The problem with discounting the history of female scientists
Like so many other scientific concepts, there is mnemonic device for the modern stellar spectral classification scheme, also known as the Harvard Spectral Classification Scheme. The scheme is ordered by decreasing temperature of stars—categorized into different classes: O, B, A, F, G, K, M. The device, however, is more sinister than the innocuous concept it stands for: It’s “Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me.”
I first heard the sentence at a star-gazing event. I was surprised that such an antiquated phrase is still used to teach astronomy. I was even more surprised to learn that the classification scheme was created in 1918 by a woman: Annie Jump Cannon. When I decided to look into the history behind this modern stellar spectral classification scheme, however, I found that it highlights the barriers that women of science have faced, and continue to face to this day.
Annie Jump Cannon worked for Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory. Between 1877 to 1919, Pickering employed 80 women to compute and catalog astronomical data. These women, who were referred to individually as “computers” and collectively as “Pickering’s Harem,” were crucial to helping Pickering achieve his ultimate goal of photographing and cataloging the entire sky. That’s because these hard-working women not only were reduced to objectifying monikers, but also earned only half of what a man doing the same job would have been paid.
Despite these injustices, Annie Jump Cannon created the stellar spectral classification system, which is still used today by astronomers. Twenty years after Cannon created what is now known as the Harvard (note, not “Cannon”) Spectral Classification Scheme, Harvard acknowledged her massive contribution. In juxtaposition, Pickering received many awards during his lifetime, including the Bruce Medal, which is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s highest honor. Craters on the moon and on Mars are even named after him.
Unfortunately, the way Cannon was treated in her field is hardly unrecognizable to female astronomers today: Women continue to be disrespected and undermined by men in their field. For example, Geoff Marcy, who is widely considered a leader in astronomy and planet discovery, was accused of sexually harassing female Ph.D. students, resulting in one of the students leaving the field altogether. An overview of 50 years of research published in astronomy journals found that studies written by women receive 10 percent fewer citations than similar studies by men.
If we continue to discount women’s work—in astronomy and beyond—we could easily overlook incredible discoveries and achievements along with them. We have to ask ourselves where we will be if the accomplishments of half of the world’s population continue to be swept under the rug. And what amazing things could have already been accomplished by now if women had always been treated with the same respect as men?
There are a few other mnemonic devices used for the modern stellar spectral classification. There is the slightly modified “Oh Be A Fine [Guy/Gal/Girl] Kiss Me” and “Oh Begone, A Friend's Gonna Kiss Me.” But my personal favorite is “Only Boys Accepting Feminism Get Kissed Meaningfully.” Accepting feminism has the potential to take science, society, and the world much farther than we could ever go without it.
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