Giant leap for women: early ‘lady’ astronomers have asteroids named in their honour | Astronomy

They charted the stars for pitiful wages, knowing their observations about the universe would be attributed to male colleagues, and died in relative obscurity, their scientific achievements unrecognised and overlooked.

Now, in a tribute to trailblazing British female astronomers, two asteroids have been named for Annie Maunder and Alice Everett, among the first women in the world to earn a living in astronomy.

Maunder and Everett, who became friends while studying mathematics at Girton College in Cambridge in the 1880s, were early members of the British Astronomical Association (BAA), which put their names forward to the Catalina Sky Survey for the honour.

Annie Maunder at Girton, Cambridge, in 1886. Photograph: The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

“These were extraordinary women who did extraordinary things,” said Mike Frost, head of BAA’s historical section. “They deserve their place up in the sky.”

Like all female students at Cambridge until 1948, the pair were not awarded degrees despite passing their examinations with honours. After graduating, they both took jobs as “lady computers” at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. “Lady computers would measure the positions of stars and convert them into astronomical tables,” said Frost.

“The Astronomer Royal realised there was this pool of women coming out of Oxbridge, highly talented in mathematics, who could be hired cheaply.”

Before accepting the job, Maunder – ranked top mathematician of her year at Girton – begged for an increase on her £4 a month salary, explaining she could “scarcely live on it”: “Does the fact that I have taken the mathematical tripos at Cambridge make no difference?” she asked in a letter, to no avail.

After recording the largest sunspot ever seen at Greenwich, Maunder married her boss, Edward Walter Maunder – a widowed father of five, 17 years her senior – and as a result was forced to resign her post. She continued to work as a volunteer assistant to her husband, going on expeditions with him around the world to successfully photograph the total eclipse of the sun – a “technically very difficult” feat, said Frost. “She was a very talented astronomer and solar photographer.”

Later, Maunder and her husband created the now-famous butterfly diagram in order to analyse sunspots, but she was not credited as a co-author. The pair published extensively but often only under Walter’s name. In the preface of one joint popular astronomy book, Walter acknowledged the text was “almost wholly the work of my wife”.

Refused fellowship of the male-only Royal Astronomical Society until 1916, Maunder could not present scientific papers, relying on her husband to communicate her controversial discoveries about the asymmetrical nature of sunspots. She sought funding from Girton to buy a camera, and in 1898 captured evidence of a 10m km stream from the sun – the longest extension ever observed at that point.

Everett, meanwhile, struggled to earn enough as an astronomer to support herself, despite observing and measuring the positions of 22,000 stars in a single year and publishing two papers on star orbits. “She was offered a post at a big observatory but it was withdrawn because they couldn’t figure out how to allow a woman to observe there for practical reasons,” said Frost. “But Alice was not someone who let adversity get in her way.”

Alice Everett at Girton in 1886.
Alice Everett at Girton in 1886. Photograph: The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Aged 35, she began working in the related field of optics, becoming the first woman to write a paper for the journal of the Physical Society of London in 1903. She then began a second career as a physicist in the National Physical Laboratory before retiring in 1925 – and starting her third career, aged 60, as an electrical engineer.

Working with the inventor of the television, John Logie Baird, she successfully applied for joint patents relating to television optics, and it is likely she was present at the first demonstration of a television image in 1926.

“She was a pioneer of early television technology and a founding fellow of the Royal Television Society,” said Frost.

Dr Elisabeth Kendall, mistress of Girton, said the Victorian women at Girton were often pioneering and fearless, and lived together in a unique, “spirited atmosphere” that taught them to be resilient and turn to each other for support. “There was a sense of community and camaraderie,” she said. “You’re already doing something daring just by joining this institution and getting yourself to the very top of your academic game.”

It was a collegiate experience, packed with tennis matches, horseriding, feasts and college songs, that prepared the women to “be the first to break ground in what were essentially men’s fields”, she said. “A lot of these women were used to having to fight their way through to achieve their potential. They knew they had to be better than the best men.”

By naming the asteroids after Everett and Maunder, the world is “finally” acknowledging their scientific contributions to astronomy, Kendall said, and that’s not just about doing justice to the past. “It’s about inspiring the future.”

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