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Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as a Double-Edged Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as a Double-Edged Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

In preparing for my conversation with the wonderful artist and philosopher of forms Ann Hamilton, I came upon a striking passage from one of her exhibition catalogs. In contemplating sewing as an act of listening — already a revelatory proposition — Hamilton writes:

The interval between stitches seaming two surfaces together is thinking at the pace of the body. Busy hands make a space that allows attention to wander. Productive wandering is how projects are made.

This beautiful passage reminded me not only of Rebecca Solnit’s parallel point about walking and the pace of the mind, but of the long history of such thinking-by-hand in the intellectual life of women. There was pioneering 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, who spent her mornings in needlework as she revolutionized women’s role in science by night. There was physicist Lise Meitner, who opened up academia for women in the 19th century and who conducted her first empirical crusade against superstition as a little girl, with needle in hand.

But the most exquisite case for the needle as an instrument of the mind comes from the diaries of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — the first professional woman astronomer in America, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus,” a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world, and the tireless educator who paved the way for American women in science.

To be sure, Mitchell didn’t always reverence the needle — quite the opposite, she spent most of her life resenting it as emblematic of women’s enslavement by domesticity. In a diary entry from her thirty-fourth year, included in Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters (public library), Mitchell writes:

It seems to me that the needle is the chain of woman, and has fettered her more than the laws of the country.

Once emancipate her from the “stitch, stitch, stitch,” the industry of which would be commendable if it served any purpose except the gratification of her vanity, and she would have time for studies which would engross as the needle never can. I would as soon put a girl alone into a closet to meditate as give her only the society of her needle.

Sewing, Mitchell notes, should be merely a practical life-skill for both men and women to apply on the rare occasions when a garment needs repair, not an occupation in and of itself reserved for women only. She illustrates her point with a simple, brilliant parallel:

Suppose every man should feel it is his duty to do his own mechanical work of all kinds, would society be benefited? Would the work be well done? Yet a woman is expected to know how to do all kinds of sewing, all kinds of cooking, all kinds of any woman’s work, and the consequence is that life is passed in learning these only, while the universe of truth beyond remains unentered.

But by her sixtieth year, having already opened up “the universe in truth beyond” to the first generation of women formally trained in the study of science, Mitchell has come to see the needle as an instrument like any other — that is, a double-edged tool capable of both good and evil, depending on the intentionality of its use. In an entry from 1878, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), she writes:

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.

A girl’s eye is trained from early childhood to be keen. The first stitches of the sewing-work of a little child are about as good as those of the mature man. The taking of small stitches, involving minute and equable measurements of space, is a part of every girl’s training; she becomes skilled, before she is aware of it, in one of the nicest peculiarities of astronomical observation… The touch is a delicate sense given in exquisite degree to a girl, and her training comes in to its aid. She threads a needle almost as soon as she speaks… Then comes in the girl’s habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

Complement with the heartening story of how Mitchell herself applied this herculean patience and delicate skill in repairing a spider’s web, then revisit artist Judy Chicago’s iconic embroidered celebration of women’s place in creative culture.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

Published December 2, 2016




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