It is interesting to look back and see how limits have been put on women throughout history. Another example of false information stopping women from being more a part of the world is the story of the amazing woman, Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Henrietta lived in the 1800s when it was believed that our Milky Way galaxy was the center of the universe and the most significant object in it. However, during this time larger telescopes began to look further into the heavens finding more accurate information. One of these larger telescopes was located at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This telescope took photographic negatives of the night sky that were created as the telescope was aimed into the heavens and “its light focused onto a large glass plate coated on one side with light-sensitive emulsion” (Johnson, 10). Henrietta was employed at the Harvard Observatory as a human computer, and it was her job to count and study the stars on these photographic plates. Miss Leavitt and other women spent the day examining the tiny dark dots on the white background of space, and recording their observations in a ledger book.
Previous to her employment at the Harvard Observatory, Miss Leavitt attended Oberlin College and Radcliffe Academy taking various courses covering a wide range of fields of study. Shortly before her twenty-fourth birthday in 1892, she graduated with a certificate saying she had completed a number of curriculum courses. If she had been a man during this era, the courses she successfully completed would have earned her a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard.
These women or human computers were not allowed to actually view the sky with the telescope at Harvard Observatory because it was “assumed that night-long vigils in a frigid dome required a masculine physique” (Center for the History of Physics). However, this did not stop Miss Leavitt from contributing to the field of astronomy.
As Miss Leavitt spent hours studying the star patterns on the pieces of glass, she eventually discovered a way to measure the distances of far away objects in the universe. She determined that there was a relationship between the brightness of variable stars or Cepheids, (those who change in brightness) and how long they remained bright. Her discovery meant that Cepheids could be used as “cosmic measuring posts” for objects far beyond our solar system to determine how far away they actually were from the Earth.
It is interesting to note that while Miss Leavitt made her “universe changing discovery” by studying photographic plates, she was able to do more to advance astronomy than some of the male astronomers of that era.
An example of this is the astronomer William H. Pickering, brother of Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory. William had the luxury of looking at any time, through one of the best telescopes available; however, his theories were not as notable as Miss Leavitt’s. He had developed an assumption that the dark patches on the Moon were due to seasonal swarms of migrating insects (Bryson, 163).
In 1912 Miss Leavitt’s findings were published in a Harvard Circular under the name of the director of the Harvard Observatory, Edward Pickering.
Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Random House, New York, 2005.
Center for History of Physics. Women in Astronomy. http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/island.html “Island Universes”. (accessed 11 September 2009).
Johnson, George. Miss Leavitt’s Stars. W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.
Shanti Sosienski, Women Who Run (California: Seal Press, 2006).