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

March 12, {1855}.  What a change a fortnight has made.  I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother.  I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me “how is your mother,” I felt like saying “Better, thank God” instead of “thank you.”

Lydia Coleman Mitchell partially recovered from an illness that would last for six years and that made Maria Mitchell her mother’s nurse.  As the single daughter who lived at home, societal norms dictated this – though we all know that Maria would of course do this no matter what.  It was only her trip to the southern United States and Europe that would draw her away – with Lydia left under the attentive care of one of Maria’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who had married in 1854.  Such circumstances still exist today – as was just recently discussed on a local NPR piece.  While it’s not necessarily only the women carrying for aging parents or sick family members, it is still very much on families to take care of the seriously ill and aged – health care costs and costs associated with long-term care and nursing homes or retirement communities are out of reach for many.

As I have noted before, Maria did not believe in a god – she saw her god – her religion – in nature.  But she obviously felt there was some higher plane – some higher being – that could have had some sort of influence as her mother’s illness was not something she thought she would even partially recover from.  I realize my god is nature – the world around us – and I came to that in part because of my Father and his beliefs.


Women’s Suffrage and Lady Gaga

I have posted this during Women’s History Month in the past.  But because it is March and Women’s History Month, AND the centennial celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment and women’s right to vote this year, I think it’s more than worth repeating.  It’s clever and helps to tell an important story in women’s history while giving it a bit of a 21st century twist.  It originally came from the National Women’s History Project.



Know Where This Is?

I do not know enough about this building and its use over time.  I know how it has been used to some extent but when I saw the back it made me wonder.  There are not many places on Nantucket that have burglar bars on the windows.  I can remember when it was the Nantucket Sports Locker and Buttner’s (boy, I miss those places) but as old as I may sound sometimes, I’m not that old.  And of course, it’s the Masonic Lodge on the top floor.


But why the burglar bars?  I’m hoping someone has this information at the ready and can share it.  Was there a bank located inside or some other business in need of high security?  The bars look old – maybe hand-forged – by I cannot trespass so I cannot get close enough to take a look.  It is post- Great Fire obviously but, I’d like to know.  So let me know – or else I’ll have to go dig a bit!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1855, Feb. 12.

What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret dye-stuffs from the stars and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.  I found in the little bear {Ursa Minor} a pair of stars coming into the field at once, one bright red and one bright green.

It isn’t too often that you find Maria Mitchell commenting on fashion but I think this one make quite a bit of sense – and with that astronomer-bent to it!  But she hits on something that many of us comment on – if only we could replicate the colors that we see in nature.  And, the sparkle we see in the stars.


One Of The Oldest Professions

Someone once noted that to me.  About boatbuilding.  I had never really thought about it but yes, people needed to be able to move and to fish and as this need grew, they developed new forms of transportation.  Boats were one such thing.

My husband builds and repairs boats.  His crew is now in the midst of their third build in the last several years.  This boat, a cold-molded Haven 12 1/2, is having its first of four layers of planks put on the mold.  The next two layers will run at different 45 degree angles and then the final – exterior layer – will be horizontal.

Why am I writing about this?  Well, Maria Mitchell’s world of Nantucket relied on boat transportation.  And as such, there were small boat shops around the island, including on the corner of Vestal and Bloom Streets – just a few doors up from her home at 1 Vestal Street.  Large ship building did exist on Nantucket – but not for too long.  Wood had to be brought from off-island adding to the expense of building a boat and then you had that pesky sandbar across the entry to the harbor that caused all sorts of issues over the years.  I think I’ve written here about the camels and lighters – it really put a cramp and then finally, in part, an end to whaling on Nantucket.

There are others still building boats on the island and I’d like to call attention to this art form – it is an art.  And it is one that Maria saw on a daily basis whether it was a dory or a whaleboat or even, early on, a large whaleship at Brant Point Shipyard.


Maria Mitchell Women of Science

Save the date! 

We are hard at work on the 2020 Maria Mitchell Women of Science Symposium (MMWSS).  Our 2018 MMWSS was a resounding success with a sold out crowd – and a wait list!  For 2020, we aim to expand with room for at least 180 participants.

We have a wonderful group of women in STEM who will be us.  They include: Chiara Mingarelli of the Flatiron Institute, Tara Spann of Eversource, Jen Heemstra of Emory University, Catalina Martinez of NOAA, Simil L. Raghavan of EngineerGirl and the National Academy of Engineering, Dionne Hoskins Brown of NOAA, Serra Hoagland of the US Forestry Service, Nicole Cabrera Salazar of Movement Consulting and many more!

Topics to be included are: the state of women in STEM, inclusion, diversity, intersectionality, mentoring, and retaining and supporting women in STEM.

We will have speakers, panel discussions, and our salon-style gatherings that proved to be a fantastic and constructive vehicle for creating real-world solutions for women and girls in STEM.

Please plan to join us.  Keep your eyes on the website at www.mmwiss.org with further updates and tickets.


The Lichen Guy

I did not know him well but I did know him for a long time.  He first comes into my memory when I was a young teenager at the MMA.  He was some sort of scientist associated with Nantucket’s UMASS Field Station.  He had an English accent.  He was funny and gregarious.  He was about quite a bit because of the work he was doing with students in the summer at the Field Station and because he was friendly and worked in conjunction with people who either worked for the MMA or had close ties to the MMA for a myriad of reasons.

I got to know him a bit better – as an adult – when I hosted a stone conservation workshop probably a dozen or so years ago.  It was the first time I did it.  I had written part of a grant to the Community Preservation Act to fund a workshop with a stone and paint conservator who I had been working with at the Mitchell House.  We had a dozen people show up – including the Prospect Hill Cemetery Historian who I now continue to do this workshop with – and Doug Eveleigh came too.  He came a little late and I was sort of surprised.  I knew a bit about what he did – and I am WAY oversimplifying it here – he studied fungi, moss, and lichens and had been using the stone monuments on Nantucket for some of his work.  Stone monument is another word for gravestone.  And, given the climate here –damp, fog, pure and reflective sun, few trees – the moss and lichens that grow on the stones is very unusual.  For a scientist working in such an area, a boon likely.  For the stones and a preservationist like me, a nightmare of destruction.

So, we taught people how to properly remove the lichen and moss without harming the historic stone monument.  And Professor Eveleigh sighed and sat and then began to regale us with all the amazingly different types of lichens and moss that we were in fact killing.  I offered him some gloves, a brush, some of the cleaner but he politely refused and said he would watch.  We learned a lot from him – it was an added bonus – and while I felt good about helping the stones I started to feel guiltier about killing the lichen and moss (still do to this day) and its little ecosystem.

In the end, with maybe ten minutes to go out of a two-hour program, he actually decided to remove some lichen and moss.  I was surprised – we all were – not sure what changed his mind.  But, ever since that day, I often remark about him joining us and his struggle to remove the moss and lichen when I lead such a workshop.  But, I also note how much he shared with us.  I know it was just scratching the surface (pun intended).

Over the years, I would occasionally hear from him or see him if he was back on island.  Always jovial and always mentioning the moss and lichen.

Sadly, Professor Eveleigh passed away at the end of December.  But, I will always remember his attendance at the stone workshop – and continue to tell the story.  I encourage you to look him  up – my blog here doesn’t do his life’s work justice.  I am, after all, a historian and preservationist not a scientist – though working for a science organization, I do try!


Miss Mitchell’s Students: Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin

Image courtesy of the Coffin School Trustees

Standing under the canopy of the stars, you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.

Maria Mitchell’s influence reached far and wide and remained strong through many generations of not just her own students but the students of her students.  Her immediate galaxy was of course the women who took her astronomy and mathematics classes at Vassar College.  She instilled in her students a lifelong love of learning and the knowledge that as women, they had the power, strength, and knowledge to be the future of women scientists and educators in the world.  Some would go on to great accomplishments and some would go on to quietly influence other young learners of the world – spreading Maria’s legacy farther afield.

Over the next few blogs, I would like to share with you some of Maria Mitchell’s students.

The fifth, and final in this series, is:

Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, 1850-1930

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Nantucket Quakers and reared in a Quaker household, Elizabeth or “Lizzie” attended Quaker schools.  She entered Vassar College and enrolled in Maria’s astronomy classes, becoming close to Maria and her father.  Nantucket was not the only connection for these three – they were also distant cousins.  Lizzie was a classmate and became a good friend of Mary Whitney.  When she graduated from Vassar in 1870, she furthered her schooling in the 1870s at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague where she was among the first women to be accepted.  Several tours through Europe with family, tutelage under many fine artists of the nineteenth century, and friendships with the artist Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and others provided Coffin schooling in the arts.  Through her membership in the Art Students League of New York, the Brooklyn Art Club, and the Brooklyn Art Guild, of which she was president, Lizzie became acquainted with artists from around the world.  Her connections, her schooling, and her talent led to participation in major exhibitions throughout the country.

Lizzie made frequent trips to Nantucket, until she built a house on Lily Street in 1900.  She returned to New York often, but preferred to call Nantucket her home.  Eakins was among many artists who would visit her on Nantucket.  During the extended visits, Lizzie continued to paint but also took on many new activities, particularly in support of the island and its people.  She was active in founding the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association, as well as the Goldenrod Literary and Debating Society (a group for island girls), the brainchild of Sara Winthrop Smith.  Perhaps because of Lizzie’s friendship with Smith and her close friend Gertrude King (teacher and principal at the Coffin School), and her family ties to the school, she was instrumental in putting the Coffin School back on its feet.  The school had closed in 1898 due to lack of funds and a dwindling student population.  Coffin’s efforts to redevelop the school as a center for manual-training courses in conjunction with the public schools was what helped to revive it.  With the founding of the Coffin School Association and with the help and support of the Coffin School Trustees, Lizzie’s dream was realized and the school reopened in 1903.

Her work on behalf of the school greatly increased its endowment, and she was influential in establishing the home economics program for Nantucket girls.  Lizzie’s Vassar College schoolmate, Ellen Swallow Richards, was a champion of the home economics movement in schools and partially funded the program on Nantucket.  Ironically, although Lizzie continued to paint, she was better known to islanders as a champion of island causes than as an artist.  Today, many of her works are in the collection of the Coffin School Trustees.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

January 3, 1867.  Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in 50 years.  He said one of the most conservative members of the Faculty had said within 16 days that it would come about within 10 years.  I asked him if I could go into one of Prof. Peirce’s recitations.  He said there was nothing to keep me out and that he would let me know when they came . . . .

The following Friday, Maria was there with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and asked Peirce (I believe this is Benjamin Peirce she refers to) upon his arrival if she could attend.  He answered in the affirmative but Maria was apparently unhappy with the response saying to him, “Can not you say ‘I shall be happy to have you.’  He answered her in the way she expressed though she noted that he didn’t seem happy, possibly in part because he was in a state of “undress” – meaning likely not up to snuff for a Harvard professor presenting to his Harvard students.  Maria and Phebe took their seats, Maria apparently turned crimson (pun intended) when the male students arrived, and Peirce made several mistakes in his formulas.  She also noted that the room was “very common looking” – something that she noted would never be allowed at Vassar.