Tag Archives: feminism

The Silence of the Girls

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother knows me very well. For my birthday this year, she sent me a book about the science inspiring Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Which I had never heard of but is described as telling the story go The Iliad through the voices of Briseis and other women.

Unknown.jpegYES!

Spoilers, I guess, for the story of The Iliad. I mean it’s been 2500 years or so, but I guess not everyone knows who dies…

A version of The Iliad from Briseis’ POV is different from, for example, that told by Cassandra or Helen. I think this is a marvellous idea, since she’s right there at the heart of the quarrel that is itself the heart of the problems in this story. And the first part is largely what I was hoping for. It starts with Briseis being captured, along with other women, and there’s a marvellous moment where she looks at a slave woman who looks back, and Briseis knows she is thinking ‘now it’s your turn.’ And Briseis knows that’s fair, because she’s never given much thought to the slave women in her life, who themselves have been captured in war. She and the others get carted off to the Trojan beach, and she’s handed to Achilles, and she experiences the life of a slave woman. There are some remarkable moments where she reflects on being a thing, and how she finds it hard herself to think of herself as anything but a thing.

And then. Sigh.

After Briseis is taken from Achilles and given to Agamemnon suddenly we get these sections written from Achilles’ point of view. I’m confused and disappointed. I understand the need to examine that all-important turning point of the story, but why does it have to be through the words of the fellas who’ve always been the ones telling the story? The title of the novel itself starts to seem a bit of a mockery. Couldn’t Barker have inserted some other unnamed slave girl to tell the story that she watches going on in the tent, while cleaning up? Or couldn’t Briseis have heard patches of the story later – she does marry one of Achilles’ companions – and have that patchwork nature of the narrative be a feature? If the death of Hector could be told from inside the weaving room rather than being viewed then I don’t see why we had to be taken into the lives of Patroclus and Achilles and see it from their point of view. And the women find out about the death of Achilles from the wailing on the battlefield – it’s not like they have to view everything to know it! In fact couldn’t that be part of the exploration of the nature of being female, and a slave, in this context?

I think an exploration of masculinity through the lens of the Achilles/Patroclus friendship would be deeply interesting, told well, that is not the story for a book called The Silence of the Girls.

Another minor quibble is that this book is not sure what it thinks of the gods. I am reminded of the film Troy (which I quite liked, fight me): it only shows Thetis, and it hints at her connection to the sea but not her divinity, so it’s definitely a story about humanity men. Here, though… the plague is probably because of Apollo but not definitely. There’s a line about Athens wrapping Achilles in her aegis but it’s unclear whether that’s meant to be read metaphorically. But Achilles is seen as the son of a goddess and Thetis is definitely one, having gone back to the sea when Achilles was a child (also it’s partly her fault he’s a bit of a psychopath), and she really does come out of the sea at Troy. So the gods are real but not especially involved? And there’s no comment from Briseis or others about whether the gods can be trusted or whether slaves just don’t get to call on deities and expect to be heard.

With the sections from Achilles’ perspective, the book verges on becoming just another retelling of the story rather than keeping its promise of exploring the consequences of war for women. It definitely does do some of that exploration, and more than half of it is from Briseis’ perspective (I estimate). But by shoving Achilles back into the story that he has always dominated – and not even to reflect on Briseis et al, which would have been startling and perhaps worthy – Barker undercuts her own apparent intentions of allowing the previously silent girls to speak.

While it’s beautiful work I am disappointed.

You Daughters of Freedom

Unknown.jpegThis splendid book was sent to me by the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out at the start of October; RRP $49.99 in Australia.

Firstly, this is a hefty tome: it’s 550 pages. But the text itself is only (?) 480 pages, and it must be stressed that this is an immensely readable book with generally short chapters that make the story very readable. So don’t let the size put you off if this is a part of history that appeals to you.

If you know nothing about women achieving the vote in Australia or elsewhere, this is an excellent starting point. If, like me, you’ve read a bit already, this puts it all together in an excellent narrative, explores some of the most important characters, and sets it all in historical context magnificently. I also think you should read it if you’re at all interested in Australia’s early history as a nation.

I have a lot of Opinions on this topic. I think the fight for women’s suffrage in the first part of the 20th century is endlessly intriguing. (In fact my latest zine is on this topic. Do you get my zine?) Wright does a really great job of showing how suffrage was achieved in Australia, and then the influence that had on the rest of the world.

You may have heard that SA women got the right to vote in 1894 – a year after NZ women. But here’s the thing: because of an outrageous attempt by conservatives to be more radical than the progressives, which gloriously backfired, SA women were the first to also have the right to stand for election. Which most women around the world weren’t asking for because they thought it was a step too far. And here’s the other amazing thing: it included the right for Indigenous people of SA to vote. Oh yes. That’s really quite amazing. And because of this, and some smart wrangling from the SA delegates to the Federation conferences, that right eventually got transferred to Australian women, at least for federal elections, in 1902.

Um. Except for Indigenous women. And this is one thing that Wright excels at: pointing out that what’s being celebrated here – and it should be celebrated, certainly – is the right to vote and stand for elections for white women. It was an important step, and indeed was a revolutionary one for the world, but it wasn’t complete enfranchisement. It should be noted that Wright includes in the book some of the arguments about extending the franchise to Indigenous women from the Senate, and… I found it very hard to read that language coming from our politicians, in public. Yes, even though most of them were supporters of the White Australia Policy and I’ve seen Frazer Anning’s words. It was still sickening (so be warned). (The Indigenous population unreservedly got the right to vote in federal elections in 1962.)

Australian women fighting for the right to vote is only half the book. The rest is the way in which Australian women contributed to the struggle in “the Mother Country” (England) (where by comparison there was limited suffrage for women by 1918, and on the same basis as men only in 1928. I say ‘only’ but that’s earlier than France, which was 1944.) I’ve read about Muriel Matters, who was amazing, and about Vida Goldstein (who supported the White Australia Policy and by golly those historical folks are complicated to appreciate). I’ve also read a lot about English women’s activities in fighting for the vote. What I didn’t realise is how influential Australian women specifically were, in working for the various organisations and inspiring particular actions, AND as inspiration in general. Because the other thing that Wright does splendidly is draw out just how much of a ‘social laboratory’ Australia was seen as in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. People in the UK and USA in particular were watching Australia, this new nation, as we tried new things and made them work (first Labour govt in the world, various somewhat socialist things, ladies voting…). Vida Goldstein was the first Australian woman to meet a US president! and so on. It’s quite thrilling to see what Australian women were doing out in the world.

Finally, I also adored the final chapter, wherein Wright destroys the notion that Australia should see its participation at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation, and instead points out just how much it had achieved before then.

This book is amazing.

Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

Galactic Suburbia 184

In which we care about Hugo Awards, Aussie SFF awards, harassment at conventions and tea-brewing spaceships all at the same time. You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

WHAT DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS WEEK?

Hugo shortlist!
Aurealis winners
Ditmars

Survey on Harassment in Aussie SF conventions

CULTURE CONSUMED:

Tansy: The Teamaster & the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events S2, Runaways (TV)

Alisa: Annihilation; Planetfall, Emma Newman; 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson; Santa Clarita Diet S2; Rise

Alex: Echoes of Understorey, Thoraiya Dyer; Till We Have Faces and The Cosmic Trilogy, CS Lewis; The Craft Sequence, Max Gladstone

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon – which now includes access to the ever so exclusive GS Slack – and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Galactic Suburbia

Post-cake and post-birthday we talk Kickstarter, Tiptree and Hawking: plus the Rights of Women. Get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia!

Thanks for the cake love!

WHAT DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS WEEK?

Tansy’s Kickstarter 😀 Bring back the Creature Court

Stephen Hawking died

Tiptree winner, shortlist & longlist announced.

Kitschies shortlist

CULTURE CONSUMED:

Alex: Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Women; Lord of the Rings films; Fringe re-watch

Tansy: Jessica Jones S2 & Tor.com essays, Rise, The Underwater Ballroom Society (Ysabeau Wilce), Get To Work Hurley Ep 8

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon – which now includes access to the ever so exclusive GS Slack – and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

 

Galactic Suburbia: birthday!

In which Galactic Suburbia is 8 years olds. We’re reading independently, making friends in Grade 3, and eating CAKE. You can hear us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

This episode is best consumed with cake, especially if you tweet, email or message us to say exactly what you’re eating.

CAKE

IMG_1960
Alex: blueberry and orange ricotta cake with French Earl Grey syrup
Tansy: blueberry marscapone cakes
Alisa: super fancy hot chocolate (but also blueberry and ricotta cake the day before)

WHAT’S NEW ON THE INTERNET?

Tansy’s Kickstarter launches on Wednesday March 14 – the Return of the Creature Court.
Who Against Guns legal fundraiser, initiative of the Doctor Who podcasting alliance.
Rachel Talalay’s piece on the epic #metoo women’s panel at Gallifrey 2018.
Whovian Feminism’s breakdown summary of the same panel.

The YA Hugo thing that just happened (breaking news as recording)

Nominate for the Hugos NOOOOW!

CULTURE CONSUMED:

Alisa: BLACK PANTHER; Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Story, Blair Underwood, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due; short stories by Rjurik Davidson

Alex: Basically, the Norma. Also Time Was, Ian McDonald; Firefly and Serenity rewatch.

Tansy: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine; Voltron Season 5, Jessica Jones is coming. (first episode reviewed here)

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon – which now includes access to the ever so exclusive GS Slack – and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Octavia E Butler: Modern Master of SF

Unknown.jpegGerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.

I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.

To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.

Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.

Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.

This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.

100 Nasty Women of History

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.

This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.

So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.

  1. There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
  2. The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
  3. It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.

But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.

The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.

  1. The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
  2. The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
  3. Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
  4. I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
  5. Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
  6. Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
  7. The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
  8. Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
  9. Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??

So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.

Women and Power

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. RRP $19.99 and available now.

This book consists of two lectures given by Mary Beard, Roman history professor and all-round awesome person, for the London Review of Books in 2014 and then 2017. I had seen the film of the second one, which was neat because I really (ironically) like Beard’s voice and intonation so that was an added bonus.

The first chapter is “The Public Voice of Women”. Beard presents a number of examples of how women were silenced in the Greek and Roman worlds, and then uses those instances to illuminate how women are silenced in the modern Western World, as well as how women’s voices (literally and metaphorically) are portrayed. She does not suggest that everything about the modern West is founded on classical traditions – and is at pains to point that out – but her examples make it very clear how many expectations and perceptions can be traced back that far. The examples she gives from her life (being described as whining, for instance, or told to shut up) as well as examples of other women will be all too familiar to many women – and this has happened to women in classical texts since way back. This is important because those texts are used and studied still, and have been/still are seen as… if not imprimaturs, then still worthy of examination. And so they continue to pervade modern Western society.

Beard notes in the Afterword that she avoided making big changes when it came time for publication – this lecture was given in 2014, with Obama still president of the USA and Theresa May not yet PM on the UK. The afterword was written in September 2017… thus before the current spate of #metoo and sexual harassment/abuse accusations. So perhaps even more than she could have expected, this (and the second chapter) are necessarily of their times. Beard’s points still stand, though, of course. Beard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; she’s pointing out the issues, making sure they’re not just accepted as ‘the way things are’ – and does suggest that we need to “think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations… go back to first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do” (40). Including women not thinking they need to deepen their voices to get more cred (guilty).

The second chapter on “Women in Power” was presented this year, which means it does deal with some of the depictions of May and Hilary Clinton… including some appalling versions of Clinton as Medusa (and Trump as Perseus??). Beard says insightful things about what power is, and how we think about it, and the language around it… and that when we talk about women ‘knocking on the door’ or ‘storming the citadel’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, well: we “underline female exteriority” (57). Which horrified me when I realised its truth. Because she’s right, and while women are largely outside of power we need to write, and speak, ourselves in. But also: “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?” (83). Yaaaasss.

This is a book I’ll be revisiting over and over, to remind myself of the reality I live in and to give myself encouragement to keep on. Things can change and it’s easier when we know where some of the problems lie.

Also, I need to read Herland and then re-read “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”?

The Glass Universe

This review first appeared in Crux, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of Victoria.

Unknown.jpegAmazing things happened at the Harvard Observatory around the turn of the twentieth century. Draper provided funding for photography of stellar spectra, while Bruce gave $50,000 towards a new 24-inch astrophotographic telescope. Pickering found the first spectroscopic binary, and Maury found the second; Fleming classified stellar spectra and discovered novae. Cannon worked on variable stars and explored the relationship between spectral type and magnitude; Leavitt also worked on variables and proposed the period-luminosity relation. Ames and Payne were Harvard’s first graduate students in astronomy.

Anna Draper, that is. Catherine Bruce. Edward Pickering and Antonia Maury. Williamina Fleming. Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. Adelaide Ames and Cecelia Payne. As Dava Sobel makes beautifully clear in The Glass Universe, women were fundamental to the astronomical work and discoveries at Harvard Observatory in its early years. This is a book in love with astronomy and its history that wants to ensure everyone who contributed—not just the now-big names like Hubble—is recognised.

Sobel points out three groups of women who contributed to astronomy. She opens her book by demonstrating how women contributed financially to astronomical work. Anna Draper provided money and telescopes so that stellar spectra could be investigated at Harvard, and endowed the Henry Draper Medal. This was done in honour of her late husband, but also reflected her own interests: she had observed with Henry, and helped with the photography; part of their honeymoon involved shopping for a glass disk for a 28-inch telescope, which the pair then ground and polished over years to transform into a mirror. At 73, Catherine Bruce’s vague interest in the stars was encouraged by Edward Pickering and by her death in 1900 her gifts totalled $175,000 (over $4 million today). Other women endowed telescopes, awards, and scholarships.

The second group, appropriately taking up most of the book, are the individual researchers at the Observatory. Most of them started as computers: examining glass plates, calculating visible magnitudes, cataloguing spectra. Some of the women worked on this for decades. Some undertook further work as their curiosity was sparked by the spectra they investigated, or the magnitudes they calculated, or they noticed interesting relationships between period and luminosity. These women published papers, and contributed to the papers of other astronomers, especially Pickering and Harlow; some of them were awarded annual medals, although not many; some were honorary membership to societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society, while Cannon was the treasurer of the American Astronomical Society. The work these women undertook was thanks in no small part to the unusual willingness of Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley (yes, that Shapley), directors at the Harvard Observatory between 1877 and 1952 (Solon Bailey had two years as interim director), to not only work with women but encourage their independent work and acknowledge them in publication. Their work is therefore also acknowledged and discussed, since it would be impossible to separate it from that of the computers in particular.

The third group of women consists of the wives and other family members of acknowledged astronomers. Solon Bailey’s wife, Ruth, contributed to his observatons for the Harvard station in Peru, while Pickering’s and Shapley’s wives played crucial roles at the Observatory in making the whole place work. The third director’s daughter, Anna, became a computer. They are the least well served by the book; it is presumably difficult to uncover contributions if they weren’t acknowledged at the time.

Dava Sobel has not only written a compelling history of Harvard Observatory, and not only conducted a remarkable survey of the contribution of women to astronomy, but has also written an intensely readable book. There’s some wonderful scientific discussions included, about Cepheid variables and their importance to figuring out the size of the universe and the like—but these do not dominate. If you are looking for a book about the history of astrophysics, this is not it and does not want to be it. No understanding of astrophysics is required to read it. Rather, this is a history of the people involved; it has a little about their relationships with one another, but it’s mostly about the work; it sounds like most of them put their work first anyway, so that’s appropriate. It demonstrates just how much computing power was required a century ago to understand the heavens—when that computing power could be jokingly measured in “girl hours”, and sometimes “kilo-girl hours”. The women who worked at the Harvard Observatory were a crucial part of the astronomical community.