SWHM Guest: Eileen Dreyer on Remarkable Women

Hello lovelies! I’m really excited to welcome Eileen Dreyer to A Little Bit Tart, A Little Bit Sweet for Women’s History Month. I’m loving these posts on amazing women that really should get more attention than they do, and be studied more. I definitely learned something, and hope you will too! (Eileen is also a first time guest to ALBTALBS – which … how is that even possible?! <3) 

Remarkable Women

By now we all know that the contributions by women in many fields have been lost over time. We’re even enjoying rediscovering them. Anybody who saw Hidden Figures (and if you haven’t, do. Immediately), you’ll see that it wasn’t only women who were erased from the ledgers of NASA accomplishments, but women of color. We were there. They just didn’t think anybody really needed to know.

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.I hope the movie inspired a lot of people to look back for other women who had their discoveries commandeered, like Mary Anning, who in 1815 unearthed the first intact echthyosaur skeleton, thereby revolutionizing geology and introducing the first accepted proof of extinction, only to have her discoveries credited to men who never considered her eligible for the scientific societies that should have sponsored her work.

God knows she isn’t the only one. There is a long line of women who have been either misplaced or lost completely, especially in mathematics and science. In fact, one of the terms floated all through Hidden Figures shares its origins with the history of women and math.

Computers. Back in the 18th and early 19th century, computers were women. This was a time when astronomy enjoyed a real renaissance because of not only advances in technology, but the rise of a class of people who had the financial freedom, time and education to devote to exploring science. A generation of astronomers advanced our understanding of the universe immeasurably. The Hadley brothers invented the first reflecting telescopes. Charles Messier catalogued the various astronomical structures like star clusters, distant galaxies and nebulae. William Hershel not only discovered infrared light, but identified the first new solar system planet since ancient times, Uranus.

But one of the reasons William was able to do that was because he had a most able assistant, his sister Caroline, who sat with him at his telescope as he observed, wrote down his measurements and did the math equations. To be specific, she computed.

Twice Tempted CoverI wish I could say that I’d known about this all along. I can’t. It came to me the way all really interesting information does. I was writing a book. Twice Tempted, set in 1815, is the story of twin sisters whom I had already described as unique. I’d just never said how. That would be because I didn’t know. I didn’t know until I started on their book and they said, quite emphatically, “we are astronomers and mathematicians, and we are in contact with the other contemporary women who are doing the same.”

I hate when my characters do that. I knew nothing about either mathematics or astronomy, except I could find Orion over my house and that my nursing colleagues called my dosage calculations(which were supposed to be algebraic) ‘voodoo math.’

Fortunately I have a buddy who is an amateur astronomer. He introduced me to the sport in general. I then looked more closely into the particulars around the turn of the 19th century. And just as I’d hoped, I was quite delighted. First of all, computers were quite common at the time. The British Nautical Almanac had thirty-five full-time computers, most of them women. The Astronomer Royal used women as computers (one of them, in Twice Tempted, being Mairead Ferguson). Most of their names are lost to history. But they weren’t the only women working in science and mathematics. There were those whose fame survived.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens, 1896 Lithograph.Two I already knew and quite respected. Ada Lovelace, the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, a rare mathematician herself, wrote the first algorithm, which would help give eventual rise to the computer. And Caroline Herschel who began her scientific career, as I said, assisting her brother. But that didn’t last long. Caroline stepped out of William’s shadow by becoming a comet hunter. In a time when only thirty comets had ever been identified, she identified another eight. She was given a stipend by King George III, which was unheard of, especially for a woman. She was also voted in as an honorary fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835 along with another female giant of her day, Mary Somerville (note the term ‘honorary’. Women weren’t allowed in as full fellows until 1945. At least the US included women as full fellows in our American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1835 with our own astronomical genius, Maria Mitchell).

But the greatest contribution women made to the sciences (besides coining the term ‘scientist’ in 1834 by Mary Somerville in her The Connections of the Physical Sciences), was to take science out of the isolated lab and rarified halls of academia and make it available and understandable to the masses. Mary Somerville, Maria Mitchell, Caroline Herschel, Mary Ward, Arabella Buckley, Agnes Giberne, and Alice Bodlington were among those women who not only translated scientific treatises into accessible language, but wrote new textbooks and instructive guides that helped everyday people come to understand the complex relationships between the sciences. They promoted the teaching of science in classrooms and incorporating it into everyday life. Some, like Margaret Bryant, started schools in which sciences were taught as core curriculum.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville by Thomas PhillipsThese women opened the way to share the sciences with not just those with the time, freedom and security to study them, but everyone. They gave us all a better sense of the universe and the language to celebrate it, much in the way Stephen Hawking most recently did with his Brief History of Time. Good company to keep, if you ask me. (I mean that he’s lucky to be in their company, of course).

I hope you get a chance to look up more of these amazing women. Or write their story yourself. They certainly deserve it. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to read Hidden Figures by Margo Lee Shetterly or Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier about Mary Anning.

Did you know about all (or any!) of these remarkable women? Do you have anyone you’d add to this list? <3

3 thoughts on “SWHM Guest: Eileen Dreyer on Remarkable Women

  1. lilmarek

    I stumbled across these and women like them the same way you did—doing research for a book. (It just sort of grow.) I never came across them when I was in school, but then, to be fair to my teachers, I didn’t come across Herschel either. Unless I just wasn’t paying attention in math and science classes, which is quite possible.

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