Today marks the 100th anniversary of women being allowed membership into the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the UK. While this is most certainly a thing to celebrate, one thing about this still gives me pause. It’s only been 100 years.
100 years is not a very long time in one of the world’s oldest fields of study, in which we routinely talk about billions of years as if that were nothing at all. I find this to be another reminder that some of the people who I consider to be personal heroes would not have been able to join the RAS when they were making their discoveries. Back then, women were indeed rejected from membership purely because of their gender. The fact that they persevered should be a source of great admiration. The optimist in me wonders if the work which these scientists tenaciously undertook may have been one of the deciding factors, while the pessimist in me wonders how much further we could be if societies like these hadn’t closed out half the human population for so long.
A very close friend of mine recently said something which feels relevant here. She told me that she sometimes felt like she wasn’t proud of her achievements for their own sake, but because she made them while being a woman. The idea of this upset her, and she’s definitely not the only one. The sad thing is that often, certain people are noted for their achievements not because of their inherent merit, but because they made those achievements while not being white middle-class men.
The RAS is one of the world’s highest profile astronomical societies, and the driving force behind one of the largest scientific journals in astronomy – the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (or MNRAS for short). Before it was a journal, it was actually the society’s newsletter. It’s no longer monthly, no longer contains notices, and is now open to researchers from anywhere in the world, but I guess they thought the title was quaint. Originally founded as the Astronomical Society of London in 1820. Of course in those rather more misogynistic times, astronomy was a pursuit considered purely for “gentlemen,” despite the many contributions of women. Needless to say, astronomy wasn’t the only field in which this was true.
Mind you, it’s quite interesting to realise that the RAS allowed women membership in 1916, when you consider that women in the UK weren’t even allowed to vote at the time. Women over the age of 30 who met “certain property qualifications” were given the right to vote two years later in 1918 – a right which wouldn’t be extended to all women over 21 for another 10 years.
In light of this week’s latest sexual harrassment turmoils in astronomy, this seems to be a poigniant reminder. For over half of its existence, the RAS was a boys club. This is thankfully no longer true, but the fact remains that very often women are treated as second class in science (and elsewhere). To some extent, this may still be a hangover from the misogynistic origins of modern science. This needs to be fixed. We should be better than that by now. I was angry about this before and I’m still angry now. We’re improving, but we have a long way to go.
I don’t wish to dampen this celebration, by any means. The fact that our society now is less bigoted and segregated is definitely a thing to be celebrated. But be careful to which message you listen. The @RAS_Outreach twitter feed has been celebrating women in astronomy all day. It’s inspiring. But remember to give them respect as scientists in their own right, and not just as “women who are scientists.” And consider what good role models they’ll be for all those little girls out there who aspire to work in STEM fields when they grow up. Find out more about them, and tell your daughter/niece/little sister/cousin all about it.