But this is difficult. Veteran scientists welcome male researchers into their folds, but women have to work much harder to get ahead. The most impressive computers are invited to work permanently with certain research teams, while other women specializing in certain fields have the luck to watch those fields grow, and to grow with them. One example of this is the research team trying to solve the problem of faster-than-sound flight. The women working on that high-profile project are able to become junior engineers, simply because it’s a growing field in need of people.
Men tend to take their male counterparts under their wing, helping to put them on the fast track to success. Women either have to be judged to have extraordinary ability and skill or they have to be on the right research team at the right time. This is another way in which the computers’ fates tend to be determined by forces outside their control, and another indication of the role luck and timing will play in their fates.
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Related Quotes
From 1941-1945, Doris Cohen, a mathematician who began work at the lab in the late 1930s publishes nine reports documenting research in high-speed aeronautical research. She is for many years the NACA’s only female author. Publishing a research report under one’s own name is the first step to becoming an engineer. For a woman, having the opportunity to do so is unusual.
In the same way Dorothy helped lay down a path for Katherine to follow into Langley, women like Doris showed the computers—black and white— that there was a way forward. She set an example for women during a time when gender discrimination made progress seem difficult or impossible.
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Head Computer Virginia Tucker continues to relentlessly recruit women to work in the lab. However, as the war effort ends, the women who work under her are drawn into engineering pools and away from East Computing. As they leave for permanent assignments, no one is hired to replace them. Tucker eventually leaves, moving to the West Coast to join a different engineering company in Los Angeles.
The end of the war leads to changes in personnel at Langley, something that disproportionately affects the black computers, as West Area begins to be phased out. The same organization that once made it possible for black women to find a place for themselves in the sciences now seems ready to discard them.  
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Meanwhile, it becomes harder for West Area Computers to migrate out of their computing pool. When three black women manage to join Cascade Aerodynamics, a group that studies rotating bodies, it causes a scandal. Some conservatives see the race mixing as a terrible thing. However, because the women are so good at their jobs, those who are against them soon quiet. Dorothy Hoover, a black computer with a master’s degree in mathematics, is the first black computer to get the opportunity to become an engineer, accepting an offer from R.T. Jones to work directly for him.
The black computers have to work harder than whites to hold on to their jobs. When they do manage to find roles elsewhere within the company, however, they come up against the racism of their white peers. Women like Dorothy Hoover, however, help prove to everyone at Langley that black women are capable of achieving at the highest level. 
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Margerey Hannah takes an offer to work as an engineer with the Full-Scale Research Division. Soon she publishes a paper under her own name with her boss about sound waves. Blanche Sponsler tries to follow in her footsteps, but eventually becomes mentally ill. One day, she covers the blackboard in one of the West Computing offices with “meaningless words and symbols” and begins speaking unintelligibly. After that she is transferred to a sanatorium and a hospital. Dorothy is appointed to take her place as the acting head of West Computing.
Dorothy reaches a supervisor position only after Margery takes another job and Blanche falls ill, which shows, again, how much the forward progress of black computers at Langley depended on chance, luck, and forces outside of their control. Nevertheless, Dorothy’s previous hard work and persistence put her in a position to take advantage of this opportunity to rise in the ranks when it presented itself.
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Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work  Theme Icon
Some white computers break into management ranks through persistence, though generally they only become supervisors in other divisions with many female employees. For most black women, Dorothy Vaughan’s position as West Area supervisor is the highest they can expect to go. She eventually becomes full head of the unit in 1951.
 Dorothy’s new role marks an extraordinary achievement while at the same time indicating that she still hasn’t been allowed to move forward as far or as quickly as her white counterparts. She finds herself at the head of a division which may soon become obsolete. 
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Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress Theme Icon