(WOMENSENEWS)–Perhaps it was something in the water, but more likely something in the culture of New England’s Nantucket Island that produced extraordinary women. Abolitionist and suffragist Lucretia Mott, born there in 1793, was one. Astronomer Maria Mitchell, a Mott cousin, born in 1818, was another. The island’s whaling industry created a community where men were away at sea for long periods of time and women ran everything, growing competent, ambitious and independent in the process. It was also a largely Quaker community, where gender equality was usual and oppression a sin. Mott and Mitchell, then, were lifelong advocates for women’s education and civil rights as well as lifelong opponents of slavery.
The “widow’s walks” on the island’s homes were built so women could watch the all-important sea, but young Maria Mitchell was always looking up at the sky. Her father taught all 10 of his sons and daughters celestial navigation and rudimentary astronomy. At 17, she opened a school to instruct girls in science and math. By 1847, when Lucretia Mott was about to join Elizabeth Cady Stanton in calling the nation’s first women’s rights convention, Maria Mitchell had discovered a comet and been honored all over the world.
When Matthew Vassar opened the first women’s college, in 1865, Mitchell was one of his first hires. She taught at Vassar for a quarter-century, instilling her pioneering students with her radical belief that, “the eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.”
How horrified she might have been on her deathbed in 1889 to know how easily that belief would disappear, but how heartened that the 21st century would resurrect her commitment to creating female scientists and mathematicians. Mitchell’s Nantucket home is today a center for doing so.
Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.