Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

April, 1878.  I called on Prof. Henry at the Smithsonian Institute.  He must be in his 80th year.  He has been ill and seems feeble but is still the majestic old man, unbent in figure and undimmed in eye.  I always remember when I see him, the speech of Miss Dix, “He is the true-est man that ever lived.

In Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the officers of the Women’s Congress – the Association for the Advancement of Women meetings  ̶  Maria stopped by to visit a friend and something of a mentor, Professor Joseph Henry.  A physicist and professor, Henry was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.  His feebleness was telling – Henry would die about a month after Maria’s visit with him in May 1878.  Henry was friendly with William Mitchell as well – they all ran in the same circles so to speak – and Henry came to Maria’s support/aid several times including when she wanted to take a leave of absence from the U. S. Nautical Almanac during her European trip.  Those calculations for the Almanac were tedious and trying to complete them and travel was not going to be easy.  When she asked for a leave from the work, the Almanac refused and Henry wrote a letter to support her year or so leave.  I think the Almanac was just afraid to lose Maria completely.  She would only resign several years into her professorship at Vassar – once she was sure that she was settled into the job completely.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

October 1876

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science? 

The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe.  And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

This comes from a paper that Maria presented to the Fourth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women held in Philadelphia in October of 1876.  The paper was titled “The Need of Women in Science.”  Maria was a founding member of the AAW and its president for a term, as well as serving on the Executive Committee and founding and chairing for the remainder of her life the Science Committee.  Her point – women have to be free to work outside the domestic sphere – to be able to devote their time to scientific investigation and work.  Because the opportunity has not been there for them, they cannot illustrate their ability nor given a “fair shake.”  Their other duties consume them and keep them from experimenting and investigating and exploring.  Maria fought tirelessly for her entire adult life for women in education and particularly women in the sciences.  She fought for their rights to have educations and to find their place among men in science and even to lead among all scientists.  She led by example and fought and advocated and supported until she took her last breath.

JNLF

Women’s History Month

March is women’s history month (though all months should be women’s history month.)

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), was its president (1875), and founded its Science Committee which she chaired for the remainder of her life.

When the fourth Congress of the AAW met in Philadelphia in October 1876, Julia Ward Howe (also a friend of Maria’s) was serving with Maria on the executive committee.   Maria presented a paper, “The Need for Women in Science.”  In it she stated,

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance                      to show what she could do in science? . . .  The laws of nature are not                         discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest                  minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe.  And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

She is not saying that women cannot be scientists – she is saying they need to be given the opportunities.

Maria was incredibly busy with the AAW – it took up a great deal of her time – and at the next meeting in November of that year some aspects of the meeting were wonderful according to her account –“excellent” papers, “newspapers treated us very well.  The institutions opened their doors to us, the Centennial gave us a reception.  But – we didn’t have a good time!”  It appears there was discord among the women.  A few opposed the subject of “Woman Suffrage,” but Lucy Stone was able to present her paper on the subject despite this.  And, some women felt that the West was not well represented and was overshadowed by New England, thus women representing the western states protested the nomination and election of Julia Ward Howe as president of the AAW.  But she won.  Whew!  It was not always easy and controversies constantly abounded with many schisms over time within the women’s rights movement.

I often wonder what Maria might think of the place of women today – how far things have come from her time or would she be surprised that there still is inequality?  What would she think of January’s Women’s March?

In honor of Women’s History Month, please visit the National Women’s History Project website, where you can find a list of this year’s women honorees for “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” Maria and three other women associated with the MMA’s astronomy program – Annie Jump Canon, Margaret Harwood, and Dorrit Hoffleit – were once honored under a different theme.  Bet you can’t guess that theme!  You will also find a list of March birthdays and March highlights in U.S. women’s history.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

1875, June 20.

A meeting of the Officers of Congress was called at the house of Mrs. Hanaford, 5 Summit Ave, Jersey City. The weather was intensely cold . . . It was a question who should preside. Mrs. Hanaford thought the Chairman of the Executive Committee should and I had been told that I should, etc. The question was settled by non-arrival of Chairman of Ex. Com . . . . I made many blunders, as I have never presided before, but I continued for 4 hours. We did a few good things . . . . The most serious question in my mind was the looseness in regard to membership . . . . I spoke for a tight rule in this respect, and begged for high-toned character in our papers, and for a very very high toned morality in our membership. I was amused to find myself talked of as so “decidedly conservative . . . .”

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women and president for a term. Its congresses were held yearly in various places, typically in the Northeast. The Mrs. Hanaford she refers to is the Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford, a Quaker daughter of Nantucket, who would become the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister in New England.

I, too, find it amusing that Maria was talked of as conservative but I can also see that as the women’s movement grew that there were more women involved whom Maria would feel were not as “high-toned” or were not as “moral” as others. Schisms occurred within the women’s rights movement and while Maria’s first and foremost push for women was women in education, she did believe and fight for women’s rights. But did you know that she turned down a speaking engagement offered to her by Susan B. Anthony? I would say that well illustrates where Maria’s thoughts and allegiance were at.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Dec 16, 1870

Alfred Stone,

I have a lecture on the Seven Stars of the Great Bear, which I shall be pleased to give before your “Union.” I shall probably be in Boston from Dec 22 to Jan 3d and can come down to Providence in that time, or (what I should prefer) stop at Providence on my way to Po’keepsie, and Lecture Wednesday evening Jan 4.  I have never spoken to an audience of more than 400, and am therefore glad that your hall is a small one.

My charge to a Lyceum is $50. I charge $20 to a school, and should be glad to make some engagements in schools in and around Providence.

Maria Mitchell

My address after Dec. 21 is 81 Inman St., Cambridgeport, Mass.

Alfred Stone, a prominent architect of Providence, Rhode Island invited Maria to speak. Stone was well-known and a founding partner of his architecture firm. He designed the Providence Public Library, buildings at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as numerous private homes, in addition to quite a few other private and public buildings. Her Cambridgeport address for the school holidays was that of one of her younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport with her husband Joshua and son, William Mitchell Kendall – a young man who would become an architect with McKim, Mead, and White (see an earlier post for more on WMK). Phebe Mitchell Kendall, like Maria, was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, serving as the head of the Dress Reform Committee at one point; was the first woman to serve on Cambridge’s School Board; and was an artist of quite some talent, once opening an art school on Nantucket.

JNLF

Women’s History Month

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

March is women’s history month (though all months should be women’s history month.) At the end of March, I will be hosting a Nantucket women’s history walk so please check our calendar if you are interested in registering.

Maria Mitchell was one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW), was its president (1875), and founded its Science Committee which she chaired for the remainder of her life.

When the fourth Congress of the AAW met in Philadelphia in October 1876, Julia Ward Howe (also a friend of Maria’s) was serving with Maria on the executive committee. Maria presented a paper, “The Need for Women in Science.” In it she stated,

Does anyone suppose that any woman in all the ages has had a fair chance to show what she could do in science? . . . The laws of nature are not discovered by accidents; theories do not come by chance, even to the greatest minds; they are not born of the hurry and worry of daily toil; they are diligently sought, they are patiently waited for, they are received with cautious reserve, they are accepted with reverence and awe. And until able women have given their lives to investigation, it is idle to discuss the question of their capacity for original work.

She is not saying that women cannot be scientists – she is saying they need to be given the opportunities.

Maria was incredibly busy with the AAW – it took up a great deal of her time – and at the next meeting in November of that year some aspects of the meeting were wonderful according to her account –“excellent” papers, “newspapers treated us very well. The institutions opened their doors to us, the Centennial gave us a reception. But – we didn’t have a good time!” It appears there was discord among the women. A few opposed the subject of “Woman Suffrage,” but Lucy Stone was able to present her paper on the subject despite this. And, some women felt that the West was not well represented and was overshadowed by New England thus women representing the western states protested the nomination and election of Julia Ward Howe as president of the AAW. But she won. Whew! It was not always easy and controversies constantly abounded with many schisms over time within the women’s rights movement.

I often wonder what Maria might think of the place of women today – how far things have come from her time or would she be surprised that there still can be inequality?

In honor of Women’s History Month, please visit the National Women’s History Project website (http://www.nwhp.org), where you can find a list of this year’s women honorees and nominees for “Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination” – which includes Maria and three other women associated with the MMA’s astronomy program – Annie Jump Canon, Margaret Harwood, and Dorrit Hoffleit – Harwood and Hoffleit being MMA astronomers and directors of the observatory. You will also find a list of March birthdays and March highlights in U.S. women’s history.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words

Maria MitchellNov. 11, 1887

Today when I feel well it seems to me that I may, when I retire, lecture some. Every year I decline one or two invitations to lecture. The Herschels make one very long Lecture; the St. Petersburg another; Saturn a grave one, Jupiter a grave one. The visit to Cambridge, England. Just now, my electric light does not work which troubles me much.

Anne, Phebe, and I all went to the A.A.W. [Maria Mitchell was a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women, its president and vice president for several terms, as well as the founder and chair of the Science Committee] meeting in New York. I heard two good papers, one by Anna Garlen Spenser and one by Mary Wright Sewell.

Approximately two months after this journal entry, Maria resigned from her post at Vassar College due to ill health. Not long after, she left the campus and moved back to Lynn, MA. She never returned to Vassar – a place she considered her home – where she had lived and worked since 1865. She died on June 29, 1889.