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

Lyon Pride

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Ivory miniature of Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College.

Mary Lyon was the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  Frankly, she wanted it to be a college but given the times, she had a hard time convincing people (read: funders) of that.  Thus, the word “seminary” was chosen and the school opened in 1837 becoming the first women’s college in the country.  In 1861, the three-year course of study became four and then in 1888, the college was given its collegiate status.  The development of women’s colleges is a fascinating subject – cloistered as they were away from the hustle and bustle – and influences! – of towns and menfolk (of course!).  They were modeled in their design and basic daily running after insane asylums of the early nineteenth century – I kid you not.  I could go on but that is not the focus of this blog’s subject matter today.

There is a little arguing over just which college was first for women but it has been agreed that Wellesley and Vassar Colleges both modeled themselves after MHC as it is referred to by us alums – yes, I graduated from MHC.  There have been quite a few MHCers who have crossed the threshold at MMA I am happy to say – via internships in all the departments, fellowships that helped to begin the Astronomy Department back in the early twentieth century, and staff positions.

Mary Lyon smiled a bit more back in August when new Director of Natural Science, Emily Goldstein Murphy, joined the MMA.  Emily graduated several moons (pun intended) after I did from MHC but nevertheless that sisterhood spans generations and I am happy to have her join   us – as I am sure Maria Mitchell and Mary Lyon would be.

Welcome, Emily!  Roar!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Observatory
Oct 22, 1869
Chs. B. Trego, Esq.
I have your circular of Oct 15, informing me of my election as a member of the American Phil. Society of Philadelphia. You will please accept my thanks for the honor conferred upon me. Will you have the goodness too inform me if a complete set of the publications of the society can be obtained?
Maria Mitchell

 
Maria Mitchell was one of the first women to be inducted into the American Philosophical Society. At the time she was inducted, Mary Somerville (one of Maria’s heroes) and Elizabeth C. Agassiz were inducted. Before that time, only one other woman had become a member – Ekaterina Dashkov in 1789. While she had asked her father, William, to write her letter accepting her membership as the first woman at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Maria wrote her own letter as seen above. By this time, she was at Vassar College and as an older woman and Vassar’s professor of Astronomy, more independent, comfortable, and accepted as a woman acting alone. Times had also changed – it was twenty years since the AAAS induction and while a very few things had changed for women – at least writing a letter for herself and not asking a man in her family to do so!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

. . . I am having a very good summer; doing nothing . . . . Whittier is lovely! He is seventy-six years old, and his friends say he fails neither outwardly nor inwardly. When I came away, he came out to the wagon and said “When thee sees the 400 Vassar girls, give them all the love of an old bachelor.” What a pity the 400 girls cannot see him!
I try not to look far ahead. The changes at Vassar are very trying . . .

The above is from a letter that Maria Mitchell wrote to Mrs. Raymond – the wife of the former president of Vassar College. President Raymond died fairly suddenly in 1878 much to the shock and sadness of many. While he was officially the second president of Vassar College, the first president had not made it to opening day. Maria Mitchell kept up her relationship with the family and it is evident from this letter that the Raymonds were familiar with the Mitchell family as Maria refers to the first names of her nieces throughout the letter. Her familiarity with John Greenleaf Whittier I have noted before in this blog; many of the Mitchells were friendly with Whittier.

JNLF

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Colorado-Eclipse

From this year’s Mitchell House Intern, Nikki Lohr, Vassar College Class of 2017.

In the Mitchell House sitting room stands William Mitchell’s writing desk, seven feet tall. When Maria was a child, she probably would have opened its cabinet doors to find shelves stacked with books and astronomy papers. Today, Mitchell House visitors will find the desk transformed into a cabinet of curiosities. In it, we installed a temporary exhibition about Maria’s travels. You’ll see photos of objects usually only found in the MMA archives, including pictures of Maria on her travels and a letter written from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Maria while she and the Hawthorne family traveled together in Rome.

Though Maria is remembered as a trailblazer of the heavens, she was just as pioneering on Earth. She traveled all over America and Europe in an age when a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis could take twenty-three hours and stage coaches plowed forth at a whopping six miles per hour.

Maria sailed to Europe twice, in 1857 and 1873. There, she visited over twenty-five cities in eight countries. She even ventured as far as Russia. In 1857, she took a four-month long grand tour of America. She journeyed out to the barren prairie lands of the Midwest and then south. After seeing New Orleans, she commented, “I think the Union cannot last.”

Perhaps most extraordinary, Maria sometimes traveled unaccompanied or only with women. At first, this made her wary. In May 1857, she visited Mammoth Cave, a massive natural monument in Kentucky. She wrote in her diary, “I was a little doubtful about the propriety of going into Mammoth Cave without a gentleman as protector, but if two ladies travel alone they must have the courage of men.”

By the time she reached Rome in 1858, she was happy to go it alone. She visited the Coliseum, the Vatican, and the Roman Forum – sites that must have resonated with her since she taught herself Latin at the Nantucket Atheneum. On January 24, 1858, she wrote to her sister Phebe: “I could scarcely believe that I really stood among the ruins, and was not dreaming! I really think I had more enjoyment for going alone and finding out for myself.”

So come by Mitchell House today, and learn more about Maria’s travels!

(And see the superb small exhibit created by Nikki with help from our student volunteer, Avery Hylton! 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

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1881, Feb. 26.
Miss Whitney reads Frances Power Cobbe’s “Lectures to Women” aloud to me. In the main they are excellent. I agree almost at every point. What she says about the duty of women in veracity, in cultivating both physical and moral courage, etc., in demanding not “favor but justice” . . .
The advice to women to be cheerful and to try to promote cheer around them is excellent. I wish I had thought about that earlier in my life and practiced upon it.

Maria Mitchell had been quite ill for several months prior to this entry, made worse probably by the medicine she was given for her treatment – something she noted. For some time afterwards she had a ringing in her ears. Mary Whitney, her former student and then assistant, would take Maria Mitchell’s place at Vassar and would also serve as the first president of the MMA.

I find the comment about cheer interesting as well. I look at it in light of the fight for women in education – Maria’s main focus – and also women’s rights. How fighting for justice – “demanding” it – and doing it in a cheerful and not angry way might win more. I think of the old adage that one gets more flies with vinegar than honey.

(Note: later in life Maria began to drop the Quaker way of referring to the date, unless she was writing a Quaker elder or Quaker closely familiar to her.)
JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

Jan. 1880. I read a paper in Boston, Dec. 27, to the University Association. The points I attempted to show were: that we attempt too many studies for thoroughness; that the whole system of prizes and marks is immoral; that the great need of colleges is money and that it is the cause of these; that we have not money because our people do not believe in the education of women.

 
The question of prizes noted here by Maria Mitchell concern more about colleges providing prizes to others, perhaps even scholarships for which she was called out. Maria was NOT against monetary prizes, meaning scholarships for students. She created a scholarship in her father’s memory and when presented by Vassar College with a pension, she refused it, feeling that such money should go to the students and not her so that those who did not have enough money to attend Vassar would be able to do so. But here, prizes might also reflect our society’s desire to award everyone a prize as you see among younger students whether it be a sports game, a talent contest, or what-have-you. We give prizes for anything and everything. Frankly, we need to stop that. We need to teach young children that not everyone wins and that you learn something from losing. As an article a friend gave to me recently stated, by awarding everyone a prize – even those who come in last – we are not teaching our children to develop grit. Without grit, they give up and without grit, they become adults who give up easily but also assume everything should be given to them and everything deserves an award. Climbing the ladder and working hard to get there, not necessary. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how you or I got where we did, our parents, or our grandparents. Heck, if not for grit, my family may have remained in Ireland or Italy or Germany. It’s too hard to scrape up the funds to go to America. It’s too hard to learn the English language. It’s too hard to start life anew and move to an unknown place. If Maria felt that way, where would women be? Where would women’s education be? Now that is true grit.

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

Dec. 9, 1865 I have a class of pupils, seventeen in number, the youngest 16 the eldest 22. They come to me for 50m. every day.  I am no teacher, but I give them a lesson to learn and the next day the recitation is half a conversational lecture and half questions and answers.  I allow them great freedom of questions and they puzzle me daily.  They show more mathematical ability than I had expected and more originality of thought.  I doubt if young men of that age would take as much interest in science.

This was Maria Mitchell’s first semester of teaching.  Vassar Female College had opened its doors in September 1856.  As I have noted before, Maria was skeptical of her ability to teach these young women – the future of female scientists in the U.S.  It was her father’s encouragement that made her realize she could do.  She had also once said that as a general rule “teachers talk too much.”  Thus, her classes were not lectures but as she notes here, conversations and questions and answers.  I realize now that when I taught for a few years here on island, in addition to my MMA duties, I taught very much in the same way.  And I always told them no question was silly – just don’t ask me why the sky is blue when we are talking about the American Revolution!  Yes, there were things I had to cover for my young students, but in my social studies classes we talked a lot as a group with me providing family anecdotes in order for my students to better understand the time we were speaking about.  Of course, Maria often came up too.  But when speaking of the Great Depression, for example, they learned about my Nana and her “new” bike – made by her very mechanically talented brother who collected old and used bike parts from junkyards to make her a “new” bike – she was the only child in her neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. to have a “new” bike – and probably throughout much of the Elm City!  And, I know Maria taught that way as well.
JNLF