Elevate Difference

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

Nineteenth century New England was a virtual breeding ground for progressive ideas. During the period, a host of feminist philosophers, jurists, and scholars emerged onto American society. Among the heroines associated with the era, you’ve probably examined those such as Dorthea Dix and Margaret Fuller in your high school U.S. History class. Many women, however, still remain relatively unacknowledged, despite their critical roles in scholarly debates of the era. Among them, mathematician and astronomer Maria Mitchell remains most prominent.

Renée Bergland’s Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science tells, in careful detail, the story of the glorious, if too little known, Maria Mitchell, and her triumph over what soon grew to become yet another division of the so-called masculine domain. Raised in isolated, but vibrant Nantucket, Mitchell’s interest in astronomy started at an early age.

Apprenticed by her father, as an amateur astronomer young Maria would climb, night after night, to her house’s crude rooftop observatory to diligently study the stars. In 1847, during one of her many nighttime sweeps, Mitchell discovered a comet, propelling her into international fame. Within subsequent years, she became America’s first professional astronomer and one of the founding professors of Vassar College.

Although Mitchell’s success as a feminist scholar was certainly rare for the day, she had not, contrary to what some might expect, triumphed over impossible odds. Barriers against feminist achievement in the twenty-first century are pretty intense, and upon starting the book, I that expected that conditions must have been much harsher nearly 200 years ago. The great surprise for me came when I found that Mitchell had faced, in actuality, relatively little bias. Young Nantucketeers, both male and female, were encouraged by their Quaker upbringings to rigorously pursue academic studies.

In Maria’s time, girls were thought of as naturally scientific, and were urged, rather than dissuaded, to pursue studies in the field. The discipline, given the age, was considered less politically threatening than the humanities. Sadly, in later years the scientific field began to close ranks against female students. In the later half of this biography, Bergland chronicles those changes in American society that led to original ‘sexing of science’ and its transformation into a "man’s" game.

Although the Mitchell’s story is certainly an interesting one, Bergland provides only a dull narration of facts from the astronomer’s life. What I expected was the compelling saga of one woman’s journey to achieve scientific greatness turned out to be a rather lackluster account. The author also tended to stray from the main idea, overwhelming her reader with a mass of unnecessary detail. Often, Bergland would present a pages-long description of events that had no apparent connection to the central plot. Nevertheless, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science remains a satisfactory account of Maria Mitchell and her truly enormous contributions to astronomy, education, as well as the nineteenth-century feminist movement.

Written by: Sameeraa Pahwa, June 10th 2008