Picturing Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration

By Adler Planetarium

Images spanning four centuries reveal changing attitudes towards the participation of women in astronomy and space exploration, and hint at enduring prejudices and stereotypes yet to be eradicated.  

Johannes Hevelii Prodromus astronomiae : exhibens fundamenta, quae tam ad novum planè & correctiorem stellarum fixarum catalogum construendum, quàm ad omnium planetarum tabulas corrigendas omnimodè spectant; nec non novas & correctiores tabulas solares, aliasâque plurimas ad astronomiam pertinentes / Quibus additus est uterque Catalogus stellarum fixarum, tam major ad annum 1660, quàm minor ad annum completum 1700. Accessit corollarii loco Tabula motus lunae libratorii.Adler Planetarium

The Ethereal Muse

In this 17th-century image, Urania, the muse of astronomy, presides over an imaginary gathering of great historical astronomers, all of them male. Astronomical books and illustrations from the period often were adorned with women depicted in the same manner - as mythological entities that enticed men to pursue knowledge, not as pursuers of knowledge themselves.

Johannis Hevelii Machinae coelestis pars prior [-posterior].Adler Planetarium

The Domestic Assistant

This 17th-century illustration shows the renowned Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius and his wife, Elisabeth, operating a large sextant in their home observatory. Before the 20th century, a close familial tie with a male scientist was often the way for women to engage with scientific pursuits, typically in a domestic environment. Women such as Elizabeth Hevelius became skillful experts on their own, but were primarily regarded as dedicated assistants.

Illustration from Martin's General Magazine, 1755Adler Planetarium

The Attentive Listener

This 18th-century illustration shows a university student teaching astronomy to his attentive sister. She is avid to learn but cannot enroll at a higher education institution herself, because those are strictly for men. Depictions where a male character taught science to a female became a popular genre. They usually depicted women as keen learners, but also contributed to reinforce gender stereotypes as to who held the intellectual authority.

Plate from Walker's "Geography"Adler Planetarium

The Active Participant

This image from John Walker’s "Elements of Geography" (first published in 1795) contrasts with other imagery from the period as it shows “regular” women (not muses) mastering astronomy in the absence of male figures. Two of them explain the Earth’s seasons, while the other performs observations with a quadrant. It reflects Walker’s Quaker beliefs, which valued scientific education and an active role for women in all aspects of social life.

"Caroline Herschel"Adler Planetarium

The Accomplished Astronomer

Caroline Herschel was the first woman astronomer to receive a regular stipend for her own scientific work. Destined to take care of her family’s domestic chores, she became a valuable assistant to her brother, the famous astronomer William Herschel, and eventually a respected astronomer in her own right. Caroline is shown here pointing at a comet’s orbit. Among many other accomplishments, she discovered eight comets.

A compendious system of astronomy : in a course of familiar lectures : in which the principles of that science are clearly elucidated, so as to be intelligible to those who have not studied the mathematics : also trigonometrical and celestial problems, with a key to the ephemeris, and a vocabulary of the terms of science used in the lectures : which latter are explained agreeably to their application in them / by Margaret Bryan.Adler Planetarium

The Committed  Educator

Margaret Bryan was a respected educator who led schools for girls and wrote books on astronomy and other scientific subjects. This image from her "A Compendious System of Astronomy" (1797) depicts Margaret with her two daughters. The various instruments in the image reinforce the message that astronomy did not have to be exclusively for men.

Astronomie et météorologie a l'usage des jeunes personnes : d'apres Arago, Laplace et W. Herschell / par Ulliac-Trémadeure.Adler Planetarium

Urania Promoting Change

Here Urania takes a young woman sitting by a set of astronomical instruments on a journey of learning through the heavens. Formerly the muse of an exclusively male cohort of scientists, Urania is now bringing women into astronomy. This image is thus symbolic of the 19th-century struggles of women to gain more access to the sciences and to education in general.

"Astronomie des dames"Adler Planetarium

The Secluded Learners

This 19th-century illustration presents a group of women actively engaged with astronomy, but also hints at enduring prejudices. All the women look alike, sporting the same kind of fanciful attire and hairdo. There is not a single male figure in the scene, as to suggest that women willing to cultivate the sciences would have to do it away from the traditional spaces of learning dominated by men.

Phillip Fox and American Astronomical Society meeting attendees with coelostatAdler Planetarium

Woman in a Man's World  

This photograph shows a group of astronomers at the Adler Planetarium in 1930, during the 44th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Annie Jump Cannon, who played a fundamental role in establishing the modern classification of stars, stands out in a group dominated by men. The image reflects the striking gender imbalance in the AAS and more generally in astronomy at the time - in a cohort of 100 attendees, Cannon was one among 12 female attendees.

Maude Bennot operating the Zeiss projectorAdler Planetarium

Woman in Command

Maude Bennott is shown here operating the Adler Planetarium’s original Zeiss II projector. Bennot played an important role in shaping the Adler’s first sky shows and exhibits. In 1937 she took the post of Acting Director, becoming the first woman in the world to lead a planetarium. Despite her popularity with the public and managerial acumen in times of war and economic depression, Bennott was dismissed in 1944 to be replaced by a man.

Stamp of Valentina TereshkovaAdler Planetarium

The Cosmonaut

This Soviet post stamp shows Valentina Tereshkova side-by-side with a fellow cosmonaut (as astronauts were called in the  Soviet Union). In 1963, with the Cold War and the Space Race raging, Tereshkova became the first woman to travel in space. News about Tereshkova’s deed showed Americans that scientific and technological dominance required the full participation of women. But it would take two decades before the USA started to send women to space.

Postal Envelope of women in space flightAdler Planetarium

The Astronauts

The six women pictured here were part of the first group of 35 candidates who received training to fly aboard the Space Shuttle. Sally Ride (top right) became the first American woman in space in 1983. All of them partook of Space Shuttle missions and established milestones for the participation of women in the American space program.

Mae Jemison at the University of Illinois Chicago PavilionAdler Planetarium

An Inspiring Trailblazer

In September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space, flying aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. In this photograph, taken one month later, she holds a sphere depicting the Earth as seen from space, together with a group of young people. The image conveys a powerful message - that understanding our planet and making it a better one requires the participation of all people, and there should be no barriers to anyone willing to be part of the journey.     

Credits: Story

Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium for their assistance in creating this exhibition.

Visit us here: http://www.adlerplanetarium.org

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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