They called them Computers
The history of the largest program of variable stars search and study of all time was written by women.
In the late nineteenth century at Harvard women were hired in order to analyze and compile astronomical data. For some time now some woman was recruited, but the situation changed dramatically in the 1880s, when Pickering, the Harvard Observatory director, decided to undertake the Henry Draper Catalogue project.
Henry Draper had begun a project to catalog all the stars in the sky, but died long before completion. His widow, however, desired the project to be continued in his memory and made a donation of nearly $ 400,000 to Harvard to be ended. The decision to apply photography to determine stars positions, spectral types and variability, made the task become more comparable to office work than observatory one, facilitating women’s entry, under the Pickering direction and Ms. Fleming monitoring.
These women, “The Pickering’s harem” as some jokingly called them, began the painstaking task of all photographed stars cataloging and classifying their spectra. They earned between 25 and 35 cents per hour for working seven hours a day, six days a week. Although this salary was comparable to the average worker one, this was below the one earned by women working in an office, and sometimes was clearly low, considering that many of them had university education. Some were known as “computers” because they classified stars and the reduction of complex data, and the other ones, who worked as assistants, were called “registers” because they recorded data.
Annie Cannon is probably the most famous of these women. She catalogued thousands of stars and was named astronomical photographs curator, succeeding Fleming who had also worked on it. Cannon developed a rating system for these stars which was adopted as the standard with some slight modifications in the International Astronomical Union Meeting in 1910.
Antonia Caetana Maury also developed a bit more complex classification system. However, the system anticipated the connection between temperature and luminosity now seeing in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Both women developed an amazing job at Harvard Observatory and deserve to be recognized for their achievements.
Another “astronomer woman” at Harvard was Williamina Fleming. Fleming was full-time employed at the observatory in 1881 despite her mathematics and physics ignorance. She was Pickering´s maid when he decided to hire her at the observatory. In 1886 he replaced Nettie A. Farrar in the project of Henry Draper Catalogue who left the job to get married. In 1899 she became responsible for the photographic archive, which meant the first Harvard corporate office developed by a woman. A story of how Pickering hired her is told: it is said that he was tired of the work that his male assistant was doing and bet that even his maid could do better. Provisionally he put her in his place and she proceeded to perform the task with great efficiency, much better than the Pickering helper, and consequently he hired her.
Another prominent Harvard figure was Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1892 and started working at Harvard. Like other women’s team she made great contributions to astronomy, and became famous for her Cepheids in the Magellanic Clouds study.
However, this idyllic situation of equality between men and women was more apparent than real. In 1923, through the Pickering´s women assistants fund, Harlow Shapley hired a young english woman named Cecilia Payne to work with stellar spectra. Two years later, Payne completed her research and presented her doctoral thesis about stellar atmospheres. But whatever that Harvard University (only for men) no doctorates were granted to women, Payne had to present her thesis at the Radcliffe University (only for women). Thus, in 1925 she became the first person to receive an astronomy doctorate in a Harvard College Observatory research project.
By 1933, a doctoral degree in astronomy was granted to eight graduates who had undertaken research projects at Harvard College Observatory: four men who received their degree at Harvard and four women in Radcliffe.
In the next years, however, the distribution of rankings for men and women quickly changed. In 1943, 30 were granted, only 10 of them belonged to women. In 1955, from 60 doctoral degrees, only 14 were granted to women. In just two decades, astronomers ratio had fallen to 50%. Also, until the mid-sixties, the astronomers women had yet to enroll at Radcliffe for their doctorate, because they were not admitted at Harvard University.