The Contributions of Women to the United States Naval Observatory: The Early Years.

The United States Naval Observatory has a long and unique role in the American astronomical community. Although the observatory is one of the oldest scientific institutions in the United States, the contributions made by our women staff members have been confined to the last 100 years. This is in part due to the restrictions placed on women by society, as well as those on women in a military institution, and those imposed by the mission of the Observatory. On this page, I will examine the lives and contributions of the handful of young women who came to the Observatory before 1920.

Part 1: History and Background

Women were breaking into the field of astronomy in the late nineteenth century for many reasons. Women were often used at observatories because they could be paid less than men in the same position. Americas most prominent female astronomer Maria Mitchell received a salary of only $800 a year while her male colleagues at Vassar received $2500 a year. In 1900, after almost 20 years of service to the Harvard College Observatory, Williamina Fleming was receiving a salary of just $1,500 a year while male assistants were paid at least $2,500. Flemming's boss, Edward Pickering wrote in his 1898 annual report that women were "Capable of doing as much good routine work as astronomers who would receive larger salaries. Three or four times as many assistants can thus be employed."

At the USNO men and women computers (referred to as "Subprofessionals" at the Observatory) were paid the same salary, $1,200 a year in 1906, as dictated by a pay scale set in 1892. However, men were given a path to better job opportunities and were usually not limited to computing for very long.

The military sponsorship of the observatory created several unique roadblocks for a successful career for women. Unlike university and private observatories, the most prestigious jobs at the Naval Observatory required a military commission. These Navy commissions were not available for women so women could not even aspire to high ranking positions at the USNO. Inclusion in books such as American Men of Science, or in scientific societies was often based on the number of publications in scientific journals. However, the Observatory had a tradition of publishing work done by computers or assistants under the name of a supervisor, or in the publications of the Naval Observatory rather than a scientific journal, so the Observatory women were often not eligible for this recognition. The other important influence of the military heritage was the fact that all work at the Observatory had to be directly related to the mission of the Observatory as determined by the Navy. The history of the Naval Observatory is peppered with battles over what research should be conducted by the staff at the Observatory. Women (and men) were not free in the military environment to choose research topics and pursue original innovative research. With the retirement of Simon Newcomb in 1897, most of the activities at the Observatory became routine and appropriations nominal. It appears that much of the exciting original work was being passed to newer and larger observatories.

 When evaluating the success of the women employees prior to 1920 one must be aware that the most successful career path at the Observatory at this time required a person to be able to observe with one of the many telescopes on the grounds. However not a single observation at the Naval Observatory was made by a woman until after World War I. Employees with the USNO prior to the war report that there was a general policy of discrimination against women as observers. Women were not allowed to observe because "It would be immoral for women to be alone amongst the equipment at night." and "Women did not have the abilities that would be required to observe nights." It was not until after the war that women were finally accepted as observers and only then because the Observatory was having difficulties finding men to fill vacancies. The Astronomical Council was forced to accept women if they were "in any way qualified". All of the women served at some point as a computer, yet even in that capacity they were subject to discrimination. Morgan, the man in charge of the work done with the nine-inch telescope didn't trust the work done by the Computing Division so he required those reductions to be done by the men making the observations. However, even with the discrimination and limitations imposed on them the women examined here made significant contributions and were able to lay the groundwork for the women who would follow.



Part 2: Biographical Sketches of:

Lilia J Harvie Barnett
Charlotte Cynthia Barnum
Elizabeth Brown Davis
Lucy T. Day
Etta Maine Eaton

Alice Mabel Gray (Wilson)
Vera Marie Gushee
Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall
Hannah Fancher Mace Hedrick

Eleanor Annie Lamson
Catherine deMille Lewis
Isabel Martin Lewis

Part 3: Index of Pictures

Part 5: Other Links of Interest


Please note that this is an ongoing project and any input or new information would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to contact Merri Sue Carter at:

msc@maia.usno.navy.mil
Last modified: 14 Nov 2001