Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 24, 1881.  . . . Mr. I. {van Ingen} thinks that not a person on the Board of Trustees would approve of the clause in Mr. Vassar’s will which objected to women as occupants of chairs.

Just months before, Maria Mitchell had written a letter describing the controversy surrounding the bequest of Matthew Vassar to the college he founded.  The large sum was separated out within his will, including the establishment of department chairs.  The bequest however for this action did not allow for women professors to have a chair.  Quite shocking for a women’s college but then, there were early trustees in the College’s founding who believed that women professors should not exist at Vassar!  Maria would be the first professor Vassar hired – male OR female.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

May 6, 1878 Between the clouds, Miss Spalding obtained 7 photographs of Mercury on the Sun.  It is a comfort to me to be able to plan and do a new kind of work.  The large telescope worked better than usual, Clark having just been to the Observatory.

Maria Mitchell and her students photographed the Sun on every clear day and as such were able to photograph the transit of Mercury and the rarer transit of Venus – the planet for which Maria had calculated the ephemeris for the US Nautical Almanac for many years.  She was the first woman computer for the Nautical Almanac and likely, the federal government.  In its archive collection, the MMA has several images that Maria and her students completed of transits of the sun, including the one of Venus which was taken by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, an artist of some renown and also a child of two Nantucket Quakers.

Apparently, Alvan Clark had recently visited Maria and the Vassar College Observatory and made some adjustments to the telescope.  He was the premier telescope maker in America – and the man who made Maria’s five-inch – monies for it were a gift from the Women of America – a subscription overseen by Elizabeth Peabody.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Sept. 30.  {1881} Our new Doctor says she has known Professors who are appointed by the Corporation of a Medical College to Lecture to the women, who have complied with the requirements but who have lectured with their backs turned to the women!

I will assume these are male doctors noted above though until quite late, only men lectured to men and women to women though we all need to remember that there were not a large amount of women doctors at this late date in the nineteenth century!  In fact, the first American-born medical doctor, Lydia Folger Fowler, was born on Nantucket and raised, like Maria, in a Quaker family.  She would become a doctor of what is today gynecology and lectured at the medical colleges she taught at but was only allowed to teach physiology to women – the classes were kept separate for “obvious” reasons!  (Read: nineteenth century reasons.)

JNLF

Cider Doughnuts

This is a strange roundabout way for me to thank the Mitchell House intern for all her hard work at the Mitchell House and the MMA for the summer of 2018.  Kelly Bernatzky just entered her senior year at Vassar College this month.  She came to the MMA via the MMA-Vassar College Fellowship that is funded by a Vassar alum and Nantucket resident for many years to help continue to foster the connection between our two organizations – one that we have had since the founding of the MMA in 1902.  Kelly is from western Massachusetts.

During her Mitchell House orientation, as we made our way to several other island historic sites for her to get a better idea in a very short time about what Nantucket and its history entails, we chatted as we walked.  Both about work and Nantucket, but also in a get to know you sort of way.  At some pointed, I professed my undying love for Atkins Cider Donuts.  I graduated from Mt. Holyoke College and any fall meeting or dorm activity or gathering also featured cider donuts and cider.  In fact, parents could order Atkins Exam packages for us during exams – but it was always minus the donuts as they used to only make them in the fall.  Now they make them all the time.  Shipping is a bit cost prohibitive on the donuts but oh are they delicious and to me, none compare.

Well, Kelly’s mother and uncle came for a visit and on a Monday morning in June, and I was presented with two bags of cider donuts.  I was so excited that it was a bit embarrassing.  I am happy to report that I was able to thank the donut carrier in person – and on this blog want to make another thank you!  Yum!

I have already eaten all the donuts, sorry – though I did share with Kelly.  In fact, they sat by my desk all day and I had SERIOUS will power in the fact that I ate only one!  The smell drove me do-nuts!

Thank you, Kelly – not just for the doughnuts – but a fantastic summer!

JNLF

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

1881. Sunday, June 12. The eclipse at one o’clock this morning was beautiful.  It had rained for a week and cleared off last evening . . . . I got out a little before 1 a.m. and went to bed at 2 {a.m.}.  Roses are plenty.

This was not a solar eclipse as Maria would observe in 1831 (Nantucket at age 12 ½), Burlington, Iowa (1869), or Denver, Colorado (1878), but a lunar eclipse (note the time of day) viewed from the observatory at Vassar.  School was still in session – yes, colleges did not get out in May – and her well-received and highly-anticipated Dome Party for the year would follow just six days later.  This seems to have been a solitary observation – though two of her nieces via her youngest sister, Kate, may have at least been present in the Observatory as they had come a few days before to stay.

What I love even more is her note about the roses being in bloom.  A naturalist as well, Maria’s journals are always at least peppered – if not written to great depth – with notations about things in nature.  And June, is the time for roses!

JNLF

And please do not forget to join us this Wednesday, June 27 from 7-8 PM for a lecture and book signing at the Nantucket Atheneum with David Baron author of American Eclipse – a book in which Maria Mitchell is one of the featured astronomers.  Baron drew on Mitchell’s papers housed here on island at the MMA to research and write his book. 

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

May 20, 1882.  Vassar is getting pretty.  I gathered lilies of the valley this morning.  The young robins are out in a tree close by us, and the phoebe built, as usual, under the front steps.  I am rushing dome poetry, but so far show no alarming symptoms of brilliancy.

The steps she refers to here, are a wonderful and rather grand wrought iron sweep of a staircase that comes down from the center front of the Observatory.  Having stood on them, walked down them, and photographed them rather in-depth (I am something of a photographer of architectural elements – ask my husband – if I have a camera on a walk, it takes FOREVER for me to get down a street), I can tell you that they make a wonderful home for a bird!  Just in those few simple words (from a woman who was a natural scientist as well), you get a sense of warmth.  The smell of flowers – including the freshly picked lily of the valley which has such a fragrance as to perfume the air outside all around them – the peace and quiet with the gentle rusting of the birds in the trees and their songs, and the gentleness of late spring.

Her dome poetry is, of course, for her renowned Dome Parties she held for her students at the end of every school year in which they had celestial refreshments under the dome and Maria would write poems about each of them – and they would of her and one another.  I can feel the gathering.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Feb.5, 1882.  We have had two heavy snow storms since Feb. came in.  We have twice been unable to get out of the Observatory without help.  The first time 6 men, two horses and a girl came to our rescue; today four men and two horses and the girl came.

I don’t think this needs much explanation – and I am sure many of us understand and can sympathize.  But, think of it from a nineteenth century perspective and be thankful you have more modern means of digging out – though horses and men are much more environmentally friendly – though I am not sure how the horses felt about such a task!

JNLF

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.

JNLF