Jul

08

Astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 — June 28, 1889) was born the third in a Quaker family of ten children, in an age when parents still considered the physical sciences better-suited for girls than boys. Her formative years, however, coincided with the unfortunate reversal of gender norms that made women in science not only a rarity, but also a discouraged deviation from social standards. She would eventually lament in an 1881 report, “At what time did scientific associations close to women?” Even so, Mitchell went on to become the first recognized female astronomer in America and contributed significantly to the evolution of both astronomy and women’s science education.

In a testament to the fact that equality isn’t merely a “women’s problem” but requires equal investment from all, Mitchell owed her early scientific education to her father’s consistent encouragement and his refusal to treat his daughters as inferior to his sons. William Mitchell was an astronomer himself and a teacher at a small school, which Maria attended as a young girl — the birthplace of her fascination with nature and science. At seventeen, she founded her own school dedicated to teaching girls the essential skills of science and mathematics.

In 1836, Mitchell became a librarian at the Atheneum in her hometown of Nantucket, where she, like Ray Bradbury, would educate herself by reading through the library’s collection every day. Meanwhile, she continued to observe the night sky with her father.

On October 1, 1947, shortly after her 29th birthday, Mitchell discovered the first comet in American science, which went on to be named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” Even more extraordinary than her gender in the historical context of the discovery was that she achieved it with a modest telescope only two inches long, further evidencing her exceptional mastery of astronomy. Mitchell was awarded a prestigious international medal for the discovery and, at only thirty, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. No other woman would be afforded this invitation for the remainder of Mitchell’s lifetime.

At a time when women were employed by the government primarily as seamstresses, cooks, and other domestic-arts occupations, Mitchell is believed to be the first American woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the federal government. Working for the United States Nautical Almanac as one of only eleven astronomers and mathematicians in that role, she was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” — a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead, which sailors all over the world would use for critical celestial navigation.

Mitchell’s reputation soon spilled into the ranks of other influential women and they eventually pooled together, led by legendary publisher Elizabeth Peabody, to help Mitchell use tools on par with her extraordinary scientific drive. Emerson’s United States Magazine ran an editorial urging school girls and women to donate however much they could afford to help buy the beloved astronomer a telescope worthy of her mind. And they did, to a poetic effect — Mitchell was soon the owner of one of the most sophisticated telescopes in the country, a gift from “the women of America.”

An embodiment of the tragically and consistently overlooked fact that science and the humanities need each other, Mitchell was also keenly interested in the social sciences and became the vice president of the American Social Science Association. But her great love remained the cosmos, which she saw not only as scientifically fascinating but also as the height of aesthetic beauty. In a diary entry from February 12, 1855, she marveled:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety…. What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Bespeaking the idea that equality begets equality, Mitchell carried forward her father’s respect for equal dignity in her own convictions, not only in actively championing women’s empowerment and education, but also by becoming deeply invested in the anti-slavery plight and the quest for freedom for all. She even famously refused to wear garments made of cotton grown by Southern slaves, one of the earliest recorded acts of wearable political convictions.

After the Civil War swung open the doors to women’s education, Mitchell was invited to teach astronomy at Vassar, one of the most prestigious newly established colleges helming the higher education revolution, where she’d have an alluring twelve-inch telescope at her disposal. She was the only woman on the faculty. But despite the college’s progressive-by-the-era’s-standards decision to hire Mitchell, she still faced — and tirelessly opposed — the antiquated and often contradictory gender norms of the time: For instance, she taught astronomy to young women, and yet the original college handbook of rules stated that it was forbidden for female students to go outside after dark.

By 1861, Mitchell had reached celebrity status and was one of the most famous women in the world — so much so, Renee Bergland tells us in the altogether excellent Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics, that “people who sat next to her at a meal or glimpsed her across a train platform often wrote to their hometown newspapers to report the sightings.”

But the greatest complement to her scientific brilliance was her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility. Like fellow reconstructionist Marie Curie, she was unmoved by accolades and preferred, instead, to help cultivate the talents of other budding female scientists — even if it meant overcoming her excruciating shyness in order to teach and serve as a role model. In fact, in what Bergland calls “the scholarly dignity of the quiet Quaker woman in the simple black dress,” Mitchell’s parallels Curie’s famous pragmatic humility. And yet, as Bergland poignantly puts it, “Maria Mitchell crackled and sparkled somehow, even when the rest of [Nantucket] was torpid and sleepy in the sunshine.” One woman, who in her childhood had befriended Mitchell in her librarian capacity, recalled the “warmth and depth of Maria Mitchell’s affectionate nature” and extolled her “whole-souled generosity.”

Mitchell died in 1889 of brain disease, leaving behind an inextinguishable torch of hope for women in science at a time of oppressive darkness. She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket preserves her legacy and houses the Maria Mitchell Observatory.

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