Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 19, 2013

Shifting: Science and Girls

Many of us grew up looking at stars, but found our original wonder got washed away by familiarity or the sort of science that seems to diminish: Sorry, but your lucky star may be just a big hot rock, dust, or gasses. We get pretty songs and stories about the stars, then learn about distances and speed of light and that neither we nor the earth are the center of the universe.

But I hope we can find ways to treasure both wonder and knowledge, poetry and science, whose union is a focus of the book I’m currently working on. We live at a time that divides the fields, but according to a great book (with what I consider an unfortunate title) I just read, this has not always been so. In Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics Renee Bergland traces ways that separating science from the arts parallels the way society has split  the roles of women and men. Maria Mitchell, who would be the first American woman to discover a comet and the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, noted that she always had a mathematical mind. This bent was encouraged by her father who was glad to have a companion in his passion for astronomy, and on the rooftop, it was necessary to have one person look through a telescope while the other took notes. Maria’s work mapping sky and land and fixing chronometers wasn’t considered all that unusual in Nantucket in the first half of the 1800’s, for with many men away whaling, women often took over work that was traditionally done by men.


But according to Renee Bergland, Maria Mitchell wasn’t just lucky to have a sympathetic father and town.  Rather, she states that such devotion to science was common enough for girls and women back when science was seen as a way to understand an orderly universe and could often be managed from home, perhaps with some fairly inexpensive field guides, nets, star charts, magnifying glasses, collecting jars, and notebooks. Many women were close to the natural world, tending sheep or goats, then spinning, weaving, and dying cloth to sew warm clothing, caring for gardens, looking through meadows for plants to be used for healing or household cleaners. They needed to know more about what was around them.

The mid 1800s were a time in which Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college that called itself  “a castle of science,” and Dickinson later wrote many poems referencing astronomy, botany, and geology. Scientists, then called natural philosophers, most often based their work on observation, so the field was closer to art, and similarly not recognized of having great practical use. Men tended to be trained in politics, history, philosophy, and religion, with colleges funneling them to work in churches, law firms, or the government, which were seen as the places of power.

Only when science became more linked with technology, and offered ways to make money, did it become a field more associated with men, as it remains today. At the end of Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, the author notes how women now make up a small percentage of scientists, with those taking advance degrees in the hard sciences numbering in the single digits, with biologists and behavioral scientists hovering just a few digits above. Her hopeful conclusion is that if things were different before, the field of science can change again.

I’m only the very most amateur of naturalists and happy to focus on literature, but I can remember being a kid holding other’s hands while whipping around in the sort of game now banned on most playgrounds, before suddenly letting go and drifting or tumbling off. There are always things we must let go of, but I hope those who detach themselves from science do it for bigger reasons than feeling they must align ourselves with expectations of girl or boy, or lovely nerd or not. And it’s a shame that when students let go of much of science, they often leave in the midst of being asked to memorize basics, so never get to glimpse what those who move ahead find:  a swirl of new questions, the beauty some see not just in the glow of stars, but in equations that reveal randomness or patterns.

Out of breath, with stinging hands, we can forget the way we started out together.



  1. Oh this reminds me of one of my favorite movies, “Contact” with Jodie Foster as a scientist obsessed with finding life in the universe. The scientific community thinks her passion is crazy but she never stops looking at the stars and listening for signals. And lo and behold, she hears one and in the end takes a fantastic trip to the stars! Great movie.

    • Susan, thanks for the suggestion. It’s going on my list!

  2. Hopefully, outdoor education will gain a greater foothold, senses will be awakened, and understanding will grow, if not leading to professional involvement, then to personal and hopefully civic engagement – valuing and protecting what we have. I love the idea of knowing more about what’s around one.

    • Yes, let’s be hopeful, Sarah. Let kids play and wonder.

  3. Applauding your beautiful post with all my might, Jeannine! I used to cycle past Maria Mitchell’s house every day when I worked for the Nantucket Historical Society. And I count myself very lucky to have a scientist dad who nurtured my own interest in the ordinary miracles of the natural world.

    • I love thinking of you bicycling by that house! I hadn’t realized you worked at that Historical Society — how wonderful. And thanks for all the ways you put together science, art, and so many wonders. You’re an inspiration.

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