Historic Challenges for Harvard Women of Science with Sara Schechner

HMSC Connects! Podcast Episode 14 Transcript

SPEAKERS: Sara Schechner, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. For our second episode celebrating women's suffrage this month, I'm speaking with Sara Schechner, curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.  Among a very many other things, she's a historian of science, specializing in material culture and the history of astronomy. She's also an expert in the history of women in science, which is what I'm talking to her about today.  I was also curious about her own experience as a woman studying physics as Radcliffe student at Harvard in the 1970s, and overall, how she sees the experience of women in science has evolved over time. Here she is. Sara Schechner, welcome to the show. 


Sara Schechner  01:24

Thank you for having me.


Jennifer Berglund  01:35

At the turn of the 20th century, women were unwelcome in scientific disciplines, and Harvard can directly be implicated in this history. In 1869, Harvard's President Charles William Eliot said that the education of women was basically pointless. What was thinking at the time that informed this opinion, and how did it influence the thinking at Harvard.


Sara Schechner  02:01

Elliott had this view that women should only be educated in manners in order to be helpful to their husbands, or brothers, or fathers. And this was reinforced partly by his own thinking, and also by this Fellow at the Harvard Medical School, Professor Edward H. Clark, who was at the time waging a campaign against women's colleges, And Clark published this book called Sex in Education: A Fair Chance for Girls in 1873, in which he argued that American women were a feeble race, and that higher education would tax their brains to such an extent that their ovaries would fail. And, you know, he couldn't have found a better advocate for this finding than Harvard's President, Charles W. Eliot, because Eliot would hold the line against educating women at Harvard. So, as you said in his opening statement at his inauguration, he, you know, he said, "only after generations of civil freedom and social equality would it even be possible to know what we need to educate women," which is kind of a prescription for doing nothing. And so women around Harvard, particularly the wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers of Harvard men, both students and faculty, sort of pushed back, and they organized this group called the Women's Education Association of Boston in 1872. And they confronted this idea that Harvard was exclusively for men. And so these are people in this group like Louis Agassiz, second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, who had opened a school for girls in her Cambridge home, and had been running it from 1855 until 1863, and this women's education association proposed at Harvard could maybe grant degrees to women if they passed all the same examinations that were required of the men, but Eliot just consistently refused such a plan. So this then led in 1879, to the WEA creating the so called Harvard Annex, which provided collegiate instruction for women by Harvard faculty, but not for any degree, and it was led by Elizabeth Cary Agassi, and this is the organization that would become in 1894 Radcliffe College. But Elliott, he calls a college education for women an experiment. He doesn't think they can physically and mentally stand a college education, either on their own or a co-education, forget that.  He's dead set against that. Even after Radcliffe is founded, which he sees as an experiment, Eliot just wants women to be better helpers and companions for their husbands. And I mean, just to show how dead set he is, is that in 1899, he gives a speech at the inauguration of the new president of Wellesley College, Caroline Hazzard, and there's all these people in robes and they're celebrating the new president of the college. And Eliot gets up there, and he says, "you should be of good courage because your work is an experiment, and has no clear goal." Colleges for women, as you mentioned, are superflous.  You don't want the strenuous exertion of grades, exams, prizes, and competitive scholarships for women, because they'll injure women's bodily powers and functions. He says, "women's intellectual capacities are as unlike those of men as their bodily capacities." To quote, "it remains to prove that the higher education of women will be as profitable to society as the higher education of men." But you can imagine saying this at this Wellesley event.


Jennifer Berglund  06:35



Sara Schechner  06:36

And the President of Bryn Mawr is there, M. Carey Thomas, and she writes a letter to a friend. It says, "Eliot's speech was so brutal. It made me hot from head to foot." She's just boiling over this. So this is his attitude at Harvard, and people are looking to Harvard as a role model for higher education, and Eliot did some great stuff for higher education, but when it came to educating women, he was dead set against it. But there's some very smart, well-educated women around the Boston area, particularly from the genteel families from whom, you know, Harvard faculty have been drawn. So they keep pushing for more education and scientific work for women that goes beyond just being school teachers. So while in Radcliffe Yard, you know, you have this encouragement for women, they're trying to nurture women's education, but Harvard wants nothing to do with it from the central office. But if you go a little further up Garden Street to the Harvard College Observatory, you have a somewhat different attitude to women and their work. So you have in the Director there, a gentleman called Edward Pickering. He's a pioneer in astrophysics, and before he got to Harvard, he taught at MIT, and he actually allowed some women to attend his classes at MIT. So he is more progressive than president Eliot. He's setting up a whole new campaign of astronomy that now we would call astrophysics. He wants to know, like, what stars are made of, and how they change. Initially, this work is done by men standing at the eyepiece of telescopes, looking at the sky and measuring stars' brightness, or their spectral lines with instruments attached to the telescope.  But photographs are much more sensitive than the naked eye to the stars, and you can take good photos of star spectra, or a star field and take multiple photos of a part of the sky, and you can see how the stars change the brightness from one photo to another. He wants to do lots of calculations on, like, hundreds of thousands of stars, and he can't afford to hire more men, and he thinks women are not only cheaper, they're more detail oriented and patient than men. So that's a stereotype of women, but it gets him to think about these women.  Between 1885 and 1927, he employs about 80 different women, and their job is known as a Computer. So the word computer really refers to a person before it refers to a machine. And these computers are analyzing all these glass plates with photographs of the sky on them. The first computers are the daughters of Harvard faculty, or observatory observers, and one even starts out as Pickerings maid, Williamina Fleming, but he built up this core of very skilled women who are doing this work, and, you know, on one hand, they're amazing, and they make really serious findings.  On the other hand, he's paying them 25 cents an hour, you know.  They're cheaper than the guys, and they know it, and some of them, they just want to do the scientific work, so they're willing to either start by working for free or very little. At other times they do complain about this is unfair. This is an area where you have this cluster of women in astronomy who are making a difference, but are essentially there initially because they're cheaper, and there's this presumption they'll do a better job than the men in this very painstaking work.


Jennifer Berglund  11:01

Tell me a little bit more about Williamina Fleming. She was one of these women computers, but she sort of went on to have this interesting life.


Sara Schechner  11:11

Yeah, so Williamina Fleming, she first comes to United States with her husband from Scotland in about 1878. But when she gets pregnant, he abandons her. And so she finds work at the Observatory as Pickering's maid. Pickering realizes she's she's pretty smart, and he's not taking the best use of her abilities by having her clean his house, so he makes her a computer, and she's working on these measurements of variable stars that are collected by the night observers, and she becomes the head of all the computers and is actually the first woman to hold a Harvard Corporation appointment as the Curator of Astronomical Photographs.  And she makes some discoveries of her own. She discovers what we call the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion, and she develops a system for classifying stars based on their spectra. But then we have these other women who are working under her and alongside her who are also really quite interesting. Two that are worth mentioning are Miss Leavitt and Miss Cannon, who were qualified Radcliffe students who came to the Observatory in unpaid internships initially. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, she joins this team of computers in 1895, and she's a specialist in these variable stars. So these are stars that change in brightness over time, and she studies a special class of them that are called Cepheid variables. And she discovers that they have like, imagine a kind of heartbeat, or a pulse, as they brighten and dim, and they do it in a regular, periodic fashion, and some are beating quicker, or pulsing quicker, and some are slower, but the period of these pulses is connected by a law she discovers that connects the pulsation to the absolute magnitude, the intrinsic brightness, the top brightness, of the star. And so this is information she publishes, some of which is under Pickering's name, not under her own name. These become important later in the 1920s because they can be used as like a standard yardstick for measuring things in the universe. At the time she's doing this work, people believe that the Milky Way is the entire universe, that our galaxy is the only game in town. Yet, there are these funny things that we see in the sky that look like fuzzy patches or even something has a bit of a spiral shape to it. One of these is what we now call the Andromeda Galaxy.  At the time it was called the Andromeda Nebula, it was like a cloudy thing up in the sky. And these were all thought to be objects, whatever they were, inside our Milky Way. In the 1920s, an astronomer named Hubble is looking at the Andromeda Galaxy, and he discovers Cepheid variable stars in it. And he can measure their rate of pulsing, and so from that, he knows how bright they really should be. And he says, "but wait, they're not that bright." So they must be really far away, and he can compute that. And when he does that, he realizes that they are independent galaxies way, way outside of the Milky Way. And the only reason they appear small like this is that they're so far away, but they have billions of stars. They're like our galaxy, but just hugely distant. So the whole universe expands and scale, but the key to making that first leap is using the work of Henrietta Leavitt and her Period Luminosity Relationship. She got overlooked in the history books until recently where, just in 2008, The American Astronomical Society decided to name the period luminosity relationship, which she discovered, they're going to now call it the Leavitt Law.  But you know, it's 100 years later  And then there's another woman there who's very important named Annie Jump Cannon. She comes just a year later to work at the Observatory after Leavitt, and she had been trained at Wellesley College and knew how to use a telescope and had been a physics teacher. So, she's the only woman that the Observatory allowed to actually use the telescopes. Otherwise, they said women shouldn't be out there in the dark, and it's damp, and they're too frail, but most of her time is inside looking at these glass plates and looking at the spectra of stars. She developed a classification system for these stars that we still use today, and over her career, she catalogued more than a quarter million stars. She was one of the first secretaries in the American Astronomical Society, but they used to meet in these men's clubs, and so she couldn't go to meetings. At Harvard, when Williamina Fleming died, Pickering wanted to appoint Annie Jump Cannon to be the next curator of astronomical photographs. President Eliot wasn't around anymore. Now we have President Lowell, who says, "no way. We can't have women in a cooperation appointment at Harvard. That was a mistake." And he says to Pickering, "well, just give her the title in house, but it really doesn't mean anything outside of the Observatory, and you can pay your less, and there's less fuss."  Curiously, Eliot did allow Fleming to have that Corporation appointment, but that was kind of an exception, and one wonders, like, what he was thinking that day, because it's so against his norm, but Lowell digs in his heels deeper, and the Visiting Committee for the Observatory is appalled because Cannon is internationally renowned, in fact, in 1925, she's the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford, but Harvard won't recognize her with an official appointment until 1938. So, you have these women who are doing this incredible work. On one hand, you have this wonderful experience and opportunity for them. On the other hand, it's sad because, to a degree, they're not well treated, but they do it because they love it.


Jennifer Berglund  18:22

I also want to talk a little bit about your history too, because you went to Harvard as an undergraduate. This was in the 1970s, and you majored in physics. And you also encountered your own roadblocks, too, so things hadn't quite worked themselves out by the time you got there. How did that impact your trajectory in science, and how do you think your experience was typical for a woman studying science at the time?


Sara Schechner  18:50

I entered Harvard in 1975. In fact, I entered Radcliffe in 1975. So, at this period, I was the last class that had to apply directly to Radcliffe if you were female, as opposed to Harvard College if you were male. All my classes are mixed with Harvard College men, and the dorms have just been made coed, only, like, a couple of years before, and there's still a quota on the number of women accepted to men. So, it was a ratio of about one to three. So, there were three times as many Harvard students as Radcliffe students. So there's been a while though, that the classes are shared, but there's still this setting of Harvard male privilege and these Radcliffe interlopers who are a minority on the campus.  At the time though, I came in with a lot of math skills, and so I started studying physics. And most of my math and physics classes were predominantly male students.  There might be one to three other female students in the whole class. So, often, I was the only young woman in a class. So, that was par for the course.  This was true in all the sciences. Those who went on to do PhDs in those fields, of which a number of my friends did, had great setbacks in trying to have a career--incredible pushback, some of them actually left pretty soon because it was just so horrible. I did well in my classes, but I was made to feel like a failure. And, in fact,


Jennifer Berglund  20:53

And meanwhile, you're probably smarter than all these guys, because it's a lot harder to get into Radcliffe at the time, than it is to get into Harvard.


Sara Schechner  21:02

Yeah, maybe. And in fact, I actually ended up graduating Summa Cum Laude, but it was like a surprise to me because they made me feel so inadequate, and when I'd go to office hours to ask questions about a problem or a topic, they would say, "why are you here?" You know, and I'd say, " well, I want to understand this, this problem," and they'd say, "but why? It's not, like, it's not important for you." I remember in one class, this mathematician, it was a class that had like, 50-60 young men and three women.  That faculty member said, "oh, I'm supposed to announce this tea for women interested in mathematics, in case anyone wants to go," he said, you know, "well, I don't know what they're gonna do there. They can't talk about mathematics, probably bake cookies or something.  What a useless endeavor."  And he's in front of the class, and all the guys are laughing, and the three of us females are, like, retreating. In the labs, there was groping, there was sexual assaults by faculty. I mean, I could go on, but, you know, it was like an uphill battle. And at the same time, I became interested in the history and philosophy of science, which, by comparison, even though that was largely at the time, a male field as well,  by comparison, there were more women in there. They might have been junior faculty, because at this time at Harvard, you also have to understand, Harvard had about 750 faculty members, and only seven were women. There was nowhere to run, really.  I felt like I was constantly battling this thing. And the history of science, there were some junior faculty, and one tenured faculty, who were women, and so it felt a little nicer. And so I started doing that to go along with the physics, and when it came time for graduate school, while I got into doctoral programs in physics, I decided I'd rather go into history of science because I could still study the sciences, but I was also interested in this bigger soup of ideas of religion and politics and also gender and other things that influence the way science happens, and how it's part of people's lives and world history. And so, I decided to go that way rather than into physics because I was like, I don't want to beat my head against the wall.


Jennifer Berglund  23:46

Obviously, things have changed now, right?


Sara Schechner  23:48

Yes, they are much.  Well, I would say, yes, they're much better now. I mean, I instilled a love science to my two daughters, who are now both cellular and molecular biologists, and I think it's really helped that there's been an increase in the Faculty of women, and I think women are treated a lot better in the sciences. I don't think it's perfect. I think we haven't reached equality. You know, when one looks closely, one finds these stories of women getting smaller lab space, or less grants, but I think that a lot of the scientific societies have created working groups to be more conscious of diversity and inclusion and equality for women and other minorities, and to be much more receptive to them, so it's hugely improved. But I think those days were not that long ago.


Jennifer Berglund  24:54

They really weren't. 


Sara Schechner  24:54

I mean, you know, a lot of the students would be so amazed because it was so different from their experience, and I'd be like, this is really great that things have changed. It's wonderful that it isn't the bad old days. But I think there's still more to be done, but I'm very encouraged by how great the changes have been, and these opportunities for young women to be in the sciences and make their contributions known. Today, we don't bat an eye at a woman doctor or lawyer or head of a company and stuff where, when I went to college, that was very unusual. I've lived through a lot of major changes, and it's good to see them, you know.  The changes have been going in, what I see as the right direction.


Jennifer Berglund  25:55

Sara Schechner, thank you so much for being here today. This has been great.


Sara Schechner  25:59

It's really been my pleasure, Jennifer.  I enjoyed it very much.


Jennifer Berglund  26:10

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Sarah Schechner, and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments for their wisdom and expertise. By the way, Sarah makes some of the most beautiful quilts and sundials I've ever seen. We'll include a link in the description of this episode for you to check them out. They're amazing.  Thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!