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01 August 2017

Maria Mitchell, a Scientist in the Struggle for Women’s Rights

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On the night of October 1, 1847, an as-yet unknown comet crossed the sky of the United States. The young Maria Mitchell, who was scrutinizing the sky from the roof of the Pacific National Bank, on a small island in southern Massachusetts, using a brass telescope with a seven-inch refractor, was the first to observe it. That discovery made Mitchell, born on August 1, 1818, the first female astronomer in the United States.

In tribute to her, it was given the name Miss Mitchell’s Comet. It is not expected that this celestial body, which is non-periodic, will re-approach our planet, but its path brought international fame to the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the only one until 1943. She dedicated her life not only to science, but also to the struggle for the rights of women.

Maria Mitchell, astronomer and pioneer of women’s rights, from a 1851 portrait. Autor: H. Dassell.

Mitchell’s passion for the starry sky began in childhood, when she, like all the girls in the Quaker community, embroidered earth globes and celestial spheres. She grew up on the island of Nantucket, the capital of the whaling industry, where many houses had viewing platforms to see the return of ships. Mitchell, however, used them to “sweep the heavens”, together with her father, also an astronomer, who offered the same education to his son as to his daughters. At age 12, Maria helped him calculate the position of their house by observing a solar eclipse. Two years later, the teenager was already assisting the island’s sailors to calculate the best route for their long trips.

A world-renowned scientist

Having books always available at home made her aware of the power of education, especially for women. She believed that women’s minds were often wasted when they were forced to devote more time to activities such as sewing or cooking than to engaging in intellectual activities. Mitchell became a teaching assistant at the age of 16, and a year later she set up her own school, but left the post to become the first librarian at Nantucket´s Atheneum.

Location of the lunar crater named after Maria Mitchell. Credit: Eric S. Kounce / West Texas Astronomers

She returned to teaching now as a world-renowned scientist, at a time when women did not have much opportunity to continue their education after adolescence. Impressed by the success of the young astronomer—Mitchell had not only won a medal offered by the King of Denmark, Frederick VI, for the discovery of Miss Mitchell’s Comet, but had also observed sunspots, stars, nebulae, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn—Matthew Vassar hired her as the first female professor at the newly opened university Vassar College. He also saw her as a model for “ambitious and intelligent” women. And so she was. Maria Mitchell paved the way for astronomers and, moreover, demanded and eventually received the same salary as male professors.

Scientific work and social activism

The astronomer was sometimes surprised by the attention she received from her scientific work, despite being a woman. She wrote in her diary once: “It is really amusing to find one’s self lionized in a city where one has visited quietly for years; to see the doors open wide to receive you, which never opened before.” One of those doors was that of the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest in the world. During a trip to Rome in 1858, Mitchell wrote to Angelo Sacchi, the Vatican’s astronomer, to ask permission to use the Observatory. Thanks to him, she became the first nonreligious woman to set foot in the place—even Mary Somerville, Europe’s most famous woman scientist at the time, had been denied entry—but she had to leave at sunset.

Maria Mitchell’s scientific work and social activism bore much fruit. After her death, in 1889, the Nantucket Observatory received her name, as did an asteroid and a crater on the Moon. Regarding the situation of women, the first female scientist officially recognized throughout the American continent wrote: “In my younger days, I used to say: ‘How much women need exact science.’ But since I have known some workers in science who were not always true to the teachings of nature, who have loved self more than science, I say: ‘How much science needs women!’”


Joana Oliveira

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