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Women in Astronomy

Pickering and his "Harem," the stellar classification team at the Harvard College Observatory.
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Edward Pickering, the newly appointed director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1881 and an advocate of advanced study for women, grew so exasperated with his male assistant's inefficiency that he declared that even his maid could do a better job of copying and computing. So she did. And so did some twenty more females at the Observatory over the next several decades. They were recruited for their steadiness, adaptability, acuteness of vision, and willingness to work for very low wages. The practice spread, due as much, perhaps, to the rapid growth of new observatories as to the exemplary successes achieved by early women workers. By 1920 well over a hundred women had worked at various observatories in the United States. Women were not permitted to observe, however, it being assumed that night-long vigils in a frigid dome required a masculine physique. Nevertheless some, like Henrietta Leavitt, made important discoveries.



Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Through tedious and exacting comparisons of photographic plates, Leavitt discovered some 2,400 variable stars and the period-luminosity relation for Cepheid-type variable stars, the key to modern astronomical distance determinations. She received her A.B. degree from Radcliffe College in 1892, when women could not yet earn a Harvard degree. The Harvard College Observatory employed female assistants, although they were not allowed to observe, and Leavitt became chief of the photographic photometry department.

See also Annie Jump Cannon

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