“Women hold up half the sky and some day it will be so in astronomy!” So opens The Sky Is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words, a new book coedited by Virginia Trimble and David Weintraub. It’s an odd sentence with which to open a book about women in astronomy, in large part because it is adapted from a quotation by Mao Zedong. (Were there really no appropriate quotations available from female astronomers or others who were not responsible for the Cultural Revolution?) Nevertheless, in that opening quotation, Trimble and Weintraub set out the agenda for their book: to demonstrate the significant contributions women have made, and continue to make, in astronomy and to further the inclusion and appreciation of women in the profession.
For most readers, like myself, Trimble and Weintraub are probably preaching to the choir. Sadly, those who remain unconvinced as to the merits of women in astronomy are unlikely to pick up a book like The Sky Is for Everyone with an open mind. Fortunately, however, that group is in the minority in comparison with those who will find its contents interesting, informative, and motivating.
The book begins with a historical digression that surveys women in astronomy with an emphasis on individuals from the US and Europe (primarily the UK). It leads into a who’s who of early PhDs and other biographical sketches. Although that chapter does not add anything new to the historical literature, it is a useful survey of the history of women in astronomy, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. The editors emphasize how many early women astronomers depended on a male mentor, husband, or family member to gain access to the profession and its networks. Although that is certainly not as true as it once was, it is still the case that female astronomers can be constrained by the infrastructures within which they work and that a supportive network can make or break a career, as the book’s subsequent chapters illustrate.
The majority of The Sky Is for Everyone is a compilation of 37 autobiographical chapters by prominent female astronomers at a range of career stages. The chapters are ordered chronologically by the year in which the individual’s PhD was awarded. The earliest ones primarily showcase accounts of white women from the US and UK, such as Anne Pyne Cowley and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who received their PhDs in the 1960s. But as the book progresses, it features a more diverse subset of authors, including Gabriela González, Dara Norman, and Shazrene Mohamed.
Each author tells her story in her own way. Some authors go into great depth about their childhoods; others, about complicated career journeys. The degree to which each author focuses on her social and cultural surroundings also varies considerably, although all of them detail what they are most passionate about: the science. In some respects the book is a communal love letter to astronomy and the broader sciences that have inspired those women to look to the stars.
Unfortunately, as could be predicted given the identities of the authors, the course of that love has often not run smoothly. Multiple authors chronicle their experiences of personal and institutional sexism, and some describe stories of racism and xenophobia as well. Because the chapters are chronologically ordered, institutional barriers gradually but definitively drop away as the book progresses, although instances of harassment, microaggressions, and toxic academic culture remain present today. The biographies feature plenty of infuriating moments and plenty of moments that will make the reader sigh but also plenty of triumphs.
The Sky Is for Everyone is a valuable read for astronomers and those interested in the status of women in science, but also for department heads and policymakers who should take note of how institutional barriers can be broken down and accommodations made to improve the astronomy community. It may also prove inspiring and useful to early-career scientists: Although the book focuses primarily on highly successful astronomers at elite universities, it illustrates a multiplicity of possible career paths.
Finally, historians of astronomy will enjoy the book not only because it sheds light on the recent history of women in the field but also because it simultaneously serves as a history of 20th-century astronomy, with a focus on the growth of observatories, the increasing size of scientific collaborations, and the increased emphasis placed by national and international scientific societies on public outreach and institutional equity.
Joanna Behrman is a public historian at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today. Her research focuses on the history of women in the physical sciences.