Maria Mitchell: The Women who Broke the Glass Ceiling

Long before women can run the world, Maria Mitchell, a woman from a small island in Massachusetts, opened and taught the first class of female astronomers in the US.

Born in 1818, decades before women were seen as equal to men, Mitchell knew that women were confined in their seemingly predestined roles, whereas men were to venture out on their studies. Lamenting how females’ responsibilities don’t give much room to imagination, the food for the soul, Mitchell said:

If the food for the body is more important than the food for the mind, let us destroy the latter and accept the former, but let us not continue to do what has been tried for fifteen hundred years, — to keep one half of the world to the starvation of the mind, in order to feed better the physical condition of the other half.

Let us have cooks; but let us leave it a matter of choice, as we leave the dressmaking and the shoe-making, the millinery and the carpentry, — free to be chosen!

Maria Mitchell was born to parents who wholly believed in the intellectual equality between sexes. Her parents were both Quakers, a sect in the Christian group, which believed in the value of education to both boys and girls.

Unlike the majority of the society that sent men to set sail and leave women to take care of the house, the Quakers community embarked on intellectual adventures. And Mitchell thrived in this liberal community. A child out of nine children, Mitchell was raised to love astronomy, especially by her father who is a public school teacher with an avid interest in mathematics and astronomy.

When Mitchell was 11, her father founded a public school where Mitchell served as a teaching assistant to his father. Then at home, she learned how to use a small telescope, and one time even assisted her dad calculating the exact moment of a solar eclipse, a task that required meticulous details and attention that in today’s world would be achieved by computers.

Her father’s school didn’t open for long, but he remained to be the most important figure in Mitchell’s live, accompanying her through life without any husband or family.

Mitchell dwelled deeper in her curiosity about the night. Her monumental achievement came when she discovered a comet in 1847, at the age of 29, and she immediately became a global star in astronomy after she published her paper in a nation-wide scientific journal.

Her sheer perseverance in unveiling the mysterious nature of the universe led her to open the first class of female astronomers in Vassar College. In 1865, after decades of career in the academics at Harvard College Observatory, Mitchell paved the way for women in astronomy. Vassar College was the first to open this discipline for women, but under Mitchell’s guidance, it quickly began to be the well-respected observatory in the US, even exceeding the number of graduates at Harvard.

Maria and her students stitched the sky with numbers and build a tapestry of wisdom. At a time when science became an increasingly specified and narrow field, when sciences were confined in labs, there was not much room for an interdisciplinary explorations.

But to Mitchell, science is never a solitary endeavor. Echoing Humboldt’s sentiment that science is interconnected to everything else, Mitchell looked at the sky through the telescopic view of arts and poetries. Her Vassar classes occasionally turned into politics and women’s rights discussion under the dome, a manifestation of the liberal thought she adopted early on.

Beyond astronomy, her greatest legacy is the entryway she created for future female astronomers who would later define and refine the field itself. But weaved into her teaching isn’t just to unveil the secrets of the universe, but to understand our place under this cosmic dome. And this kind of humility was the sustenance to her enduring energy:

“I cannot expect to make astronomers,” she said to her students, “but I do expect that you will invigorate your minds by the effort at healthy modes of thinking. When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests.”

The first female astronomers at Vassar

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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