When I started my book on the nineteenth-century scientist Maria Mitchell, I expected to find that she had triumphed against impossible odds. “Bias and Barriers” against women’s achievement in the science are pretty intense in the twenty-first century, and I presumed that the obstacles must have been much harsher nearly two hundred years ago. My presumptions were bolstered by earlier accounts of Mitchell that tended to emphasize her exceptional qualities and minimize the encouragement she received from her family and her community. The great surprise for me was that Mitchell faced relatively little bias. In her time, girls were thought of as naturally scientific—and science itself was considered a feminine pastime.
The shocks of history can be hard to parse. On one hand, it’s exciting to realize that there was a time (not that long ago) when a girl like the young Maria Mitchell grew up believing that there was nothing preventing her from achieving scientific greatness. On the other hand, it’s a bit discouraging to realize that when I was born in New York City in the late twentieth century, the odds were worse for girls in astronomy than they had been when Mitchell was born on Nantucket more than a hundred and fifty years before. To add to the depression factor, I worried that uncovering Mitchell’s advantages might make her achievements seem less impressive.
I’ve always liked stories of triumph against all odds. In fact, I
think I may make them up for myself sometimes without even realizing
it. When I visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace in Atlanta, I
was disappointed by the grandeur of the big, yellow Victorian house
where he had grown up. Unconsciously, I guess I imagined King’s
boyhood as desperately poor, almost (but not quite) impossible for him
to overcome. When I learned that his father and grandfather were
college-educated men, prominent preachers and community leaders, I felt
a little let down. Knowing absolutely nothing about King’s background,
I’d hazily imagined that he was an anomaly whose oratorical gifts
descended on him out of the blue. It had never occurred to me that he
might have grown up in a houseful of orators.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s privileges, like Maria Mitchell’s, tend to diminish our sense of their accomplishments. The child who is carefully nurtured and encouraged to be great will never seem as much of a hero as the one who’s kicked in the teeth by fate, and who becomes great anyway.
But the more I think about this, the more suspicious I become. There’s a problem with stories of triumph against all odds. As long as we cling to the belief that truly great and heroic figures don’t need encouragement or good opportunities, we’re giving our society permission not to create opportunities. The realization that Mitchell was encouraged by her family and by a community that was willing to support her efforts to achieve scientific greatness shouldn’t be depressing at all. To the contrary, it should push us to create similar opportunities today. Many organizations are already hard at work on such initiatives, for schoolgirls and for young professionals. And they are meeting with success. Encouragement works.
Creating miraculous supergeniuses who could overcome all obstacles would be near impossible. It’s much easier to change the odds by creating educational opportunities for girls and minorities, and fostering networks that support and encourage women and students of color to become scientists. Throughout her career, Mitchell stressed the importance of women being hired for professional jobs, paid fairly, and encouraged rather than discouraged. Regarding the proportion of women faculty, she once asked, “Do you know of any case in which a boy’s college has offered a professorship to a woman? Until you do, it is absurd to say that the highest learning is within the reach of women.” Regarding pay, one of Mitchell’s students, Anna Brackett commented, “The indignant protest” with which she “called for an equal salary, was not a personal affair. She flamed out on behalf of all women, and of abstract justice.” As for efforts to encourage women, the New York Times reported in 1881, “The question of equality of the sexes is one that does not naturally disturb such a woman. She merely says if women are regarded as equals, in mental capacity, they should have equal advantages, and if considered inferior, they should be given better chances.” Her words hold true today, too. Women need better chances because, as Mitchell put it, “Science needs women.”
Mitchell’s 1875 remark could have served as an epigraph for the 2007 American Academy of Science report “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” which concluded, “The United States can no longer afford the underperformance of our academic institutions in attracting the best and the brightest minds to the science and engineering enterprise…It is essential that our academic institutions promote the educational and professional success of all people without regard for sex, race or ethnicity.”
Ultimately, I think it’s quite encouraging to realize that we can do this. We can build supportive and encouraging schools, colleges and professional workplaces that welcome everybody to science. It won’t be a miracle when more women and minorities become scientists—but perhaps it will be something better.
Renée Bergland teaches English and Gender/Cultural Studies at Simmons College and holds a research appointment in Women's and Gender Studies at Harvard. President of the New England American Studies Association and a former Fulbright scholar, she received a "We the People" grant from the NEH for her work on Maria Mitchell. She is author of Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer among the American Romantics, The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects, and co-editor (with Gary Williams) of Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on the Hermaphrodite. She has also written for the Boston Globe, L.A. Times, and Washington Post.