Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Aug. 9, 1888.  My birthday letters were from E.O. Abbott, Lucy Stone, Miss Storer, Elisa Worley, Miss Helen Storke, Dr Avery, Robert Taylor, a card from Phebe’s friend, a gentleman 77 years old. 

I think I am weaned from Vassar and have entered on a little studying. 

Maria Mitchell celebrated her 7oth birthday on August 1, 1888.  Her birthday letters show her wide range of acquaintances and friends – even later in life.  Taylor was then the president of Vassar College, Dr. Alida Avery had been a fellow professor at Vassar – of Hygiene, Physiology, and the resident physician at Vassar – several of the others were her former students and Phebe of course, one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters.  Lucy Stone was yes, THE Lucy Stone – as in suffragist, orator, antislavery activist and first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree (1847 – the same year Maria discovered her comet).  The note from Stone reads:

. . . Your birthday and mine are here.  Let us congratulate each other and rejoice that we have had long and useful lives.

Stone was just twelve days younger than Maria Mitchell and their paths crossed quite a bit on their work and their pursuits for equality for women through organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Women and the National Women’s Rights Conventions.

The comment about being “weaned” from Vassar refers to the fact that Maria had left some months before because of failing health.  At the encouragement of her brothers and sisters, she had taken time off but realized her health would not allow her to return.  I think her comment is not unusual for professors for whom the college or university becomes their complete way of life as it had for Maria both living and working on the campus.  It was an adjustment and a life change.  Maria would pass away less than a year later on June 28, 1889.

JNLF 

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1880, Feb. 16.  I sent a note to Mr. Swan this morning to ask about the power that I may have to vote for school officers and the ask where I must register, what tax I must pay, etc.  I also suggested to Dr. Webster to write to another of our Trustees.  They may rule us out as citizens but we have lived for years within the precincts of some town. . .  It is possible that we must hold real estate in the town, but I know that my Father voted although he did not even pay a poll tax.

Here, Maria is likely referring to a Vassar College trustee and also an attorney, who served as the attorney and legal adviser to Matthew Vassar.  But what is of most interest is that Maria is trying to figure out how she might vote – not for Vassar College officers, but Poughkeepsie school board members.  (Dr. Webster was then Vassar’s resident physician, having replaced Dr. Alida Avery.)  This journal entry followed upon the heels of Maria’s younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, being voted in as the first woman to serve on the Cambridge Massachusetts School Board along with another woman, Sarah P. Jacobs, in December 1879.  It was the first time that women were allowed to vote for a political office in Cambridge and the two were the first women to hold any office in Cambridge.  In fact, women were allowed to vote for school board members throughout Massachusetts – think about how that came about.  Maria seized on this accomplishment of her sister’s and the fact that women could vote for school boards in Massachusetts, hoping to make some changes in New York – or at least Poughkeepsie.  She also likely felt that this would help to support not just education but girls and women in education and further, women’s higher education i.e. college.

JNLF   

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

May 16, 1870
President Raymond,
We desire to call your attention to the fact, that, after nearly five years of what we believe to be faithful working for the good of the College, our pay is still far below that which has been offered at entrance, to the other professors, even when they have been wholly inexperienced. We respectfully ask that our salaries may be made equal to those of other professors.
Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy
Alida C. Avery Professor of Physiology and Hygiene

As I have noted in several posts before, Maria Mitchell was grossly underpaid for her work, as was Alida Avery though she would later be paid a bit more. The Trustees of Vassar College used Maria Mitchell’s housing situation to claim her smaller pay – she lived in the Observatory with her father (thus having “two homes”) while everyone else lived in Main Building. They claimed she had a private residence – with all her students studying and observing on top of her she had no privacy in her “own” home – and her building also used a lot of coal! This was a constant battle for Maria. When they did increase the salaries of Alida Avery and Maria, the Trustees raised the room and board fee on the two women! Equal pay for equal work was frankly never settled for these women. Today, it still isn’t as we have been seeing it screaming in headlines as women athletes are stepping up – such as women soccer players. Ever noticed how professional women basketball players need to have jobs outside of basketball? The men don’t! In 1878, under a new president, Maria presented a summary of the salary disputes to a Vassar trustee and in this summary it was revealed that both Maria and Alida Avery were so upset by the discrepancy they thought about resigning from the College. Vassar would have been a very different place without these two women.

JNLF