Even though Pickering’s objective was to pay as little as possible, he created unprecedented opportunities for a generation of female astronomers.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer who came to the observatory after the women in this series and was a female professor at Harvard University, describes how difficult but rewarding a career at Harvard could be:
“On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage. It is a tale of low salary, lack of status, slow advancement. But I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”1
A Boston Globe reporter concluded in 1893, “These young women deal with difficult problems quite as successfully as do the men in other observatories. To be sure, not all women are capable of working in this field for the work demands special mental qualities.”
“In American Astronomy, the dual labor market that emerged by the end of the nineteenth century relegated women to the lower tier or secondary labor markets, thus sharply restricting their chances for mobility. At the same time men’s perception of women as scientists denied them access in power and in the reward system.”2
Because of forerunners such as Henrietta, Mina and Annie, today nearly half of all astronomy graduate students in the United States are women.
Whether reading or writing women’s history, it is often hard to get beyond the unfair limitations and low compensation given them to see their strength in refusing to let such unfairness stop them from accomplishing their goals. One has to wonder what other discoveries these brilliant women would have made without these restrictions.
The three scientists were actually at the Harvard Observatory at the same time.
Williamina Paton Fleming – 1881 – 1911 (30 years)
Henrietta Swan Leavitt – 1893 – 1921 (28 years)
Annie Jump Cannon – 1896 – 1941 (45 years)
1Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: an Autobiography and other Recollections. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 227
2Harry G. Lang, Bonnie Meath-Lang. Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 358