Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month (though all months should be women’s history month.) The year 2020 also celebrates the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment – women’s right to vote.

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 the Women’s March?

In honor of Women’s History Month, visit the National Women’s History Alliance, the National Women’s History Museum, the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites, and the website of the Maria Mitchell Women of Science Symposium which will happen October 1-3, 2020!



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.