Introduction to women astronomers

Though often missing from today's list of great astronomers, women have been active within the field of astronomy since ancient times. Hypatia, one of the earliest known women scientists, studied astronomy. In the seventeenth century, Catherina Elizabetha Hevelius assisted her husband Johannes Hevelius, a famous Polish astronomer, in his nightly work. She continued after his death, eventually publishing the largest astronomical catalog compiled without a telescope. In the eighteenth century Nicole-Reine Lapaute, a well known mathematician, was asked to help astronomers Clairaut and Lalande compute the path of Halley's Comet to take into account the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. Another famous woman mathematician, Maria Gaetana Agnesi published a treatise on universal gravitation, hydromechanics and celestial mechanics. Finally, probably the most well known woman astronomer, Caroline Herschel, assisted her brother William, the court astronomer who discovered Uranus. She discovered a comet in 1786. The king began to pay her an annual pension of 50 pounds which made here the first woman appointed assistant to a court astronomer. In 1836, she and Mary Somerville were elected honorary members of the Royal Academy of Sciences.1 The preceding examples are just a small sampling of the women who have been making significant contributions to astronomy for centuries. Clearly, Women astronomers are not a twentieth century phenomenon.

In the United States, women began to gain prominence in astronomy around the middle of the nineteenth century. Maria Mitchell, a future professor of astronomy at Vassar, became world famous in 1848 when she received a medal from the King of Denmark for her discovery of a comet. By the beginning of the twentieth century, large numbers of women were employed across the country at major observatories to do mathematical calculations, examine photographic plates, and keep photographic libraries. In 1910, 10% of the members of the American Astronomical Society were women. By the 1930s this number was over 15%.2 These women were labeled "computers" in a time when such a term did not immediately bring to mind the electronic machines of today. Some observatories had staffs of twenty or thirty of these women working for relatively small wages as compared to the earnings of male astronomers. Yet these jobs gave educated middle class women new opportunities to study astronomy and to support themselves.

Unfortunately, this auspicious start to the century did not lead to continuous improvements for women within the field. While it is commonly believed that women's position has been steadily improving over time, this is not the case in astronomy. The percentage of women in the field began to drop significantly after World War II. Although 5.9% of Ph.Ds in physics and astronomy were awarded to women between 1920 and 1929, only 2% of the Ph.Ds were awarded to women between 1950 and 1959.3 Women only began to regain their numbers in the 70s with affirmative action and second wave feminism. Yet women's numbers still continue to trail behind the number of men in the field. While the percentages are higher than in 1920, only 9.4% of the Ph.Ds were awarded to women between 1980-89.4


1"Urania's Hertiage," Mercury, (January/February 1992):6.

2 Publications of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Soceity of America Organization, Membership, and Abstracts of Papers. vol 1-11. (Northfield, Minnesota: Astronomical and Astrophysical society, 1910,1913, 1918,1923,1927,1931,1933,1936,1939,1943).

3 National Research Council, Committee on the Education and Employment of Women in Science and Engineering, Climbing the Academic Ladder: Doctoral Women Scientists in Academe (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1979), p.20 Table 2.1

4.C. Megan Urry, Laura Danly, Lisa E. Sherbet and Shireen Gonzaga, Eds. Women at Work: A Meeting on the Status of Women in Astronomy (Baltimore, Maryland, September 8-9, 1992), p.24.


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This page was created on June 10, 1998 by Michele Nichols