'Hidden Figures' Author Margot Shetterly on Women Who Inspired Her

Margot Lee Shetterly told a Duke audience of the inspiration she gleaned from unheralded female NASA mathematicians

Author Margot Lee Shetterly meets with students during a reception at the John Hope Franklin Center on Wednesday. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
Author Margot Lee Shetterly meets with students during a reception at the John Hope Franklin Center on Wednesday. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

When she sits down to write, author Margot Lee Shetterly often draws inspiration from Katherine Johnson and other black female mathematicians whose largely unknown work helped power NASA’s space race.

“I envisioned myself sitting on the shoulders of these women and viewing the world through their eyes,” Shetterly said Wednesday during a public talk at Duke. “This is an American story, and I look to these critical moments of the past as moments of value to embrace.” 

Shetterly appeared at Duke in support of her New York Times bestselling non-fiction book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” which tells the story of these women and their contributions to American space exploration.

“The tenacity and on-the-job excellence of these women increased the professional opportunities for the next generation of people like me,” said Shetterly, who met many of these women while growing up in near Hampton College in Virginia, where many of the women featured in the book were trained.

Karina Heyword-Rotimi, 14, a student at Carolina Friends School, meets with Margot Lee Shetterly. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

At Duke, Shetterly discussed her writing process, the historical significance of the contributions of these women, and the intersection between race, gender, and mathematical and technological innovation. The book took six years to write, and she emphasized that when creating a story, sometimes “it takes time and distance when writing to really appreciate impact and value of the story.”

“This is not a story of one or two exceptional women, but a story of a multitude of extraordinary ordinary women. They were there for years on the job for anyone who cared to look,” said Shetterly, “but we still did not see them, and now that they are out of our blind spots, I think their stories can offer significant support to women of color.”

A film based on her book will be released in January 2017 starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monàe.