Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not just assistants

I wanted to elaborate on Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's critique of a NASM exhibit on Caroline and William Herschel that was posted to AASWOMEN recently. Here's her photo of the exhibit in question:
The issue at hand is that while William is described as "The Complete Astronomer," Caroline is merely "William's Essential Assistant." This despite the fact that the text goes on to say that Caroline was "[a] fine astronomer in her own right." As Dr. Prescod-Weinstein says,
Well, if she was an astronomer, how come she doesn't get the same label as her brother? What kind of message does this send to the young girls and boys who will potentially be exposed to astronomy for the first time in this exhibit? Caroline Herschel is the first woman (of only three) mentioned in the exhibit, and it seems her claim to fame is having been in the employ of her genius brother.

Sarah Zelinski, who blogs at Surprising Science for Smithsonian Magazine, responds:
There is a tendency among some, in their efforts toward equality, to overinflate the role of the earliest female scientists. However, that does a disservice to these women and their struggles; their stories help to explain why they are worthy of being remembered and why women are not always equal in the world of science.

...

That amazing story, however, from Cinderella to professional astronomer—Caroline was the first women to receive a salary for stargazing, for assisting William—doesn’t fit easily into a museum display, particularly one focused on instrumentation. Caroline Herschel was both assistant and astronomer, as NASM’s display indicates, and to leave out either role is to ignore much of her spectacular journey.

I think Ms. Zelinski misses the mark here, though. Certainly, Caroline started out as William's assistant, but she went on to carry out her own independent work, and won awards for it. It's not the content and accuracy of the text that's at issue here - it's the title of the display. To sum up her life as an "Assistant" is to ignore her independent accomplishments as an astronomer. It's not about over-inflating Caroline Herschel's role as an astronomer, but rather giving her her proper due.

What do you think? Are the titles "The Complete Astronomer" and "William's Essential Assistant" fair and accurate or not?