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.”