Reflecting on Our Roots: Maria Mitchell at 200

Photo of a painting of Maria Mitchell by painter Herminia B. Dassel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The following piece is cross-posted with permission from the NSF-INCLUDES Open Forum. It was written by Shirley Malcom, directorate head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS:

When considering women in science, data are important, but there is much more to the story than numbers. This focus on story re-introduces you to a group of “her-stories” that made a deep and lasting impression on many of us who sought to understand the patterns of participation for women in science and engineering that we saw as young professionals entering these fields.

August 1 will be the 200th anniversary of Maria Mitchell’s birth. Among many things for which she is famous is the fact that she was the first woman to become a member of AAAS in 1850! Mitchell’s personal story is amazing. Born into a large Quaker family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, she benefited from the family’s belief in equality and was, thus, provided opportunities for education like those provided her brothers. She excelled as a student in the female academies she attended, even serving as a teaching assistant at the last school. In 1835 she opened her own school, even deciding, against the prevailing order of the times, to include nonwhites among her students.

She shared her father’s interest in astronomy and used his telescope to gaze at the heavens; in 1847 she discovered “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” In recognition of this accomplishment she received a medal from the King of Denmark (though not without some controversy), thus establishing herself as a professional astronomer.  Mitchell received considerable recognition; she was elected the first woman in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and the AAAS (1850).

I first encountered Maria Mitchell’s story in a book on women in science by Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, published in 1982 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Rossiter pointed out how many of the early women in science had access to science as collaborators or assistants to fathers, brothers and/or husbands as was the case for Mitchell. Though she won acclaim for her work she didn’t see much improvement in her job situation during the 1850s.

Then Matthew Vassar offered her an opportunity to join the faculty of the women’s college he founded, and Mitchell played a starring role in the development of a next generation of women scientists (e.g., Mary Whitney, Christine Ladd-Franklin, and Ellen Swallow Richards). Women’s colleges continued to play an outsize role in the development of women scientists into the 20th century as chronicled in an article on baccalaureate origins of women science PhDs, by Vera Kistiakowsky and M. Elizabeth Tidball, published in Science almost 42 years ago. Though there have been some shifts over time in baccalaureate origins it should be noted that Spelman College, an HBCU women’s college, remains to this day a major origins source for African American women science and mathematics PhDs.

Mitchell did much to support women in science during her lifetime, at Vassar and beyond, and I encourage you to read more about her amazing life. In her book Rossiter quotes from Mitchell’s presidential address to the Association for the Advancement of Women in 1875: “In my younger days, when I was pained by the half-educated, loose and inaccurate ways we [women] all had, I used to say, ‘How much women need exact science,’ but since I have known some workers in science who were not always true to the teachings of nature, who have loved self more than science, I have now said, ‘How much science needs women.’”

Rossiter published two other volumes in the series, Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972 (1998) and Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World Since 1972 (2012).

In the 200 years since Mitchell’s birth women have gained a tremendous amount of ground as professionals in science. Yet challenges remain. Understanding the road we have traveled is important to finding the paths that lie ahead.

Dr. Shirley Malcom, directorate head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, received her doctorate in ecology from The Pennsylvania State University; master’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Los Angeles; and bachelor’s degree with distinction in zoology from the University of Washington. In addition she holds thirteen honorary degrees. She serves on several boards, including the Howard Heinz Endowment. She is an honorary trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, a Regent of Morgan State University, and a trustee of Caltech. She has chaired a number of national committees addressing education reform and access to scientific and technical education, careers and literacy. Dr. Malcom is a former trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a fellow of the AAAS and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2003, she received the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the highest award bestowed by the Academy. This is the 16th piece in the Reflecting on Our Roots series she has written for the NSF INCLUDES Open Forum.

NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) is a comprehensive national initiative designed to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion and broadening participation in these fields at scale. NSF INCLUDES is one of NSF's "Ten Big Ideas."

The NSF INCLUDES Open Forum is a collective space for expanding the reach of the NSF INCLUDES community and for sharing current and historical knowledge on broadening participation in STEM. The forum attracts individuals interested in diversity and inclusion within and beyond the current NSF INCLUDES community and support the dissemination of knowledge developed under the program, as well as historic knowledge developed throughout NSF's Broadening Participation programs. Anyone interested in broadening participation/diversity and equity in STEM is welcome to join.


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