These women represent only a small portion of those who contributed to expanding women’s role in astronomical discovery. When given opportunities, they’ve added significantly to our understanding of the cosmos that surrounds us.
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Maria (Ma-RYE-uh) was fortunate that she grew up in an educated family. Her mother, a librarian, and father, a school teacher, encouraged her education. She was especially strong in math and astronomy. At 14 she was able to produce navigational charts for sailors leaving port in Nantucket. In 1848 The King of Denmark presented Mitchell with a gold medal for her discovery of a comet that came to be known Miss Mitchell’s comet. Maria became a field researcher and “computer” for the U.S. Nautical Office in 1849. As a Vassar professor, she took her students on an all-female expedition to Denver, Colorado to observe the solar eclipse of 1878. Quite an accomplishment considering astronomy was such a male dominated profession then. She was an inspiration to women pursuing astronomy well into the 20th century.
Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857 – 1911)
Fleming was the first of Harvard College Observatory’s women computers. Decades before NASA’s celebrated Hidden Figures, these women performed a similar function. They would analyze star images to determine their locations, measure their brightness, and classify them based on their spectrum. Hundreds of stellar spectra appeared on a single 8″ x 10” glass plate that astronomers used to capture images from telescopes. The largest spectra for the brightest stars were only 4 tenths of an inch long. Making these precise measurements was onerous work best handled by these women computers. In those days it was the only opportunity women had for pursuing an astronomical career. These women were referred to as “Pickering’s Harem”, after the observatories administrator, Edward Pickering.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941)
In science, classification leads to better understanding of an objects true character. Cannon revisited Fleming’s stellar classification scheme and determined there was some overlap and redundancy. She thus created the basis for today’s stellar classification system. As knowledge and understanding expands, classification evolves. And so it was with the classification of the stars.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979)
Payne’s PhD thesis on stellar atmospheres, written in 1925, never specifically stated that stars were basically made of hydrogen. She had sent the preliminary results of her studies to astronomer Henry Norris Russell at Princeton to review. He was skeptical of the idea that hydrogen could be so abundant. At the time, scientists thought that the abundance of elements in the earth’s crust would be similar to those of a star. And since earth’s crust contained little hydrogen, neither would a star. So she amended the results to say that they may have not been accurate. However, four years later, Russell came to the same conclusion as Payne.