These Women Stargazers Helped Us Understand the Universe

Elsa van Dien and family

Elsa van Dien with her husband and sons in Indonesia

May 27, 2014

Over the years, AAUW has supported many women studying astronomy. So many, in fact, that we thought that among science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM), astronomy must have been particularly receptive to women.

We were wrong.

As it turns out, the percentage of women earning doctorates in astronomy and physics between 1920 and 1989 was lower than the percentage of women earning doctorates in the physical sciences and mathematics. And among the women who were studying astronomy, many were forced into more subordinate positions instead of leading research.

It is remarkable, then, that in spite of the relatively small number of women astronomers in the 20th century, several AAUW alumnae significantly contributed to our knowledge of the universe. Particularly at historically women’s colleges, as well as universities with women’s coordinate colleges (such as Harvard University’s Radcliffe College), AAUW alumnae found opportunities to pursue groundbreaking astronomical work.

At Vassar College, Maria Mitchell was the first director of an observatory that served as a training ground for women astronomers. Mary Watson Whitney and Caroline Furness, the next two directors of the observatory, were early members of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (a predecessor to AAUW).

Whitney and Furness were extraordinary. The Vassar Encyclopedia’s entry on Whitney highlights her role in educating generations of women astronomers and notes that observatories across the country hired Vassar graduates from Whitney’s classes. The duo was especially influential on the topic of variable stars, whose brightness changes. Furness, who was an Association of Collegiate Alumnae fellow, literally wrote the book on the subject, while Whitney’s class on variable stars was pioneering.

Just as Mitchell blazed a trail for Whitney and Furness, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt paved the way at the Harvard Observatory for more AAUW astronomers. Miriam Walther Jaffe, Elsa van Dien, and Simone Daro all received AAUW fellowships to study at the observatory in 1946.

Van Dien’s story is particularly compelling. A Dutch astronomer who was also Jewish, she lived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. After World War II, she completed her doctoral thesis on the Stark effect in stellar spectra at Radcliffe, building on the work of Cannon, Leavitt, and Payne-Gaposchkin. Van Dien later moved to Indonesia, and she continued her work at Bosscha Observatory.

Van Dien said in 1954 that her AAUW fellowship opened up her career options. “My experience in the United States has changed my life completely,” she wrote. “Instead of heading for a future of some 35 years of high school teaching, I embarked on the adventure of professional astronomy in Indonesia.”

As in many STEM fields, women astronomers faced an uphill battle to find acceptance among their male peers. Jaffe put it this way:

“Unless a woman astronomer is really first rate, she can hardly expect to find a position better than a teaching position in a college or university with a heavy teaching load — probably in a women’s college or more or less routine research, usually under the supervision of someone else or in collaboration with some other astronomer.”

It is all the more impressive, then, that even though they were often confined to subordinate roles, women found ways to significantly enhance our astronomical knowledge. AAUW members and fellows prove that astronomy has always been a field in which a sisterhood of women fought their way into major roles in spite of the barriers they faced.

This post was written by AAUW archives intern Elizabeth Beckman.



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After just two years at Harvard, Payne-Gaposchkin became the very first person to receive a doctorate in astronomy from the Ivy League school.

By:   |   May 27, 2014


  1. […] As in many STEM fields, women astronomers faced an uphill battle to find acceptance among their male peers. Read more » (A #feminist history of astronomers in the 1900s.  […]

    • Sethanne Howard says:

      It is good to remember that women have always been astronomers. For over 4,000 years of written hhistory there have women active in STEM fields. En Hedu’anna was the first scientist in human history and she was an astroonomer. This is earlier than AAUW of course but still worth knowing. These women struggled and won their battles to remain in STEM.

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