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Beatrice Hill Tinsely

Beatrice Hill Tinsley's experiences in the late 60s and early 70s are a prime example of the problems that some women faced at research institutions. She wasn't even attempting to get a job at a school with a top astronomy program. Rather, she was helping to found the astronomy department at her local University, but because of changing societal attitudes she remained stuck in a low positions which hindered her scientific advancement. Tinsley was an astronomer from New Zealand who came to the United States in 1963 with her husband, also a scientist who had invented a spectronomer and had a job at the South West Center for Advance Studies in Dallas, Texas. She soon got her Ph.D. after writing a thesis entitled, "Evolution of Galaxies and its Significance for Cosmology" and became a visiting scientist at the University of Texas, where her husband worked. Yet, because her spouse worked at the University she faced certain problems. In the University's eyes, she was Brian's wife before she was Professor Beatrice Tinsley."The Univ. of Texas in Dallas at present calls me a visiting scientist and provides an account to pay for my computing, publishing etc costs. But they have now formally decided the conditions under which they will pay a salary to the spouse of a faculty member. It means that to get the part-time research job I want, I have to obtain my own funds independently of any member of the institution. Elaborate way of avoiding favoritism! "1 As a result of these policies, Tinsley had to do twice as much work for a less prestigious job. Despite her work in astronomy and because her husband already had a job, the University ignored her only providing her with a position if she came up with the funds.

Tinsley's case illustrates a problem many women faced. The policy of refusing to hire spouses of faculty was often a good way of keeping women out of the faculty since they would be more likely to be hired second or to have a spouse who was also a faculty member. Of the women mentioned so far, all those who were married had spouses who were also scientists. The same could not be true for all male scientists.

However, Tinsley's hopes looked up. Shortly after this she related to her father her interest in the refusal of "a very eminent woman astronomer, ... turned down a prestigious prize offered to women astronomers (only) on the ground that special honors and discrimination for women should be abolished."2 She was relating the events of Margaret Burbridge refusal of the Annie J. Cannon Award. A committee was set up to look into the matter. All of this probably helped Tinsley and brought on the change in mood that resulted in her statement in another letter to her father about her hopes to become an assistant professor. "She explained that the authorities were likely to get into trouble if they don't upgrade the status of women. 'Currently one faculty member out of fifty-two is a woman!' " 3 As the NRC report illustrates, by the early 70s the government was monitoring schools for discrimination. Yet Tinsley did not get a promotion. However, she continued to attempt to get an Astronomy Department established there.

A few years later she wrote of her difficulties at the University of Texas at Dallas. She felt working there,"had reduced me to a state of mental anguish. Hard to explain! I am a good scientist, and among my peers treated like a full and respectable person and feel of worth. UTD has kept me at the nearest possible level to nothing and there is no one who knows enough about astronomy to care in the least for my work. Austin has helped, but it is a second rate job (underpaid, half-time) at a department much worse than I'm worth. This isn't supposed to be boasting. To be rejected and undervalued intellectually is a gut problem to me, and I've lived with it most of the time we've been here, apart from extended visits to Caltech and Maryland and shorter trips and meetings and so on." 4 In contrast to the earlier period when women did not expect to achieve higher positions, Tinsley felt she was justified in expecting a position equal to her skills. While this could be just her perception, the fact that the American Astronomical Society has an annual award named after her proves the respect that the larger astronomical community had for her work. She was undervalued because she was a woman and because the school did not value astronomy. Clearly, where women worked impacted both their treatment and their chance for advancement.

Despite her low position at University of Texas, Tinsley was actually fairly well known for her work in cosmology because of her research in Maryland and at Caltech. Yet, the her position did affect her own concept of self worth within the field. Certainly colleagues of equal intelligence achieving higher positions had to undercut her efforts and prestige in the field. For Tinsley, her position at the University of Texas as the spouse of another faculty member was causing her many problems. In 1974, she was offered assistant professorships at the University of Chicago and Yale. She had also applied to become the head of the Astronomy department of the University of Texas, the department which she had created, in a hope to stay with her family. She met the man considering her application at a party before she had made her decision. He had only to say, "I have a letter from you, don't I, that I must answer some time." To which she responded, "You needn't bother now. I'm choosing between Chicago and Yale!"5 Tinsley had become fed up with her treatment at the University of Texas. Tinsley soon went on to Yale where she became a valued and loved Professor, eventually becoming a full professor in 1978. The esteem in which others held her can be seen in the following obituary written by astronomer Sandra Faber after Tinsley death from cancer. "No tribute to Beatrice Tinsley would be complete without Emphasizing her strongly positive, even inspirational, impact on colleagues and students. Those around her were enlivened by Beatrice's obvious zest of her own scientific endeavors, a joy she never relinquished even during her long illness Equally stimulating was her enthusiasm for research going on around her. Always interested in new results, she plied one with astute questions, all the while radiating appreciation and encouragement. In relation to my own work, for example, Beatrice's critique was the one I could always count on and the one I valued most highly."6 Clearly, Yale was the right place for her to go. Unfortunately, her leaving also resulted in the break up of her marriage and because she didn't want to move her children her husband received legal custody, a very tough price to pay simply to be accepted as a professor. Like many women, Tinsley faced difficulties because of her job.


1.Edward Hill, My Daughter Beatrice. A Personal Memoir of Dr. Beatrice Tinsley, Astronomer (NewYork: The American Physical Society, 1986), pp.65-66.

2.Hill p.67

3.Hillp.69

4.Hill p.76,

5. Hillp.77

6. Scott Whineray, ed. Beatrice Hill Tinsley, 1941-1981 Astronomer (New Zealand: Massey University and New Zealand Institute of Physice Education Committee, 1985), p.95.


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