Pioneering 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Education and Women in Science
“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”
By Maria Popova
“We are women studying together,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) said to the senior class in astronomy when it entered upon its last year at Vassar College in 1876, where Mitchell had begun teaching after the Civil War as the only woman on the faculty. These seemingly simple and unremarkable words sprang from a remarkable determination that would come to pave the way for women in science. In fact, Mitchell’s strides towards equality in education are unparalleled by any other figure of the era. From Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free download) — which also gave us the beloved astronomer’s timeless wisdom on science and life — comes a fascinating record of Mitchell’s witty, unrelenting spirit and the conviction with which she steered the wheel of science education.
To get an idea of just how radical the notion of women’s education was in the era’s cultural context, here is an anecdote, equal parts amusing and appalling, that Mitchell relays about one particularly anxious mother who placed her daughter in the astronomer’s care at Vassar:
One lady, who seemed to be a bright woman, got me by the button and held me a long time—she wanted this, that, and the other impracticable thing for the girl, and told me how honest her daughter was; then with a flood of tears she said, ‘But she is not a Christian. I know I put her into good hands when I put her here.’ (Then I was strongly tempted to avow my Unitarianism.) Miss W., who was standing by, said, ‘Miss Lyman will be an excellent spiritual adviser,’ and we both looked very serious; when the mother wiped her weeping eyes and said, ‘And, Miss Mitchell, will you ask Miss Lyman to insist that my daughter shall curl her hair? She looks very graceful when her hair is curled, and I want it insisted upon,’ I made a note of it with my pencil, and as I happened to glance at Miss W. the corners of her mouth were twitching, upon which I broke down and laughed. The mother bore it very good-naturedly, but went on. She wanted to know who would work some buttonholes in her daughter’s dress that was not quite finished, etc., and it all ended in her inviting me to make her a visit.
And yet Mitchell had extraordinary clarity of vision when it came to education in all its dimensions, one she eloquently — if sternly — articulated to her pupils:
You cannot study anything persistently for years without becoming learned, and although I would not hold reputation up to you as a very high object of ambition, it is a wayside flower which you are sure to have catch at your skirts.
Whatever apology other women may have for loose, ill-finished work, or work not finished at all, you will have none.
When you leave Vassar College, you leave it the best educated women in the world. Living a little outside of the college, beyond the reach of the little currents that go up and down the corridors, I think I am a fairer judge of your advantages than you can be yourselves; and when I say you will be the best educated women in the world, I do not mean the education of text-books, and class-rooms, and apparatus, only, but that broader education which you receive unconsciously, that higher teaching which comes to you, all unknown to the givers, from daily association with the noble-souled women who are around you.
Mitchell confronted the issue of women’s education head-on, writing in her diary on January 3, 1868:
Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in fifty years. He said one of the most conservative members of the faculty had said, within sixteen days, that it would come about in twenty years.* I asked him if I could go into one of Professor Peirce’s recitations. He said there was nothing to keep me out, and that he would let me know when they came.
At eleven A.M., the next Friday, I stood at Professor Peirce’s door. As the professor came in I went towards him, and asked him if I might attend his lecture. He said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Can you not say “I shall be happy to have you”?’ and he said ‘I shall be happy to have you,’ but he didn’t look happy!
The professor was polite enough to ask us into the senior class, but I had an engagement. I asked him if a young lady presented herself at the door he could keep her out, and he said ‘No, and I shouldn’t.’ I told him I would send some of my girls.
* Harvard founded Radcliffe College, its sister school for women, in 1879 — but female scholars remained segregated there until 1999, when the two schools finally merged and Harvard-Harvard began to “admit girls” more than a century after the professor’s prediction.
Upon visiting Glasgow during her European trip five years later, Mitchell notes the dismal state of women’s education there, emblematic of the era’s general disposition — even, most tragically, of the era’s women “in power” themselves:
‘The Glasgow College for Girls.’ Seeing a sign of this sort, I rang the door-bell of the house to which it was attached, entered, and was told the lady was at home. As I waited for her, I took up the ‘Prospectus,’ and it was enough, — ‘music, dancing, drawing, needlework, and English’ were the prominent features, and the pupils were children. All well enough, — but why call it a college?
When the lady superintendent came in, I told her that I had supposed it was for more advanced students, and she said, ‘Oh, it is for girls up to twenty; one supposes a girl is finished by twenty.’
I asked, as modestly as I could, ‘Have you any pupils in Latin and mathematics?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s for girls, you know. Dr. M. hopes we shall have some mathematics next year.’ ‘And,’ I asked, ‘some Latin?’ ‘Yes, Dr. M. hopes we shall have some Latin; but I confess I believe Latin and mathematics all bosh; give them modern languages and accomplishments. I suppose your school is for professional women.’
I told her no; that the daughters of our wealthiest people demand learning; that it would scarcely be considered ‘good society’ when the women had neither Latin nor mathematics.
‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘they get married here so soon.’
When I asked her if they had lady teachers, she said ‘Oh, no [as if that would ruin the institution]; nothing but first-class masters.’
It was clear that the women taught the needlework.
But the very faculties that suited women for needlework, Mitchell firmly believed, were also what primed them to be great scientists should they choose to pursue that. In another diary entry, she puts the issue in wonderfully poetic terms:
Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’
Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.
It comes as unsurprising testament to Mitchell’s character, then, that shortly thereafter, she makes a resolution that would guide the rest of her life and encapsulate her greatest legacy:
Resolved, in case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary; if possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions, believing, as I do, that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them, and that what is good in this life is good in any life.
This undying faith in “the intellectual culture of women” comes most vibrantly ablaze in a diary entry from 1874:
For women there are, undoubtedly, great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome. First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?
Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power — your influence is incalculable; personal influence is always underrated by the person. We are all centers of spheres — we see the portions of the sphere above us, and we see how little we affect it. We forget the part of the sphere around and before us — it extends just as far every way.
The “great gain,” she writes, would be freedom of thought:
Women, more than men, are bound by tradition and authority. What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtingly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their investigations, when doubt leads them to discovery, the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.
Mitchell bemoaned the disconnect between academic honors, which reward rote memorization, and actual learning — a challenge that remains unsolved even today.
The whole system is demoralizing and foolish. Girls study for prizes, and not for learning, when ‘honors’ are at the end. The unscholarly motive is wearing. If they studied for sound learning, the cheer which would come with every day’s gain would be health-preserving.
Though Mitchell opposed standardized testing and believed in more dimensional conceptions of intelligence long before it was fashionable to do so — “You cannot mark a human mind, because there is no intellectual unit,” she remarked — she was a fierce champion of the value of reading, particularly of the meticulous “mastication” of intellectual food:
My students used to say that my way of teaching was like that of the man who said to his son, ‘There are the letters of the English alphabet — go into that corner and learn them.’
It is not exactly my way, but I do think, as a general rule, that teachers talk too much! A book is a very good institution! To read a book, to think it over, and to write out notes is a useful exercise; a book which will not repay some hard thought is not worth publishing. The fashion of lecturing is becoming a rage; the teacher shows herself off, and she does not try enough to develop her pupils.
The greatest object in educating is to give a right habit of study….
She was also a proponent of intellectual and creative well-roundedness, the very wide interests that mark most successful scientists:
Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true,—that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.
Mitchell was an enormous champion of endowment, both financial and intellectual, and noted the brokenness of education funding more than a century before today’s student debt crisis:
A genius should wait some years to prove her genius.
Endow the already established institution with money. Endow the woman who shows genius with time.
When you aid a teacher, you improve the education of your children. It is a wonder that teachers work as well as they do. I never look at a group of them without using, mentally, the expression, ‘The noble army of martyrs’!
The chemist should have had a laboratory, and the observatory should have had an astronomer; but we are too apt to bestow money where there is no man, and to find a man where there is no money.
When she visits Russia, Mitchell remarks upon the divergent cultural attitudes towards supporting education:
St. Petersburg is about the size of Philadelphia [but] there are thousands of women studying science in St. Petersburg. How many thousand women do you suppose are studying science in the whole State of New York? I doubt if there are five hundred.
Then again, as to language. It is rare, even among the common people, to meet one who speaks one language only. If you can speak no Russian, try your poor French, your poor German, or your good English. You may be sure that the shopkeeper will answer in one or another, and even the drosky-driver picks up a little of some one of them.
Of late, the Russian government has founded a medical school for women, giving them advantages which are given to men, and the same rank when they graduate; the czar himself contributed largely to the fund.
One wonders, in a country so rich as ours, that so few men and women gratify their tastes by founding scholarships and aids for the tuition of girls — it must be such a pleasant way of spending money.
Her impression is further confirmed when she shares a train ride with a Russian mother and her daughters on a trip across the country. Mitchell’s conversation with the young girls is profoundly telling, at once tragic and hopeful:
‘Are you interested in questions of government?’ They replied, ‘All Russian women are interested in questions of that sort.’ How many American women are interested in questions concerning government?
These young girls knew exactly what questions to ask about Vassar College, — the course of study, the diploma, the number of graduates, etc. The eldest said: ‘We are at once excited when we hear of women studying; we have longed for opportunities to study all our lives. Our father was the engineer of the first Russian railroad, and he spent two years in America.’
I confess to a feeling of mortification when one of these girls asked me, ‘Did you ever read the translation of a Russian book?’ and I was obliged to answer ‘No.’ This girl had read American books in the original. They were talking Russian, French, German, and English, and yet mourning over their need of education; and in general education, especially in that of women, I think we must be in advance of them.
One of these sisters, forgetting my ignorance, said something to me in Russian. The other laughed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked. The eldest replied, ‘She asked you to take her back with you, and educate her.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘you read and speak your languages — the learning of the world is open to you — found your own college!’ And the young girl leaned back on the cushions, drew her mantle around her, and said, ‘We have not the energy of the American girl!’
The energy of the American girl! The rich inheritance which has come down to her from men and women who sought, in the New World, a better and higher life.
When the American girl carries her energy into the great questions of humanity, into the practical problems of life; when she takes home to her heart the interests of education, of government, and of religion, what may we not hope for our country!
Above all, however, Mitchell championed the idea of challenging convention and never ceasing to question:
There is this great danger in student life. Now, we rest all upon what Socrates said, or what Copernicus taught; how can we dispute authority which has come down to us, all established, for ages?
We must at least question it; we cannot accept anything as granted, beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else.
But perhaps most telling of all was her students’ heartfelt gratitude. In May of 1889, shortly after Mitchell announced her reluctant retirement from Vassar as her health was rapidly declining, one student wrote to her, speaking for all whose lives the great astronomer and educator had touched, both directly and through her landmark cultural legacy:
In all the great wonder of life, you have given me more of what I have wanted than any other creature ever gave me. I hoped I should amount to something for your sake.
Complement Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s Berkeley commencement address on science and stereotypes a century after Mitchell’s heyday, when both so much and so little has changed, then revisit Mitchell’s Reconstructionists profile.
UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.
Published August 22, 2013