100 years and counting: women in the RAS go from strength to strength

On 14 January 1916, four women finally won the right to be elected to fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society, recognising their achievement in astronomy and geophysics. To celebrate this anniversary, in 2016 the RAS told the stories of these pioneering researchers, their contemporary counterparts, and their impact on science.

RAS Astronomy Secretary Dr Mandy Bailey introduced the history of women in the Society in an article in A&G, the journal of the RAS, in 2016.

Silhouette of a woman and the words Women and the RAS

The forerunner of the RAS, the Astronomical Society of London, was set up in 1820 by a group of men meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern, a pub that once stood in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. From the outset, no thought was given to the idea that women could or should become members - ‘Fellows’ - of the new organisation.

In 1831 the RAS was recognised by William IV in a Royal Charter,  and that same document described Fellows as ‘he’, so in what seems today an almost incomprehensible position, admitting women would have contravened its rules. (Ironically, the Society awarded its Gold Medal to Caroline Herschel as early as 1828 and conferred 'Honorary' membership on Herschel and Mary Somerville in 1835.)

Major contributions were made by other female astronomers in the remainder of the nineteenth century, similarly recognised by the RAS. Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins carried out pioneering work on stellar spectra from her home in Tulse Hill, south London; Agnes Clerke built a global reputation for her research work and gives her name to a crater on the Moon; US astronomer Annie Jump Cannon devised the first serious classification scheme for stars, Scottish scientist Williamina Fleming worked on variable stars and nebulae, and Anne Sheepshanks, acknowledged too by the lunar crater Sheepshanks, was recognised as a major benefactor. Despite all their efforts, none were even considered for election to 'full' RAS Fellowship.

Spurred on by the more open outlook of amateur groups and even other professional bodies, some women were put forward (the process involved nomination by existing Fellows) for membership, beginning with Isis Pogson in 1886, who was rejected on the basis of the 'he' pronoun. Elizabeth Brown, Annie Scott Dill Russell (better known later as solar physicist Annie Maunder) and Alice Everett were proposed in 1892, leading one (male) Fellow to suggest that 'it was practically a proposal to introduce into these dull meetings a social element, and all we shall require is a piano and a fiddle', and 'to lay down a parquet flooring, and I am sure many of my young friends will be glad to dance through most of the papers.' Even in the late nineteenth century, attitudes like this surprised and disappointed the women, who could claim to have achieved far more than many of their male peers.

A photograph of Fiammetta Wilson
Fiammetta Wilson (1864-1920), one of the first four women elected to Fellowship of the RAS in 1916. Credit: RAS.

It took the tumultuous social change of the First World War, and the essential movement of women into previously 'male' jobs, to overturn the restrictions of the first century of the RAS. With an overwhelming vote at its 1915 AGM, the Society paid for and organised the approval by the Privy Council of a Supplemental Charter, which came into force in June that year and paved the way for women to finally be admitted to Fellowship.

Mary Adele Blagg, Ella K Church, A Grace Cook and Fiammetta Wilson became the first elected female Fellows of the RAS on 14 January 1916. Six more followed that year, including Annie Maunder, more than 24 years after her first attempt to join.

Dr Bailey commented: "Early women astronomers fought hard to gain recognition for their work, to be allowed to join the RAS and to take part in scientific discussions. I am both grateful they did so and in awe of their determination to succeed. They paved the way for women today and many are tough acts for us to follow."

Today the astronomy and geophysics communities have numerous successful women in their ranks, but like other sciences, still fall far short of reflecting the makeup of society as a whole. The RAS is now fully committed to improving the diversity of its membership and the scientific workforce. It was a founding signatory of the Science Council Declaration on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, appointed a Diversity Champion to its own Council in 2014, and set up its Committee on Diversity in Astronomy and Geophysics (CDAG) in 2012 (this superseded the earlier Committee on Women in Astronomy and Geophysics).

Events during the anniversary year included:

  • 'The Way to the Stars', a short play by Time Will Tell Theatre, highlighting the experiences of the earliest women astronomers and their struggle for recognition. The Society will arrange performances later in the year for the general public.
  • The commissioning of photographic portraits of 21 women, representing the rich diversity of female fellows in the society, from around the UK, and at different levels in their careers.
  • A series of articles in A&G on women in astronomy and geophysics, looking at those who were recognised, those who deserved recognition but missed out on it, and how women are shaping the sciences of the sky and Earth.
  • In the summer nominations opened for the new Annie Maunder Medal, first awarded in 2017, for outstanding work in public engagement in astronomy, geophysics and space science.
  • The RAS was a platinum sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day on 11 October 2016, the day of celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, named after the first computer programmer.
A picture of Annie Maunder
Annie Scott Dill Russell (later Annie Maunder), the solar physicist proposed for RAS Fellowship in 1892, who was finally admitted in 1916. Credit: Courtesy of Dorrie Giles.

Dr Sara Russell, Chair of CDAG in 2016, said: "While things are undoubtedly far easier for women scientists than they were a century ago, there are still massive inequalities in astronomy and geophysics. Women are much less likely to study these subjects in the first place, and they are still very under-represented in senior professional positions. I want to see a world where the sex of a researcher plays no part in determining her or his career path, and fully support the work the RAS is doing to help make that happen."