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Yesterday during the eclipse, we saw pictures of thousands of children – boys and girls alike – with pinhole viewers and eclipse glasses, excited see the sun disappear.

Yet we often hear about the dearth of women in STEM fields. Some, like former Harvard President and Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers, persist in advancing arguments about what women are and aren’t “naturally” interested in or inclined to. But most accept that the imbalance in these fields is due to social and cultural factors, both in terms of shaping the “pipeline” into the fields and in terms of the employment restrictions and sexual harassment women encounter in graduate school and on the job.

It might surprise you, then, to learn that late 18th and 19th century American girls and women regularly studied astronomy in school and continued to engage with it as amateurs as adults.

Take, for instance, twelve-year-old Kate Sedgwick’s curriculum at her New York school in 1832. She wrote home to her parents to let them know her schedule:

In the first place, five out of the six week-days are appropriated to school; on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, besides my French lessons, I have my Italian and music-masters to attend to; on Mondays and Thursdays I go to dancing school, on Tuesdays and Saturdays to the Academy of drawing, Wednesday is the day for French Parsing, and Friday for Astronomy.

Not all young women could go to a private school like Kate, certainly, but among the increasing number of girls who did, her study of astronomy did not set her apart as unique.

Nor did interest in the subject end when formal schooling ended. In 1843, she devoted an entire page of a letter to her father to “the appearance of the comet” and its significance to the Millerites, the Polish Jews, and the “Mahometans.” Her cousin Jane, the same age and living in rural southwestern Massachusetts, prepared papers summarizing astronomical research for her local scientific society. The women of the family, old and young, reported attending “scientific orations” on astronomical subjects.


“The Great Comet of 1843, as seen from Australia” by Mary Morton Allport

When we think of astronomers today, we think of research scientists working for universities or the government. Since we know women weren’t allowed to hold such positions in the past, it can be easy to assume that they were also believed to be incapable of understanding and producing scientific work, and might not even have been interested.

What we actually see when we look at the period of Kate’s girlhood and young adulthood is two ideas held in tension: the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and the idea that men and women have two distinctly different roles to play in society. Women could learn astronomy, just as they could learn rhetoric, geography, and history, just like men, but the sexes were to put their education to different, complementary uses.

We may scoff at the idea that one could agree with both of these conflicting ideas, but you’ll hear variations on this theme even today. Just as we don’t want to look at the present lack of women in STEM fields and say it’s because women just aren’t interested or lack natural talent, we shouldn’t assume the lack of tenured female professors of astronomy at Harvard in 1830 meant women weren’t interested in and engaged in the field.

Lest we feel abundantly proud of the progress we have made in women’s education in the sciences, it is good to remember Kate and her classmates set aside “Friday for Astronomy.”

This post was informed by lots of reading on women’s education in the early 19th century, most notably my recent re-reading of Lucia McMahon’s Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early Republic. For more cool stuff on eclipses in American history, check out Bill Cossen’s “Total Eclipse of the Past” over at S-USIH.