Women have contributed to astronomy in many ways in Australia and International Women's Day is a timely reminder that their contributions have often been overlooked by historians, or not well noted during their lifetime. My research for this blog post has focussed on three of the women who were admitted to the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Association (BAA NSW) in the first two decades of its inception in 1895: Cecilia Maclellan, Edith Deane and Lucy Gullett (pictured second from the left in the photograph below).
It seems that when you look for women in the history of astronomy, they re-appear. Research for my doctoral thesis uncovered a significant number of women who worked on the Astrographic Catalogue from 1890 at Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney Observatories (1). The character of the individuals and research into the extent and originality of their work revealed that many of them were far more involved in astronomy research than their clerical pay scale and the title of their position implied. I was curious as to whether this was the same for women in amateur societies, in particular the BAA NSW, now called Sydney City Skywatchers.
The establishment and popularity of amateur astronomy societies in Australia has been linked to a Transit of Venus in 1882 and naked eye comets in 1882 and 1887 as well as the growing capability of amateur astronomers in the major cities (2). The acceptance of women into these societies, and their enthusiasm to join, may have been influenced by the increased number of women who were published in popular astronomy, for example Agnes Mary Clerk (3,4) and Mary Ackworth Orr (5), and the publicity given to the work of women at Harvard College Observatory and on the Astrographic Catalogue. A few women, for example Mary Proctor, gave extensive lecture tours, travelling around the globe. When Proctor visited Australia in 1912 she received great media attention (6).
Amongst the first woman to be elected to the BAA NSW was Cecilia Maclellan (1876-1957) who was admitted in 1896 (7). In 1898 the Branch report, published in the BAA Journal, stated that MacLellan ‘handed in a number of meteor observations’ (8). She was elected to the council on 18 April, 1899 as the honourary librarian and she was also listed as an 'ex officio' council member in the annual reports (2,9,10). Maclellan held this position on the council until 1906.
Maclellan was an active member as demonstrated by a news-media report of the total lunar eclipse which occurred on Friday 23 June 1899 in which Maclellan was named as amongst those who viewed the Moon from Bondi Beach (11). She appears to have been the only woman who held a position in the BAA NSW until Edith Deane (1881 - ?), who was accepted as a member in 1902. In October 1903 Deane was also elected to the committee, meaning that there were now two women in a committee of twelve representatives (12). The Branch reports around that period state that women attended the regular meetings in significant numbers. Nonetheless it was very unusual for a woman to present a paper or observation at the meetings and I will therefore note the instance where an accomplished female amateur astronomer’s paper was tabled.
Mary Ackworth Orr (1867-1949) was a temporary resident in Australia from 1890 to 1895 travelling with her sister and mother. She made herself known to John Tebbutt, who was a well-known amateur astronomer and President of the BAA NSW prior to moving to Queensland. During her five years in Australia she was elected to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and acquired knowledge of the Southern Stars (13). She published the first ‘Easy Guide to the Southern Stars’ in 1896, with a preface by John Tebbutt (5). Although she had departed Australia before the BAA NSW Branch was fully established, at the monthly BAA NSW Branch meeting held on 20 October 1896 Orr’s report about her expedition to Vadso, Norway, for the total Solar Eclipse which occurred on 9 August, was read (14). Orr continued her work in astronomy with her astronomer-husband John Evershed. Orr was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1923.
Lucy Gullett (1876-1949) and her sister, Minnie Gullett (1975-1943), were admitted into the BAA NSW on 28 March 1917. Their father Henry Gullett (1837-1914) was a keen amateur astronomer and a member of the society who, it was reported in the popular press, had spoken at Mary Proctor’s reception in Sydney during her visit to Australia in 1912. It is likely the sisters were present. Doctor Lucy Gullett is remembered as one of the first women medical doctors in Australia, receiving her bachelor of medicine and master of surgery from The University of Sydney (15). Her service in WWI and the concerns she shared with her sister in the need for mental health reform have been well documented. Most notably Gullett’s dedication towards providing medical services for women and children, especially her work in the administration of the Rachel Forster Home for Women and Children, establishing the Lucy Gullett Convalescent Home in Bexley, and the NSW Association of Registered Medical Women has been recognised in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
These are just a few stories about women in amateur astronomy in Sydney in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The NSW Branch of the BAA is now called the Sydney City Skywatchers and the membership is balanced by gender. The monthly presentations are delivered by women as well as men. In the library you can still find the well-thumbed books about astronomy written by Agnes Clerke, but there was very little written about the women who were members. I have not yet uncovered to what extent Gullett and her sister contributed to, or attended, the BAA NSW Branch meetings, why Edith Deane was elected to the council, nor why Maclellan disappears from the reports of the BAA NSW after 1906.
In conclusion, it appears that well into the latter quarter of the 20th Century the opportunities for women to actively participate and be published and acknowledged as participating in, or as the originators of new knowledge, in astronomy were limited not by their ability and enthusiasm, nor as it seems by individual males, as the attribute for invisibility is pervasive, but by the gender-prejudiced culture of the time period.
Stevenson, T 2016, Measuring the stars and observing the less visible: Australia’s participation in the Astrographic Catalogue and Carte du Ciel, thesis The University of Sydney, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/15762
Orchiston, W 1988, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol.98, no.2, p.75-84, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1988JBAA...98...75O
Clerke, A M 1893, A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, 3rd edition
Clerke, A M 1890, The System of Stars, Longmans Green and Co., London
Orr, M A 1897, An Easy Guide to the Southern Stars (2nd Edition), Gall and Inglis, London
1912 'POPULAR ASTRONOMY MISS PROCTOR'S VISIT.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 20 August, p. 8. , viewed 04 Mar 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28131011
Creese, M & Creese, T M 2010. Ladies in the laboratory III: South African, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian women in science : nineteenth and early twentieth centuries : a survey of their contributions, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., p. 59
Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1898 vol. 8, pp.373-373
1899 'The Sydney Morning Herald.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 19 April, p. 6. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14210012
Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1899 vol. 9, pp.311-314
1899 'TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE MOON.', Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), 26 June, p. 3. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113274518
1903 'ASTRONOMICAL ASSOCIATION.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 23 October, p. 8. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14574579
Brück, M T 1998, ‘Mary Ackworth Evershed née Orr (1867–1949), solar physicist and Dante scholar’, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 45–59
1896 'British Astronomical Association.', Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), 22 October, p. 4. , viewed 25 Feb 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article108218119
Mitchell, A M 1983, ‘Gullett, Lucy Edith (1879-1949)’,Australian Dictionary of Biography National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gullett-lucy-edith-6505/text11161