Thursday, January 15, 2015

Women “Computers” Explored the Cosmos – Part 4

In her journal on March 12, 1900, Mina chafed against the inequalities at the observatory. “He seems to think 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.”1

Actually, no one at the observatory made very much money. I have not been able to find a salary figure for the period in 1900 that Mina is journaling about but I feel sure it would have risen in her twenty-year experience from the $10.50 a week she earned as a starting “computer,” in 1881. Even Pickering, who worked very long hours, only made sixty-five dollars a week.

Mina, like women before and after, struggled with equating compensation with quality of work. On April 18, 1900, her journal entry regarding her March 12th comments: “I do not intend this to reflect on the Director’s judgment, but feel that it is due to his lack of knowledge regarding the salaries received by women in responsible positions elsewhere. I am told that my services are very valuable to the Observatory but when I compare the compensation with that received by women elsewhere I feel that my work cannot be of much account.”2

Even though, Mina could get very frustrated with Pickering, from the very beginning, she admired him immensely. She even named her only son Edward Pickering Fleming.3

As with the other human “computers,” Mina in her diary expressed impatience with not being able to do the exact work she loved. “If one could only go on and on with original work, looking to new stars, variables, classifying spectra and studying their peculiarities and changes, life would be a most beautiful dream; but you come down to its realities when you have to put all that is most interesting to you aside, in order to use most of your available time preparing the work of others for publication. However, ‘whatsoever thou puttest thy hand to, do it well.’”4

1 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, March 12, 1900.  Page 18. (accessed January 12, 2015).
2 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, April 18, 1900.  Page 22. (accessed January 12, 2015).
3Darlene R. Stille. Extraordinary Women Scientists. (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1995), 69.
4 Harvard University Archives. Journal of Williamina Paton Fleming, March 5, 1900.  Pages 9-10. (accessed January 12, 2015).

4George Johnson. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). 87.

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