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

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