"Women hold up half the sky"--Chinese proverb
September 20, 2008 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Pickering and the Female Computers. In 1881, Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory, became so impatient with a male lab assistant’s work that he famously declared his maid could do a better job. Rather than take offense, his 24-year-old maid, Williamina Fleming, instead took him up on the offer. She ended up working at the Observatory for the next 30 years, supervising the tedious work of cataloging photographic plates, but also discovering variable stars and novae, helping to develop a classification system—and, perhaps even more importantly, hiring nearly 40 female assistants, many of whom went on to have distinguished scientific careers.

These "computers," as they were called, were a bargain for Pickering: at first the women worked for free; after a number of years he rewarded them with a salary—about 30 cents an hour, roughly half of that of the men who did the same work. As he wrote in his 1898 annual report, the women computers were "Capable of doing as much good routine work as astronomers who would receive larger salaries. Three or four times as many assistants can thus be employed."

(As a side note, the US Naval Observatory also employed female -- and male -- computers around the turn of the century. In 1906, the computers were paid equally, $1200 a year for both men and women. But only men had the opportunity for advancement, as, among other things, the most prestigious jobs at the USNO required a military commission, which wasn't available to women.)

Thanks to Pickering and his maid, women were able to make an indelible contribution to science. The most notable astronomers to come from his lab were Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Their discoveries and innovation helped usher in an age of science and inquiry in astronomy, and helped pave the way for women in the field. Noted a student of the eminent astronomer Vera Rubin (who herself got her doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1954 by taking night classes while her husband waited for her in the car): “American astronomy became preeminent because of two discoveries: Hale discovered money and Pickering discovered women.”
posted by mothershock (27 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great stuff, and a fine collection of links - thanks mothershock!
posted by carter at 10:08 AM on September 20, 2008


I've always argued that prejudice against women is particularly economically stupid; as a male who underhires or underpromotes women you're wasting half your potential resources off the top.

(On the other hand, women are still dramatically underrepresented in computing these days and it isn't clear how to fix this problem after decades of fairly sincere attempts.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:16 AM on September 20, 2008


I was just reading Bill Bryson on this topic:
Computers spent their lives studying photographic plates of stars and making computations - hence the name. It was little more than drudgery by another name, but it was as close as could get to real astronomy at Harvard – or, indeed, pretty much anywhere – in those days. The system, however unfair, did have unexpected benefits: it meant that half the finest minds available were directed to work that would otherwise have attracted little reflective attention and it ensured that women ended up with an appreciation of the fine structure of the cosmos that often eluded their male counterparts.
posted by pracowity at 10:18 AM on September 20, 2008


<3>mothershock.

And then it gets even better by having Bill Bryson in it. Hurrah, pracowity!
posted by batmonkey at 10:45 AM on September 20, 2008


Thanks so much for this. I had no idea.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 10:51 AM on September 20, 2008




women are still dramatically underrepresented in computing

Damn. They're smarter than we are.
posted by dhartung at 10:55 AM on September 20, 2008


[T]he women computers were "Capable of doing as much good routine work as astronomers who would receive larger salaries.

The story of Western civilization. Hire twice as many women for half the price, then get rich off their labour.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:55 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


What do you have against free markets?
posted by empath at 11:01 AM on September 20, 2008


(On the other hand, women are still dramatically underrepresented in computing these days and it isn't clear how to fix this problem after decades of fairly sincere attempts.)

We'd need to figure out what makes this kind of software engineer tick, maybe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:26 AM on September 20, 2008


This quote regarding a different Pickering seemed in order:

You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will. (Eliza Dolittle, My Fair Lady)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:35 AM on September 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


Sarah Palin can see the moon from her house.
posted by Poolio at 11:36 AM on September 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


dance_with_sneetches - Well played!

that's a pretty good fit for the thread Blazecock Pileon referenced, too
posted by batmonkey at 12:14 PM on September 20, 2008


I've only read the first page of her handwritten journal, and not only is it interesting (especially a sentence re her son, a junior at MIT, who she says "knows little or nothing of the value of money"), the Harvard "page delivery service" which renders her manuscript online is too.

Great post, thank you.
posted by rleamon at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Female computers
posted by Jpfed at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2008


rleamon, that is absolutely fascinating -- I am struck by the poignancy of what she writes just before that sentence about her son: "My home life is necessarily different from the other officers of the University since all housekeeping cares rest on me, in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses." It's striking and sad that 108 years later we're still wrestling with this.
posted by mothershock at 1:25 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maud Menten - The woman whose name is on half of the Michaelis–Menten equation.

After that she kind of coasted merely inventing AP-Azodye conjugation, characterizing a couple bacterial toxins and doing the first separation of proteins via electrophoresis.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:36 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


And don't forget Maria Agnesi, who in the 1700s wrote the first surviving book on mathematics by a woman, and whose famous equation went down in history with a mangled and vaguely misogynistic name ("the witch of Agnesi") instead of the one she gave it ("the curve of Agnesi"), thanks to the careless translation of a male mathematician.

I actually wanted to put together a post on her and other women in math and science who have been explicitly or implicitly linked to witchcraft, from Hypatia onwards, but work on the Daring sequel allowed me only time for this one. (It's all going in the book, however!)
posted by mothershock at 2:11 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Neat, I knew a little about this because I was, at age 10, amazed to find a part of the Moon named after me. The back stories are even more amazing.

No one get any funny ideas. That crater is for me and my three robot daughters.

posted by The Whelk at 2:25 PM on September 20, 2008


Poolio (I love your line):

Sarah Palin can see the moon from her house.

Yeah, I can see the moon from my house - doesn't make me an astronaut.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:33 PM on September 20, 2008


The Nov. 1970 National Geographic ran an article on the computer revolution. It noted that without computer automated telephone switching, phone companies would require "nearly 700,000 operators -- equivalent to all the unmarried women in their thirties now in the country's labor force." A business executive would soon be able to push a button to make his secretary appear on his terminal so he could dictate a letter to her.

(It also confidently predicted that within a generation thousands of IBM mainframe-style computers would communicate by line-of-sight laser beams and make credit cards utterly secure, and also make the US military unbeatable through "beep-boom" technology.)
posted by longsleeves at 3:41 PM on September 20, 2008


On the other hand, women are still dramatically underrepresented in computing these days and it isn't clear how to fix this problem after decades of fairly sincere attempts.

You could start by getting rid of all of those guys who treat women as incompetent or whose only interest in female colleagues is "whoa, boobies." There are a lot of them, though, so you're going to need a really, really large burlap sack.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:50 PM on September 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


I suspect that computer games and the internet will do it for the next generation. Girls and young women are much more into both than they were in, say, 1994; most of the programmers I know (myself included) started computing through games, and started programming through computing, so the future seems hopeful.

If I remember right, I was one of only five women in the CS department in college -- no, not five women in my classes, or five women in my year, but five women in the entire department. And I finished college less than ten years ago. Granted, it was a small (~200 students) department, but we were definitely an extreme minority just the same. I haven't been back to see how things are at the moment, but in another ten years, I'm confident that the department will have plenty of women who grew up on WoW and Myspace.
posted by vorfeed at 5:58 PM on September 20, 2008


On a side note, I believe the ancient Chinese proverb you quoted is actually a quote from Mao Zedong.
posted by Pantalaimon at 8:51 PM on September 20, 2008


Awesome post mothershock.
posted by nickyskye at 9:13 PM on September 20, 2008


Fantastic post. Thanks!
posted by dejah420 at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2008


Fantastic post - learned a lot of interesting stuff with that one. Thanks for putting it all together.
posted by Megami at 5:29 PM on September 21, 2008


« Older Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating...   |   The Elephant in the Room:... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments