In modern western astrology, many celestial bodies are named after women, mythological and literary alike. This includes the planet Venus, named for the goddess of love and beauty, Uranus’ moons of literary ladies, and constellations such as the seven sisters – the Pleiades. The most renowned scientists in ancient astronomy, however, were predominantly male – think Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Galileo. Women working within the science were predominantly unseen and not given nearly enough credit for their work. Still, they persevered.
Three key women in the history of astronomy, who helped pave the way include:
Sophie Brahe, Denmark, 16th-17th century
Sophie assisted her brother Tycho Brahe with his astronomical calculations, but their family were members of the aristocracy and strongly disapproved of her interest in science. She went on to assist her brother Tycho with observations that uncovered supernova, to observe a lunar eclipse, and play a fundamental role in her brother’s work on explaining orbits.
Wang Zhenyi, China, 18th century
Wang Zhenyi was self taught in a time when education and women’s rights were severely limited. She published at least 12 books on astronomy, and conducted experiments to simulate and explain the lunar eclipse scientifically, something that hadn’t yet been done. Furthermore, she took up poetry and used it to express her opinions about the importance of equality, with regards to age, wealth, and race.
Caroline Herschel, Germany, 19th century
Caroline served as her brother William Herschel’s assistant. Learning quickly, she discovered three new nebulae – multiple comets – and began cataloguing them. She was the first woman astronomer to go on to receive a salary for her work, and to be accepted into a scientific organisation. Despite her achievements and her self-proclaimed work in ‘minding the heavens’ was still made to believe: “I am nothing, I have done nothing; all I am, all I know, I owe to my brother.”
What does equality look like today?
While there’s still a way to go, it’s important to recognise we’ve come such a long way since this point. Today, children from all backgrounds are encouraged to pursue science and technology fields in later study. Programs such as space camps and science and astronomy centres make astronomy engaging and accessible. We’ve seen women go to space, awards to reward industry inclusion and diversity and a world where women and men alike can aspire to be anything they want to be. The gender gap is far from closed, but we’re on the right path and It’s a pretty good place to start.
- Staci Pearlman is studying arts and science at ANU.
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