Anthony, for instance—are still appreciated, but there are a number of intellectual women whose crucial roles in the philosophical, social, and scientific debates that roiled the era have not been fully examined.
Among them is the astronomer Maria Mitchell. She was raised in isolated but cosmopolitan Nantucket, a place brimming with enthusiasm for intellectual culture and hosting the luminaries of the day, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Sojourner Truth. Like many island girls, she was encouraged to study the stars. Given the relative dearth of women scientists today, most of us assume that science has always been a masculine domain.
Mitchell apprenticed with her father, an amateur astronomer; taught herself the higher math of the day; and for years regularly "swept" the clear Nantucket night sky with the telescope in her rooftop observatory. In , thanks to these diligent sweeps, Mitchell discovered a comet and was catapulted to international fame.
Within a few years she was one of America's first professional astronomers; as "computer of Venus"—a sort of human calculator—for the U. Navy's Nautical Almanac, she calculated the planet's changing position. After an intellectual tour of Europe that included a winter in Rome with Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mitchell was invited to join the founding faculty at Vassar College, where she spent her later years mentoring the next generation of women astronomers.
Tragically, opportunities for her students dried up over the next few decades as the increasingly male scientific establishment began to close ranks. Mitchell protested this cultural shift in vain. The question whether women have the capacity for original investigation in science is simply idle until equal opportunity is given them. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science tells a great, if too little known, story of an intellectual woman in 19th century New England. And it is beautifully told: I simply could not put it down.
Anyone who cares about women's education in America should read this compelling and indispensable book. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: One feels and hears the sounds of Mitchell's native Nantucket, her adopted Vassar, and comes to understand how one of the 'gentler sex' advanced astronomy in her day.