Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Part Two: The Stellar Works of Women

With Women in STEM a topic of conversation these days, it is worth remembering that women have made a great number of contributions throughout history.

A photograph of one of many astronomical plates archived at Harvard College Observatory. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

A photograph of one of many astronomical plates archived at Harvard College Observatory. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

At Harvard, starting in the late 1800s, women were hard at work tackling the seemingly impossible: inventorying the heavens. These women worked, quite literally, as human computers calculating the location, motion and brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars.

One popular version of the story of the women computers begins with Harvard College Observatory Director, Edward Charles Pickering, in a tizzy about a lazy graduate student who couldn’t be bothered to write clearly or double-check his calculations. At the end of his rope, Pickering stamped his foot and declared that his “Scotch maid” could do a better job than the silly boy. He fired the student and installed his maid Williamina Fleming as the head computer. Fleming did such a tremendous job that he hired only women moving forward. These women are given the less-than-honorific collective nickname: Pickering’s Harem.

The tale has a nice ring to it, because it taps into intrinsic biases, which tell us that it was a shocking surprise to discover women could or would do great work. And it has the gravity of random discovery that makes the whole history feel somehow magical – outside the realm of the ordinary. The problem is this: The real story is even better.

In 1878, Fleming and her husband left Scotland and settled in Boston. By the next year, she was 23, alone, and pregnant – her husband ran off, presumably in search of better things. Pickering was kind enough to offer her a job as his housemaid, but Fleming was quite bright and well educated. Back in Scotland, she had started student teaching in the local public school when she was just 14. As the youngest of 14 children in a poor family, she taught to bring in extra money.

After serving as Pickering’s maid for a year, her intelligence must have captured his attention, because he asked her to do some temporary work at the observatory. She did a fine job – so fine that she was hired officially in 1881, and within a year she was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the observatory, including editing all of the scholarly publications, and overseeing a team of women hired to support the ever-increasing demands of the Henry Draper Catalog. By 1898, the university appointed her as the first curator of the plate collection. She was the first woman to hold a corporation appointment at Harvard.[1]

A photograph of one of the many astronomical glass plates the computers used to inventory the stars; Williamina Fleming made these notations on March 20, 1907. The negative image makes the stars look like tiny flecks of dust. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

A photograph of one of the many astronomical glass plates the computers used to inventory the stars; Williamina Fleming made these notations on March 20, 1907. The negative image makes the stars look like tiny flecks of dust. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

As time progressed Fleming made many notable contributions and discoveries, including her system for measuring the magnitude or brightness of a star captured in a photograph. On a plate in the collection, there was a cluster of stars marked B2312; two years after the image had been captured, Fleming identified it as a nebula. While the discovery was originally attributed to Pickering because he took the photograph, he amended the record and Fleming was given proper credit. Sue Nelson wrote, “Long after her death, when the Hubble Space Telescope unveiled the stunningly beautiful Horsehead Nebula in unprecedented detail, history had already noted that it was Williamina Fleming who had first identified the nebula’s unusual shape.”

Fleming described the daily routines and challenges of scientific research at great length in her diaries. She and 12 women spent each day working with the photographic plates – “identification, examination, and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements and preparations of these results for the printer.” In an age before mechanical computers, these human computers were expected to be at the observatory six days a week, seven hours a day, and they were granted a month of vacation after one year of employment. The women spent those days in a small library attached to the northern end of observatory, each focused on her portion of the burden of counting and studying all the stars the sky.

While Fleming occasionally bemoaned that oversight of the observatory pulled her away from her own scientific inquiries, she trusted the ladies to carry on with the investigations while she trifled with the mundane.

Williamina (standing) oversaw the Harvard Computers. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Williamina (standing) oversaw the Harvard Computers. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Many of the women, with the exception of Fleming, never married and were still at the observatory by the time astronomer Cecilia Payne arrived in 1923; she wrote of them in her autobiography. There was Miss Woods, who once served as Pickering’s secretary and seemed to see herself as being of a different rank than the rest; she was “a stickler for protocol” and once scolded Payne for using Harvard stationary, something only important men could do. Miss Cushman was “a dignified galleon of a women with her masses of white hair” and had “never ridden in one of those new-fangled automobiles” until Payne convinced her to give it a go when she purchased a little green Ford.

See also: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Part One: Women and a Brief History of Computing

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Americans were coming around to the notion that it would be wise to have better educated teachers as public education became widely available; since women dominated the teaching profession, this helped somewhat shift the view of educating women. History teacher Pamela Etter Mack noted, “People raised serious arguments about the effect of education on women’s health and reproductive ability, but as the first women with college degrees married and had children, education became more and more acceptable for women.”

Pickering and his successor Harlow Shapley were quite progressive for their time, as was Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard), which began offering degrees to women in the 1889.[2] Pickering supported women’s suffrage and believed women should have access to advanced education, just so long as it didn’t interfere with the work he wanted them to perform – Antonia Maury, another famous Harvard Computer and niece of Henry and Anna Draper, told Cecilia Payne that she always wished to learn calculus, but Pickering wouldn’t allow it as it would supposedly interfere with her work.[3]

A bust of Pickering in the stairs leading up to the Great Refractor Telescope at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

A bust of Pickering in the stairs leading up to the Great Refractor Telescope at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

In addition to the director’s progressive ideas about education, he was also a man hoping to get the most bang for his buck. Not only were the women employed at the observatory smart and capable of doing the work, they were also quite a bargain at 25 cents an hour. The position held a certain amount of prestige for the women, and factory work would have paid only 15 cents per hour. Women might earn more teaching, but that work wasn’t as easy to find. Observatory jobs were in such demand that some women volunteered to work for free to prove their worth, but Williamina thought that might set a bad precedent.

In March of 1900 Fleming wrote in her journal, “I had some conversation with the Director regarding women’s salaries. He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.”

While Fleming adored Pickering and even named her son Edward Pickering Fleming, she fought with him about money often and confessed to wanting to give up at times. She knew he would have a hard time finding a man willing to work for less than what other male assistants at the university made at the time, which was around $2,500 per year; Fleming made $1,500 and had to support her son, who was attending MIT by this time: “Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts. And this is considered an enlightened age! . . . I feel almost on the verge of breaking down,” she lamented. In an age without most of the modern conveniences we now take for granted like the miraculous washing machine and dryer, it must have been exhausting to work all week and then spend her one day off cleaning bed linens and scrubbing floors. Her salary did not leave much room for hiring help and she was forced to take in boarders, usually one or two of the women from the observatory.

But Williamina Fleming did not break down; she persisted.

Her work led to international fame and recognition in the astronomical community. Over the course of her career, she discovered 10 novae, 52 nebulae, 310 variable stars, and she classified more than 10,000 stars by their spectra.[4] She also aided in equally important observations made by her female colleagues, who were more affectionately and respectfully known as: the Harvard Computers.

Virginia Woolf wrote of a woman in history, “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” But today, searching for information about the life of a woman in science history shows that young women aren’t treading into completely uncharted territory. A historical perspective strengthens and solidifies assertions that there is an important role for women to play in the sciences.

The fact that women have accomplished outstanding feats of discovery and invention in the past demonstrates that they can do so today and in the future.

See also: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Part One: Women and a Brief History of Computing

Jenny Woodman has been a science writer at Earthzine since 2014, and was an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center prior to that. She recently finished her master’s in creative writing at Portland State University. This work has been adapted from her thesis is titled “Stellar Works: Searching for the Lives of Women in Science.” Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman

Footnotes

[1] The first assistant professorship awarded to a woman at Harvard went to Alice Hamilton in 1919 in the university’s school of medicine. John T. Bethell writes that it was not a widely celebrated event and she was not permitted to use the faculty lounge or to sit on the stage at commencement ceremonies. In 1956, Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin became the first woman promoted to full professor from within the university ranks.

[2] While Harvard and Radcliffe were ahead of the curve in terms of educating women, Harvard President A. L. Lowell was not. He was so adamantly opposed to Radcliffe that he refused to sign diplomas; he thought Radcliffe was a drain on Harvard resources.

[3] There may have been other problems – Pickering and Antonia were frequently at odds.

[4] Novae, plural for nova, are stars that suddenly become brighter and then fade slowly to their original state Matt Williams defines nebulae as not only massive clouds of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma; they are also often “stellar nurseries” – i.e. the place where stars are born. And for centuries, distant galaxies were often mistaken for these massive clouds.

 

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