Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics

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New England blossomed in the nineteenth century, producing a crop of distinctively American writers along with distinguished philosophers and jurists, abolitionists and scholars. A few of the female stars of this era—Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, and Susan B. Anthony, for instance—are still appreciated, but there are a number of intellectual women whose crucial roles in the philosophical, social, and scientific debates that roiled the era have not been fully examined.

Among them is the astronomer Maria Mitchell. She was raised in isolated but cosmopolitan Nantucket, a place brimming with enthusiasm for intellectual culture and hosting the luminaries of the day, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Sojourner Truth. Like many island girls, she was encouraged to study the stars. Given the relative dearth of women scientists today, most of us assume that science has always been a masculine domain. But as Renée Bergland reminds us, science and humanities were not seen as separate spheres in the nineteenth century; indeed, before the Civil War, women flourished in science and mathematics, disciplines that were considered less politically threatening and less profitable than the humanities. Mitchell apprenticed with her father, an amateur astronomer; taught herself the higher math of the day; and for years regularly "swept" the clear Nantucket night sky with the telescope in her rooftop observatory.

In 1847, thanks to these diligent sweeps, Mitchell discovered a comet and was catapulted to international fame. Within a few years she was one of America's first professional astronomers; as "computer of Venus"—a sort of human calculator—for the U.S. Navy's Nautical Almanac, she calculated the planet's changing position. After an intellectual tour of Europe that included a winter in Rome with Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mitchell was invited to join the founding faculty at Vassar College, where she spent her later years mentoring the next generation of women astronomers. Tragically, opportunities for her students dried up over the next few decades as the increasingly male scientific establishment began to close ranks.

Mitchell protested this cultural shift in vain. "The woman who has peculiar gifts has a definite line marked out for her," she wrote, "and the call from God to do his work in the field of scientific investigation may be as imperative as that which calls the missionary into the moral field or the mother into the family . . . The question whether women have the capacity for original investigation in science is simply idle until equal opportunity is given them." In this compulsively readable biography, Renée Bergland chronicles the ideological, academic, and economic changes that led to the original sexing of science—now so familiar that most of us have never known it any other way.

"The best thing in its line since Dava Sobel's Longitude. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science tells a great, if too little known, story of an intellectual woman in 19th century New England. And it is beautifully told: I simply could not put it down. Anyone who cares about women's education in America should read this compelling and indispensable book."
—Robert D. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

"Renée Bergland recounts the story of Maria Mitchell's life and work in glorious and careful detail. One feels and hears the sounds of Mitchell's native Nantucket, her adopted Vassar, and comes to understand how one of the 'gentler sex' advanced astronomy in her day."
—Londa Schiebinger, author of Has Feminism Changed Science?
 

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - JBD1 - LibraryThing

A very good biography of astronomer Maria Mitchell; my only quibble with it is that it gets rather repetitive at various points, something that could have been edited away very easily. That aside, Mitchell's biography more than makes up for any minor editorial infelicities. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Devil_llama - LibraryThing

A biography of a little known female astronomer who was widely known in her day. Why we hear so little about these women is actually a topic taken up in this work. The author discusses the change in ... Read full review

Contents

Uranias Island i
21
The Sexes of Science
42
Miss Mitchells Comet
53
A Center of Rude Eyes and Tongues
72
The Shoulders of Giants gi chapter 7 The Yankee Corinnes
115
A Mentor in Florence
137
The War Years
153
Vassar Female College
166
Good Woman That She Is
192
The Undevout Astronomer
211
Retrograde Motion
224
Uranias Inversion
239
epilogue 230
250
acknowledgments
260
notes
265
INDEX
284

No Miserable Bluestocking
177

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About the author (2008)

Renée Bergland teaches English and Gender/Cultural Studies at Simmons College and holds a research appointment in Women's and Gender Studies at Harvard. President of the New England American Studies Association and a former Fulbright scholar, she received a "We the People" grant from the NEH for her work on Maria Mitchell. She is author of The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects, and co-editor (with Gary Williams) of Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on the Hermaphrodite. She has also written for the Boston Globe, L.A. Times, and Washington Post.

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