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Looking at the Stars: Two Quaker Women Astronomers

Each summer when I was a little girl, my grand-mother’s cousin, Marjorie Williams, and her father would visit our family. Marjorie Williams was a professor of astronomy at Smith College in Massachusetts. She was charming, friendly, and much liked by all the family. We always looked forward to her visits. At my birth I was given her name; ever after we were Little Marjorie and Big Marjorie. I was an only child, and Big Marjorie was but one of my adoring relatives. I remember especially the gifts Big Marjorie gave me: a world map puzzle, geography sticker books, lovely storybooks, and enamel charms from cities in Germany. The pleasure of her visits and the delight of those special gifts will always be part of my memories of her.

Yet, each year after Marjorie’s visit, my mother and grandmother would talk about her life and say with pity, “Poor Marjorie. She has no husband and no children. What a sad life.” Neither of them appreciated her accomplishments or her full life. Marjorie Williams was the first woman in my mother’s family to have a college education. I would be the next.

Marjorie Williams’s accomplishments mirror the life and work of an earlier Quaker astronomer, the first woman astronomer in America, Maria Mitchell. The lives of these two remarkable women of science are inspiring for their determination to pursue their careers in the face of society’s criticism. Marjorie was inspired by Maria Mitchell and spent several summers doing research at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Maria Mitchell

“Learn to observe. Open your eyes wide to the revelations of nature.”

Maria Mitchell was born into the predominately Quaker community on Nantucket Island on August 1, 1818. At that time Nantucket nurtured an intellectual freedom found nowhere else in America. The community supported good schools and several learned societies. Eminent scholars came to lecture and often met at the Mitchell home. Interest in the stars would have been considered odd anywhere else, but Nantucket was dependent on the stars for navigation.

At the height of the whaling industry at the time of Maria’s birth, the women of Nantucket were more independent than most women of the time. They ran the island while the men were away on whaling voyages. They ran inns, owned shops, and carried on the family businesses.

Maria’s father, William Mitchell, was a scientist, educator, and amateur astronomer. He remembered his father showing him Saturn when he was eight years old. He was a good Quaker, beloved and trusted by all. William founded his own school and taught from the natural world around him. Lydia Coleman Mitchell, Maria’s mother, was descended from the first white settlers of Nantucket. She was a Quaker woman of strong character, austere and practical. Before her marriage, she worked in two libraries in order to read the books.

Maria attended both a public school and her father’s school, teaching herself math and astronomy. Under her father’s guidance, she learned painlessly. Roaming the moors to learn the secrets of nature and conversations with the whaling captains expanded her knowledge. She grew up believing astronomy was the most important field of study. Maria and her father watched the stars together from the top of their house every clear night. At 16 she became assistant to Cyrus Pierce at his school in Nantucket.

Maria opened her own school and experimented with new ways of teaching. For 20 years she was librarian of the Athenaeum, a library and intellectual center in Nantucket. While at the library she worked on math, observed the stars, read works in French and Latin, and taught herself German. Maria met Thoreau, Audubon, Emerson, and Greeley when they lectured at the Athenaeum.

Maria followed Quaker practice, living a life of simplicity and humility. However, she could not subscribe to some principles with which she did not agree. A spirit of questioning guided her religious life as it did her scientific life; to see, to know, and then to believe. She was unorthodox and made up her own mind regardless of accepted opinion. As a consequence of her nonconformity, she was disowned by her Quaker meeting. Refusing to rid her home of a piano caused the break. She remained a Friend in belief, but often attended the Unitarian church.

In 1847 Maria observed and plotted the course of a new comet. The discovery led to many honors and awards, including a gold medal from the king of Denmark, an amateur astronomer. That same year Maria fell in love and had to decide between marriage and a career. She looked at her mother’s life and saw what it meant to bring up a large family. Choosing a career, as Marjorie Williams would do a century later, was her decision.

As the chaperone of a young girl, in 1856 Maria went to Europe. Though met with social resistance, being a chaperone made the trip less objectionable. She met English astronomers and scientists and in Paris attended lectures at the Sorbonne, though barred from a lecture by Pasteur since the French did not recognize women scientists. When visiting the Vatican Observatory, Maria had to leave early as it was considered unseemly for a woman to be there after dark. Maria spent two years in Europe and upon her return bought a house in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she set up her telescope and settled into a life of quiet research.

Though with misgivings as to her own fitness, Maria accepted a teaching position in 1865 at the new university of Vassar. At the conclusion of her first lecture, one young woman said, “But Miss Mitchell, I had always thought science dull. You have not made it so.” Many people, however, were still alarmed by the thought of educated women, especially a woman scientist.

Maria spent her nights at the university observatory and opened it freely to everyone. For several students the observatory became their home. Maria disliked authority and would not conform to rules she disagreed with, such as the marking system and compulsory attendance. “I cannot express the intellect in numbers,” she explained. She once asked the president to shorten his prayer in order to observe Saturn. On another occasion she threatened to leave Vassar if women’s salaries were not raised.

Maria believed in equal rights for women. Though she took no part in the suffrage movement, many of its leaders were her friends. Her work was at Vassar, where her aim was to produce useful, well‐educated women. Women in science were considered as radical as women in politics, but Maria believed that “when the American girl carries her energy into great questions of humanity, into the practical problems of life, when she takes home to her heart the interests of education, government, and religion, what may we not hope for our country.”

In 1848 Maria was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and two years later she became its president. She remained the only woman member until 1943. In 1868 Maria became the first woman member of the American Philosophical Society and in 1874 president of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Maria had contracted malaria in the South in 1857 and never regained her health. In 1888 she resigned her position at Vassar, having taught there for 23 years. She returned to Lynn and continued to survey the skies from her observatory. She died on June 28, 1889.

At the time of her death, President Taylor of Vassar said of Maria, “Miss Mitchell was a living refutation of the absurd idea that women cannot master the higher branches of learning such as astronomy and mathematics. She is the only American woman who has attained eminence as a mathematician and astronomer. In fact she was our most distinguished living astronomer of either sex.”

Marjorie Williams

” … it seemed I was always pushing myself to do what people expected of me.”

Marjorie Williams was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, on October 12, 1900, the daughter of Quaker parents. Her father, Edgar, was a Quaker minister in Michigan. She received her B.S. from Guilford College in North Carolina, her M.A. from Smith College, and her Ph.D. from University of Michigan. In 1925 she began her teaching career at Smith College.

While an assistant professor of astronomy at Smith College and director of the College Observatory, Marjorie was appointed acting head of the Department of Astronomy at Amherst College, the only woman professor at the men’s college at that time. Later as Astronomy Department chair at Smith, Marjorie held open nights for the community at the observatory and wrote popular astronomy items in the local newspaper. She was the first woman scientist of the Mathematics, Physics, and Engineering Division (MPE) of the National Science Foundation and president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Her articles were published in Harvard Observatory Bulletin and in Popular Astronomy.

Though most stars are constant in brightness, Marjorie Williams observed thousands that vary in brightness in irregular and little understood ways and wrote many articles about this phenomenon. She also wrote about the triple conjunction theory. First offered by Johannes Kepler in 1604 as an explanation for the Bethlehem star, this rare event occurs when Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are so close together they appear as one.

In addition to her academic and professional pursuits, Marjorie enjoyed hiking and music and was active in Quaker organizations and the peace movement. She did relief work in Germany with American Friends Service Committee during her sabbatical year from Smith College in 1948 and 1949. In 1950 she became chair of the New England Committee of AFSC. Following her retirement from Smith College in 1953, Marjorie accepted a position with the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. She died in Washington in 1983.

In the 1940s and ‘50s when I was growing up, education did not remove the expectation that women would marry and have children. To have both a career and a marriage was rare. Maria Mitchell and Marjorie Williams chose careers and rose to the top of their profession. They are members of that group of Quaker women who have taken their heritage of equality for women and pursued their dreams. Encouraged by families who valued education for daughters, inspired by scientists who were their role models, they looked at the stars and found their life’s work.

Marjorie Pickett Xavier is a Friend who grew up in Indiana and graduated from Earlham College. She lives in Hayward, California, and works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco.


Posted in: April 2001, Features

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