The Night Sky

Where I live has little or no light pollution and because of this, the sky is alive at night with the pulsing and beating hearts of the billions of stars that glow above us. This beauty, this “alive-ness” of the stars quiets my busy brain and I am surrounded by the magic of the night sky which I have little if any understanding of. I have no urge to climb aboard my own private spaceship to soar among them, to unravel the riddles of their existence. But that isn’t true for everyone.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s love for the stars led her in 1908 to develop the tools to map the stars and determine their distance from one another. Leavitt received little credit for her work while Harlow Shapley, head of the Harvard College Observatory, used her work to chart the distances in the Milky Way. Leavitt’s curiosity and passion for astronomy was exceptional and her accomplishments even more worthy when we consider that women of her era had yet to convince men that women should have the right to vote. That right wasn’t bestowed to women in the United States until 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, and … it got me thinking.

Many women have guided us to our understanding of the universe. These women were equipped with the burning drive to understand the science of the world around and above them, yet faced enormous hurdles to engage in the field of study of their choice. Of course, this wasn’t limited to the field of science. These extraordinary women didn’t let the many obstacles in their way deter their goals.

Cecelia Payne Gaposchkin was the first woman to receive a PhD in Astronomy at Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Harvard. Her thesis of hydrogen being the main component of most stars was groundbreaking but disagreed with by male scientists of the time. Her work was eventually validated. She was unable to work as a Harvard professor due to being a woman until 1956. Maria Mitchell is considered the first professional female astronomer in the United States, discovering a comet in 1847. She became an astronomy professor at Vassar College in 1865 and founded the Association for the Advancement of Women. Annie Jump Cannon classified more than 350,000 stars during her career, finally receiving staff status at Harvard in 1938.

This is but a small sampling of women who gazed above them at night and decided to dedicate their life to understanding the stars. History provides us with a long list of those women who lit the path so others might follow more easily to find a society that is striving for balance. The struggle continues and we sometimes forget the dedication of those who came before. It isn’t enough to say things are better, though it is encouraging. Men have dominated the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) but women have pushed back to take a seat at the table. A 1996 study in the US revealed that by middle school, most girls had been convinced that men were superior to them in the STEM fields. I recall in my first year at University of Manitoba, my Calculus professor who seldom turned to face the class, preferring to speak to the blackboard, reminded us that very few women were any good at math, a statement that riled me then and riles me now; a statement with no academic data to support the notion.

I am grateful for those women who paid no heed to the stereotyping of women being unsuited for many fields. They pushed on with determination, an example to us all that a level playing field can be achieved. We must never lose sight of that goal. wendistewart@live.ca