Women in Science: Gazing at the Stars Through History

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Debra Elmegreen and Professor Maria Mitchell by Suzanne Schnittman2014’s season of college graduations is winding down, but the questions to students persist: “What are you going to do now?” While some grads provide a satisfying answer to this bothersome query, many avoid a direct response.

Frequently, they are heading down a road that is not their first choice. In 1878 a well-known graduate from Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York, found herself in a similar situation.

Harriot Eaton Stanton, daughter to Elizabeth Cady and Henry Stanton, arrived at Vassar as a reluctant student, preferring coeducational Cornell where she believed the courses would challenge her more. An aunt had offered to pay her tuition, but only if Harriot attended this “more sheltered” school, so Harriot made the best of the situation. For the first two years, she concentrated on classes that would prepare her to follow her parents in their roles as lecturers and reformers, but became increasingly interested in math.

Harriot’s life took a dramatic detour when she walked into the classroom of Professor Maria Mitchell, the first professional woman astronomer in America. I had been familiar with this story from researching the Stanton family, but it came to life when my astrophysicist son, Jeremy Schnittman, met Debra Elmegreen, Vassar’s current Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair.

Jeremy, knowing my interest in Mitchell, introduced me to Debra and she agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Her background echoes that of Maria Mitchell’s. In 1975 Debra Elmegreen became the first woman to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Princeton, then completed her Master’s and doctorate in astronomy at Harvard. Debra has taught at Vassar since 1985. She fills Professor Mitchell’s shoes with distinction, specializing in the structure of galaxies and star formation.

A major lure that brought Maria Mitchell to Vassar for its 1865 opening was the promise of a fabulous observatory equipped with a state-of-the-art telescope, now housed at the Smithsonian. In no time, Professor Mitchell attracted a following among students, enlisting seventeen women in advanced astronomy during her first term, more than Harvard recruited for a similar course. Mitchell remained one of Vassar’s star teachers for twenty years and the school set up a chair in her name.
Harriot Stanton had seen but never met this tiny woman, or set foot in her revered observatory, until her junior year. Contemporary photographs show Professional Mitchell’s facial expression to be stern, her long, sharp nose contrasted by tumbles of soft curly hair. The bust that claims a proud position on Vassar’s campus portrays a firm mouth whose grimace is set in stone, under squinting eyes that betray intense hours at her telescope. The ruffle at her collar peeks out from an austere business suit. In short, Maria Mitchell was an enigma. Severe and demanding, she won students over when she revealed her natural cordiality. It took Harriot only a few classes before she was enamored.

To qualify for Professor Mitchell’s rigorous astronomy class, Harriot had spent two years taking the required advanced mathematics courses. Mitchell believed her students “showed more mathematical ability than I had expected and more originality of thought.” She “doubted if young men at that age would take as much interest in science.” Harriot thrived in this prestigious group, which Professor Mitchell insisted use methods of genuine scientific inquiry, acquiring information from experience rather than reading. She often asked her classes, “Did you learn that from a book or did you observe it yourself?” Debra Elmegreen notes, “The adoption of interactive learning methods in the classroom has adhered to Maria Mitchell’s admonition that students should learn by doing .” (Elmegreen, “The History of Physics and Astronomy at Vassar College,” Department Website, January 2011)

Professor Mitchell made Harriot’s last two years at Vassar an exhilarating challenge. By the time she was a senior, Harriot had proved her dedication and ability, not only in inquiry but in the manipulation of small telescopes and transit instruments to observe and even predict solar eclipses. Fortunately, an eclipse was expected during the summer that Harriot would graduate, in 1878. The anticipation filled her with purpose and wonder for months.

Professor Mitchell, slated to travel to Denver, Colorado that summer, where the 1878 solar eclipse’s totality would last five minutes, asked Harriot to accompany her.

“What a magnificent opportunity for a young student!” Harriot recalled in her memoir. “Oh, how I longed to go, and experience the full fruition of the two years of grind. I had calculated every detail of the onset [total eclipse].” Her parents had other thoughts. Much to Harriot’s regret, “The home verdict was a negative, and wholly based on a matter of expense.”

Twenty years later, Harriot still spoke about her parents’ “negative verdict.” She recalled, “It makes my heart stand still and my head whirl whenever I think of the utter lack of imagination in my guardians in allowing such an opportunity to slip away from a young student.” The decision convinced Harriot not to miss the next eclipse, even though it would be forty-seven years later, in 1925, and she would view it at the Vassar observatory. At that time, she reported being so “impressed by this deeply moving miracle of the skies that I took a vow to see every eclipse from then on that occurred within reasonable reach.”

Later, after Harriot’s life had taken another course, Susan B. Anthony would say, “Maria Mitchell said of Harriot that she was the finest scholar in her classes.” She left Vassar with a lifelong avocation for astronomy, but destined for other arenas.

“Maria Mitchell would be delighted by the number of professional women astronomers practicing today,” according to Debra Elmegreen. While among Debra’s generation, only 10% of full astronomy professors are women, nearly 50% of astronomy majors nationwide are female.   “I think the increase stems from women today recognizing that they can enter any field,” Debra said, “and domains that were once considered the province of men are now more welcoming to everyone.”

Debra Elmegreen always tells her science students about Maria Mitchell’s “efforts in astronomy and with women’s rights.” She points out that “what we do today in engaging astronomy students in research (either during the summer or during the academic year) really started with Maria.” Debra requires that students in her freshman writing seminars visit the Maria Mitchell Observatory on campus to read Maria’s quotes and see the photos of her with her students, “all diligently observing in their long dresses.” Then her students “write about their reflections on life as an astronomy student at Vassar in the late 1800’s.”

Harriot Stanton might not have been granted the privilege of pursuing science when she graduated in 1878, but her exposure to Maria Mitchell gave her the opportunity to see the world from both enlightened and scientific eyes. Debra Elmegreen is a fitting reflection of the legacy given Vassar’s students by Maria Mitchell. Think about all three women the next time you gaze at an eclipse.

Photo: Debra Elmegreen and Professor Maria Mitchell.


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