Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Nov. 23 {1870}

My dear Lizzie {Williams, Vassar Class of 1869},

 . . . And you are so all over a radical, that it won’t hurt you to be toned down a little.  And in a few years (as the world moves) your family will have moved one way and you the other, a little and you will suddenly find yourselves in the same plane.

It is much the way it has been between Miss Lyman {Vassar’s Lady Principal} and myself.  Today she is more of a Women’s Rights woman than I was when I came here, while I begin to think that the girls dress better at tea time . . .

I have learned to think that a young girl better not walk to town alone even in the day time.  When I came here I should have allowed a child to do it.  But I never knew much of the world, never shall, nor will you . . .  we are both a little deficient in worldly caution and worldly policy . . . .

Lizzie is Elizabeth Williams Champney, a Vassar College student of Maria Mitchell’s who would become a close friend.  Her artist husband would paint a portrait of Maria later in her life – the couple had named a daughter after Maria Mitchell – and at least one of Lizzie’s books was dedicated to Maria Mitchell.  While a student at Vassar, Lizzie wrote a mock-biblical account of the life of Vassar’s founder, Matthew Vassar, that was claimed to be “shocking” and banned from the campus by Principal Lyman.

Lizzie was raised in Ohio by abolitionist parents – more than likely Quaker – thus she and Maria  shared a somewhat similar upbringing and also one of some sheltering.  This is noted throughout Maria’s letter to Lizzie – the trusting nature of non-worldly people as Quakers were – their trust for one another and “worldly” people (non-Quakers).  But also the equality factor – that a young woman should have no qualms of walking freely as Maria and other women did on Nantucket; as Lizzie did in her Quaker community at home.

Quakers were not just the leaders of slaves’ rights, they were also the leaders among women’s rights having been raised in families, religious meetings, and communities where women were treated as equals.  But being more radical in one’s views and actions would still bring some consternation among Quakers as no doubt Lizzie’s family was.  And Maria, as she noted to Lizzie, was not so radical nor such a woman’s rights woman.  Her upbringing had taught her that everyone was equal so it was a shock for Maria when confronted with a different way of treating women as she found off her Nantucket home.  This letter to Lizzie seems to serve as a gentle reminder or a gentle guidance to keep that in mind.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria MitchellApril 6, 1882. Last night I went to Champney’s to a Reception . . . . My little namesake is lovely . . . .The weather is dismal in the extreme. Lydia Dame arrived this morning. Miss Herschel called yesterday. She is very pleasing. She will probably go back to Vassar when I go . . .

Maria Mitchell’s journals are a mixture of small daily events, her deepest thought, and discussions of science, math, and astronomy. They also show the breadth of her world – meaning the people she came into contact with and the friendships she maintained for life. This little piece is interesting because within the span of twenty-four hours so many portions of her life came together. To start with, Maria Mitchell was close to the Champney family. Lizzie Champney had been a student of Maria Mitchell’s. A prolific author, especially of adventure storied for children, Lizzie and her husband J. Wells “Champ” Champney, an artist, named their daughter after Maria. Lizzie also dedicated a book on constellations to Maria, a book which Champ illustrated. I blogged about this some time long ago. We have a portrait of maria which was painted by Champ and was given to the MMA in 1905 by Maria Mitchell Wells Champney Humphrey, Maria Mitchell’s namesake.

Rose Herschel, daughter of Sir John Herschel, was just a small child when Maria Mitchell spent time with her famous astronomical family at the family home Collingwood during her trip to Europe in the 1850s. Maria Mitchell maintained a lifelong connection to the Herschels – who you may recognize, as John Herschel’s father was the famous William Herschel and his aunt was the astronomer Caroline Herschel. When visiting them in England, Maria was the recipient of a page from Caroline’s notebook from her nephew John Herschel. I have blogged about this before. The page is in the Archives here at MMA.

And Lydia Dame is one of Maria Mitchell’s nieces. She is the daughter of Katherine Mitchell Dame, the youngest child (the tenth) of William and Lydia Mitchell. Kate, as she was referred to, married Owen Dame, a school principal and they lived in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Dame family is one of several reasons why Maria and her father moved to Lynn in 1861 after her mother passed away. Lynn also had a large Quaker population and was close to another sister of Maria’s, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport. Additionally, Lynn was close to the Harvard Observatory – Maria and William were close friends of the Bonds who ran its observatory and William served on the observatory’s Board of Overseers for many years. The Mitchells and Bonds collaborated and shared research. Maria would pass away in Lynn in 1889.