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Pioneering 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Education and Women in Science

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”

“We are women studying together,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) said to the senior class in astronomy when it entered upon its last year at Vassar College in 1876, where Mitchell had begun teaching after the Civil War as the only woman on the faculty. These seemingly simple and unremarkable words sprang from a remarkable determination that would come to pave the way for women in science. In fact, Mitchell’s strides towards equality in education are unparalleled by any other figure of the era. From Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free download) — which also gave us the beloved astronomer’s timeless wisdom on science and life — comes a fascinating record of Mitchell’s witty, unrelenting spirit and the conviction with which she steered the wheel of science education.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionist

To get an idea of just how radical the notion of women’s education was in the era’s cultural context, here is an anecdote, equal parts amusing and appalling, that Mitchell relays about one particularly anxious mother who placed her daughter in the astronomer’s care at Vassar:

One lady, who seemed to be a bright woman, got me by the button and held me a long time—she wanted this, that, and the other impracticable thing for the girl, and told me how honest her daughter was; then with a flood of tears she said, ‘But she is not a Christian. I know I put her into good hands when I put her here.’ (Then I was strongly tempted to avow my Unitarianism.) Miss W., who was standing by, said, ‘Miss Lyman will be an excellent spiritual adviser,’ and we both looked very serious; when the mother wiped her weeping eyes and said, ‘And, Miss Mitchell, will you ask Miss Lyman to insist that my daughter shall curl her hair? She looks very graceful when her hair is curled, and I want it insisted upon,’ I made a note of it with my pencil, and as I happened to glance at Miss W. the corners of her mouth were twitching, upon which I broke down and laughed. The mother bore it very good-naturedly, but went on. She wanted to know who would work some buttonholes in her daughter’s dress that was not quite finished, etc., and it all ended in her inviting me to make her a visit.

And yet Mitchell had extraordinary clarity of vision when it came to education in all its dimensions, one she eloquently — if sternly — articulated to her pupils:

You cannot study anything persistently for years without becoming learned, and although I would not hold reputation up to you as a very high object of ambition, it is a wayside flower which you are sure to have catch at your skirts.

Whatever apology other women may have for loose, ill-finished work, or work not finished at all, you will have none.

When you leave Vassar College, you leave it the best educated women in the world. Living a little outside of the college, beyond the reach of the little currents that go up and down the corridors, I think I am a fairer judge of your advantages than you can be yourselves; and when I say you will be the best educated women in the world, I do not mean the education of text-books, and class-rooms, and apparatus, only, but that broader education which you receive unconsciously, that higher teaching which comes to you, all unknown to the givers, from daily association with the noble-souled women who are around you.

Mitchell confronted the issue of women’s education head-on, writing in her diary on January 3, 1868:

Meeting Dr. Hill at a private party, I asked him if Harvard College would admit girls in fifty years. He said one of the most conservative members of the faculty had said, within sixteen days, that it would come about in twenty years.* I asked him if I could go into one of Professor Peirce’s recitations. He said there was nothing to keep me out, and that he would let me know when they came.

At eleven A.M., the next Friday, I stood at Professor Peirce’s door. As the professor came in I went towards him, and asked him if I might attend his lecture. He said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Can you not say “I shall be happy to have you”?’ and he said ‘I shall be happy to have you,’ but he didn’t look happy!

[…]

The professor was polite enough to ask us into the senior class, but I had an engagement. I asked him if a young lady presented herself at the door he could keep her out, and he said ‘No, and I shouldn’t.’ I told him I would send some of my girls.

* Harvard founded Radcliffe College, its sister school for women, in 1879 — but female scholars remained segregated there until 1999, when the two schools finally merged and Harvard-Harvard began to “admit girls” more than a century after the professor’s prediction.

Upon visiting Glasgow during her European trip five years later, Mitchell notes the dismal state of women’s education there, emblematic of the era’s general disposition — even, most tragically, of the era’s women “in power” themselves:

‘The Glasgow College for Girls.’ Seeing a sign of this sort, I rang the door-bell of the house to which it was attached, entered, and was told the lady was at home. As I waited for her, I took up the ‘Prospectus,’ and it was enough, — ‘music, dancing, drawing, needlework, and English’ were the prominent features, and the pupils were children. All well enough, — but why call it a college?

When the lady superintendent came in, I told her that I had supposed it was for more advanced students, and she said, ‘Oh, it is for girls up to twenty; one supposes a girl is finished by twenty.’

I asked, as modestly as I could, ‘Have you any pupils in Latin and mathematics?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s for girls, you know. Dr. M. hopes we shall have some mathematics next year.’ ‘And,’ I asked, ‘some Latin?’ ‘Yes, Dr. M. hopes we shall have some Latin; but I confess I believe Latin and mathematics all bosh; give them modern languages and accomplishments. I suppose your school is for professional women.’

I told her no; that the daughters of our wealthiest people demand learning; that it would scarcely be considered ‘good society’ when the women had neither Latin nor mathematics.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘they get married here so soon.’

When I asked her if they had lady teachers, she said ‘Oh, no [as if that would ruin the institution]; nothing but first-class masters.’

It was clear that the women taught the needlework.

But the very faculties that suited women for needlework, Mitchell firmly believed, were also what primed them to be great scientists should they choose to pursue that. In another diary entry, she puts the issue in wonderfully poetic terms:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

It comes as unsurprising testament to Mitchell’s character, then, that shortly thereafter, she makes a resolution that would guide the rest of her life and encapsulate her greatest legacy:

Resolved, in case of my outliving father and being in good health, to give my efforts to the intellectual culture of women, without regard to salary; if possible, connect myself with liberal Christian institutions, believing, as I do, that happiness and growth in this life are best promoted by them, and that what is good in this life is good in any life.

This undying faith in “the intellectual culture of women” comes most vibrantly ablaze in a diary entry from 1874:

For women there are, undoubtedly, great difficulties in the path, but so much the more to overcome. First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?

Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power — your influence is incalculable; personal influence is always underrated by the person. We are all centers of spheres — we see the portions of the sphere above us, and we see how little we affect it. We forget the part of the sphere around and before us — it extends just as far every way.

The “great gain,” she writes, would be freedom of thought:

Women, more than men, are bound by tradition and authority. What the father, the brother, the doctor, and the minister have said has been received undoubtingly. Until women throw off this reverence for authority they will not develop. When they do this, when they come to truth through their investigations, when doubt leads them to discovery, the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.

Mitchell bemoaned the disconnect between academic honors, which reward rote memorization, and actual learning — a challenge that remains unsolved even today.

The whole system is demoralizing and foolish. Girls study for prizes, and not for learning, when ‘honors’ are at the end. The unscholarly motive is wearing. If they studied for sound learning, the cheer which would come with every day’s gain would be health-preserving.

Though Mitchell opposed standardized testing and believed in more dimensional conceptions of intelligence long before it was fashionable to do so — “You cannot mark a human mind, because there is no intellectual unit,” she remarked — she was a fierce champion of the value of reading, particularly of the meticulous “mastication” of intellectual food:

My students used to say that my way of teaching was like that of the man who said to his son, ‘There are the letters of the English alphabet — go into that corner and learn them.’

It is not exactly my way, but I do think, as a general rule, that teachers talk too much! A book is a very good institution! To read a book, to think it over, and to write out notes is a useful exercise; a book which will not repay some hard thought is not worth publishing. The fashion of lecturing is becoming a rage; the teacher shows herself off, and she does not try enough to develop her pupils.

The greatest object in educating is to give a right habit of study….

She was also a proponent of intellectual and creative well-roundedness, the very wide interests that mark most successful scientists:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true,—that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was an enormous champion of endowment, both financial and intellectual, and noted the brokenness of education funding more than a century before today’s student debt crisis:

A genius should wait some years to prove her genius.

Endow the already established institution with money. Endow the woman who shows genius with time.

[…]

When you aid a teacher, you improve the education of your children. It is a wonder that teachers work as well as they do. I never look at a group of them without using, mentally, the expression, ‘The noble army of martyrs’!

The chemist should have had a laboratory, and the observatory should have had an astronomer; but we are too apt to bestow money where there is no man, and to find a man where there is no money.

When she visits Russia, Mitchell remarks upon the divergent cultural attitudes towards supporting education:

St. Petersburg is about the size of Philadelphia [but] there are thousands of women studying science in St. Petersburg. How many thousand women do you suppose are studying science in the whole State of New York? I doubt if there are five hundred.

Then again, as to language. It is rare, even among the common people, to meet one who speaks one language only. If you can speak no Russian, try your poor French, your poor German, or your good English. You may be sure that the shopkeeper will answer in one or another, and even the drosky-driver picks up a little of some one of them.

Of late, the Russian government has founded a medical school for women, giving them advantages which are given to men, and the same rank when they graduate; the czar himself contributed largely to the fund.

One wonders, in a country so rich as ours, that so few men and women gratify their tastes by founding scholarships and aids for the tuition of girls — it must be such a pleasant way of spending money.

Her impression is further confirmed when she shares a train ride with a Russian mother and her daughters on a trip across the country. Mitchell’s conversation with the young girls is profoundly telling, at once tragic and hopeful:

‘Are you interested in questions of government?’ They replied, ‘All Russian women are interested in questions of that sort.’ How many American women are interested in questions concerning government?

These young girls knew exactly what questions to ask about Vassar College, — the course of study, the diploma, the number of graduates, etc. The eldest said: ‘We are at once excited when we hear of women studying; we have longed for opportunities to study all our lives. Our father was the engineer of the first Russian railroad, and he spent two years in America.’

I confess to a feeling of mortification when one of these girls asked me, ‘Did you ever read the translation of a Russian book?’ and I was obliged to answer ‘No.’ This girl had read American books in the original. They were talking Russian, French, German, and English, and yet mourning over their need of education; and in general education, especially in that of women, I think we must be in advance of them.

One of these sisters, forgetting my ignorance, said something to me in Russian. The other laughed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked. The eldest replied, ‘She asked you to take her back with you, and educate her.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘you read and speak your languages — the learning of the world is open to you — found your own college!’ And the young girl leaned back on the cushions, drew her mantle around her, and said, ‘We have not the energy of the American girl!’

The energy of the American girl! The rich inheritance which has come down to her from men and women who sought, in the New World, a better and higher life.

When the American girl carries her energy into the great questions of humanity, into the practical problems of life; when she takes home to her heart the interests of education, of government, and of religion, what may we not hope for our country!

Above all, however, Mitchell championed the idea of challenging convention and never ceasing to question:

There is this great danger in student life. Now, we rest all upon what Socrates said, or what Copernicus taught; how can we dispute authority which has come down to us, all established, for ages?

We must at least question it; we cannot accept anything as granted, beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else.

But perhaps most telling of all was her students’ heartfelt gratitude. In May of 1889, shortly after Mitchell announced her reluctant retirement from Vassar as her health was rapidly declining, one student wrote to her, speaking for all whose lives the great astronomer and educator had touched, both directly and through her landmark cultural legacy:

In all the great wonder of life, you have given me more of what I have wanted than any other creature ever gave me. I hoped I should amount to something for your sake.

Complement Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals with pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s Berkeley commencement address on science and stereotypes a century after Mitchell’s heyday, when both so much and so little has changed, then revisit Mitchell’s Reconstructionists profile.

BP

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

BP

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) made his timeless contribution to the meta-literary canon in a short piece for The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing. The essay, which inspired the Guardian series that gave us similar lists of writing rules by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, was eventually adapted into Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (public library) — a slim, beautifully typeset book, with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello accompanying Leonard’s timeless rules.

He prefaces the list with a short disclaimer of sorts:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Leonard then goes on to lay out the ten commandments, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  3. Avoid prologues.
  4. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  5. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  6. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

  7. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …
  8. …he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

  9. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  10. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  11. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  12. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  13. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  14. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

  15. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  16. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

  17. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  18. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

    And finally:

  19. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  20. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

    What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

    Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

    Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Complement Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing with the 10 best books on writing and the collected advice of other famous writers, including Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

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