Astronomer Maria Mitchell Blazed a Trail
for Women in the STEM Fields
by Gabriella Shell, age 15
Throughout the past couple decades, women have slowly begun achieving equality in the STEM fields. While these male-dominated industries are by no means perfect, there are more opportunities than ever before for women who want to pursue a career in science. However, this battle is by no means a recent one. In fact, women have been fighting for equality and recognition in STEM for centuries.
Maria Mitchell, born in 1818 to a progressive, American family, made giant leaps for women in astronomy. As the daughter of an amateur astronomer, she learned at a young age how to operate sextants, telescopes, and could even predict precise planetary and solar positions by her teenage years. Although she was a prodigal astronomer, she spent most of her early adulthood teaching. Like her father, astronomy was only a side hobby.
However, she soon propelled to professional astronomer status after making a revolutionary discovery: a newly-discovered comet. This led to massive publicity, and she became not only a renowned astronomer, but a feminist icon. Her monumental discovery in an almost entirely male-dominated field challenged the idea of innate male superiority, and she was invited to speak at the women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls in 1848.
In 1865, Mitchell accepted a position as an astronomy professor and the director of the observatory at the newly founded all-women’s university, Vassar College. While this fulfilled both her love of teaching and her love of astronomy, she soon ran into professional issues: the male professors made almost twice as much in salary as female professors. She rallied with her female colleagues against this sexist policy, and eventually the administration granted equal pay to female professors.
Maria Mitchell remained an outspoken feminist throughout her life. She fought for women’s suffrage as well as equal opportunity in the STEM fields. A true icon, Maria Mitchell made sure that women had a voice in science, and inspired generations of women to follow her lead and break into male-dominated fields.