Who is she?
Maria Mitchell was the first American woman to work as an astronomer, and in 1847 discovered a comet that became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”. Maria was recognised internationally for her discovery, and went on to became professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865.
After teaching there for some time, she learned that despite her reputation and experience, her salary was less than that of many younger male professors. She insisted on a salary increase, and got it. She taught at the college until her retirement in 1888, one year before her death.
Maria also helped to found the American Association for the Advancement of Women, which aimed to promote practical ways for women to access higher education. She also realised that women needed to work to fund their college education (young men had always done so, but not women, and therefore their education was more expensive). Maria believed “a habit of earning money” gave women “a lifelong advantage”.
She was also a boundary pusher. In 1856 when she travelled to the Vatican Observatory in Italy, she was refused entry because she was a woman. She fought to gain entry and after two weeks this was allowed – she was the first woman to do so.
Why should we thank her?
Maria was a pioneer in establishing women in the sciences and helped pave the way for other women to pursue their own academic pathways. She was not prepared to be denied because of her gender.
“Until women throw off reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their own investigations, when doubts lead them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs, and their minds will go on unfettered.”