Friday, December 17, 2010

Not Just Assistants - the Historical Perspecitive

When the contribution about Caroline Herschel appeared, Andrea Dupree emailed
David DeVorkin, a Curator at the National Air and Space Museum
(another part of the Smithsonian Institution to which we at CfA
belong), and a member of the AAS. He replied with the following
message and gave her permission to post it in the CSWA Newsletter.

It is printed here as well so people can make comments.

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From David DeVorkin:

History is about context. If one were to ask Caroline how she would
have described herself, I believe she may well have said “essential
assistant” given the gender relations of that day and her personal
view of her relationship to her brother. In fact there is a long
quote in the label taken from Margaret Herschel’s writings that uses
the term “assistant” explicitly.

Moreover there are at least 5 women depicted in the gallery. We give
tours that carry the visitor from Caroline Herschel, through Henrietta
Swan Leavitt, to Vera Rubin and Margaret Geller, and finally to
Catherine Pilachowski to show how the roles of women have changed in
astronomy and that today we can finally celebrate women as
astronomers. It is just for that fact that the sequence we portray
needs to be appreciated in full: in past time women were denied
parity, and that parity was won in long painful stages to the point
where it may be in place now, but needs constant and informed
vigilance to retain.

We cannot erase history to suit the passions of the present. People
try to erase history all the time for all different reasons, and it’s
our job to be as helpful as possible, presenting the past as it was,
to the best of our ability, not as what we want it to be. Only in
this way will we remain responsible to ourselves, and our mission to
foster an informed public.

David H. DeVorkin - Senior Curator
Division of Space History
National Air and Space Museum