Friday, June 20, 2008

Science and 19th Century American Women

Astronomer Maria Mitchell was born in 1818 into a Quaker family living on the island of Nantucket. Her Quaker family believed in equal education of the sexes, and her father, a school principal, taught her astronomy. She pursued her interest in science, becoming a professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865. Her honors included becoming the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

ReneƩ Bergland's recent biography, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics, takes a look at her life and the attitudes towards women doing science in the 19th century. In an essay for the Beacon Broadside Bergland wrote:

The great surprise for me was that Mitchell faced relatively little bias. In her time, girls were thought of as naturally scientific—and science itself was considered a feminine pastime. The shocks of history can be hard to parse. On one hand, it’s exciting to realize that there was a time (not that long ago) when a girl like the young Maria Mitchell grew up believing that there was nothing preventing her from achieving scientific greatness. On the other hand, it’s a bit discouraging to realize that when I was born in New York City in the late twentieth century, the odds were worse for girls in astronomy than they had been when Mitchell was born on Nantucket more than a hundred and fifty years before.
Not having read Bergland's book, I don't completely follow how the odds for girls interested in pursuing astronomy were so much better 150 years ago. Would an average girl growing up in New York City in the mid-1800s have really have had the same opportunities as Mitchell to pursue science? Probably not, at least according to The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective, which Bergland links to in her article. While mid-19th century girls seminaries did include chemistry, physics and other science in their curricula, those seminaries were not open to all girls:
In actuality , the opportunity to study the sciences was largely confined to females from wealthy families. Relatively few American girls had either the leisure or financial means to study the sciences during the antebellum era. Some of the textbooks published during the antebellum period reveal the assumptions of contemporaries about the social status of females who engaged in scientific investigation. For example, Ricard G. Parker's Juvenile Philosophy, a popular elementary text, conveys scientific principles through the medium of a mother's conversation with her daughter. The elite status of this pair is implied in their surroundings and apparatus. One illustration depicts the two of them in a well-appointed drawing room, using a gold coin to perform a science experiment [. . .]"
So as long as a girl was from a well-off family, she would be given an education in the sciences, which was seen as naturally feminine subject matter. That is indeed a change from 20th century attitudes that girls are inherently incapable of understanding chemistry and physics. However, it's not clear to me that the education of girls in science necessarily gave them more opportunities to be scientists. Could most women really go beyond pursuing science as an amateur hobby and expect to have a career? And could a woman who wanted to marry and have children pursue her scientific interests?

As for Mitchell, she strove to improve the status of women in the sciences.
Throughout her career, Mitchell stressed the importance of women being hired for professional jobs, paid fairly, and encouraged rather than discouraged. Regarding the proportion of women faculty, she once asked, “Do you know of any case in which a boy’s college has offered a professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of women.” Regarding pay, one of Mitchell’s students, Anna Brackett commented, “The indignant protest” with which she “called for an equal salary, was not a personal affair. She flamed out on behalf of all women, and of abstract justice.” As for efforts to encourage women, the New York Times reported in 1881, “The question of equality of the sexes is one that does not naturally disturb such a woman. She merely says if women are regarded as equals, in mental capacity, they should have equal advantages, and if considered inferior, they should be given better chances.” Her words hold true today, too. Women need better chances because, as Mitchell put it, “Science needs women.”
It's an interesting topic, and I think I'll have to find a copy of Bergland's book to learn more.

(via Green Gabbro, who also has some links about women and geology)
More books about Maria Mitchell.
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