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The award rejection that shook astronomy

27 February 2018

Margaret Burbidge’s 1971 decision to decline the Annie Jump Cannon Award forced the astronomy community to reconsider the prize and examine discrimination against women in the field.

In the early 1970s Margaret Burbidge was the best-known woman in astronomy and a prominent figure in the American Astronomical Society (AAS). So it caused quite a shock in May 1971 when she declined the Annie Jump Cannon Award, the society’s oldest prize and the only one exclusively for women.

Margaret Burbidge
Margaret Burbidge in 1973, two years after she rejected the Annie Jump Cannon Award. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, John Irwin Slide Collection

In a letter to AAS secretary Laurence Frederick, Burbidge wrote, “I believe that it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.” Underlying that official statement was the suspicion that the Cannon Award had kept women from receiving other recognition. In conclusion, Burbidge wrote, “It would be interesting to know, however, how often our names have been excluded from consideration for professorships, directorships … because we are women.”

At that time, AAS offered two other awards—the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, which honored an astronomer’s long and distinguished career, and the Helen B. Warner Prize, for astronomers no more than 35 years old. No woman had received the Russell. Burbidge was the only woman to have won the Warner Prize, in 1959, and she had shared it with her husband Geoffrey for their work on stellar nucleosynthesis.

Margaret Burbidge’s startling refusal resulted in not only a decades-long change in the Cannon Award’s administration, but also the creation of the first working group on the status of women in astronomy. In the long run, her decision led to increased awareness in the astronomy community of discrimination against women and other minority groups.

An award and a brooch

Annie Jump Cannon, who attained international recognition for her monumental work on the spectral classification of stars, established the award in her name in 1933. A year prior she had received the $1000 Helen Richards Research Prize from the Association to Aid Scientific Research by Women. She used the money to endow the Annie Jump Cannon Award for advancing astronomical research by women. The award was to be presented biennially or triennially at the AAS banquet to deserving women of any nationality.

Annie Jump Cannon
Annie Jump Cannon established an award for women astronomers in 1933. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image # SIA2008-0646

The news of Burbidge’s refusal, which quickly reached the astronomical community, presented an image crisis for AAS. In response, the AAS Council established the Special Cannon Prize Committee and charged it with recommending a course of action. The members were chairman George Preston of Carnegie Observatories; Anne Cowley from the University of Michigan; Helen Sawyer Hogg, who had received the Cannon Award in 1949; Ben Peery from Indiana University; Bill Liller from Harvard; Sidney Wolff from the University of Hawaii; and me, then a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona.

Letters solicited from the community ranged from expressions of anger and hostility to support for change, with a strong correlation to the age of the writer. Even within the committee, our suggestions ran the gamut: don’t change the award, abolish it, open the award to both men and women, upgrade it to equal the Russell Lectureship, along with other ideas.

Among the factors we had to consider was how the Cannon Award winners would be recognized. The Russell Lectureship and Warner Prize each included a prestigious lecture at an AAS meeting, a large engraved certificate, and a financial award. Hogg described to the committee the contrasting presentation of the Annie Jump Cannon Award: The recipient would stand up at the society banquet to polite applause to receive the award plus a pin or brooch. As related by Dava Sobel in her 2016 book, The Glass Universe, Annie Jump Cannon had requested that each winner receive an appropriate memento. The first, to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, was a galaxy-shaped gold pin. In 1972 I thought this seemed almost Victorian, but one can see why recipients were proud of those awards.

By mid 1972, the committee had not reached any consensus. In his May 1972 progress report, Preston described the situation as a Pandora’s box: “Two women wanted to open the award to men and women or abolish it, two women to keep it as is or abolish it, and the three men sat on the fence.” He was not optimistic about a resolution but called a meeting of the committee at the AAS gathering in August.

At the summer meeting, the committee coalesced around a suggestion by Peery to transfer the administration of the Cannon Award to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). We also recommended that the Cannon Award continue to be used to encourage research in astronomy by women and that it be based on a competition, like that for a fellowship or research grant, among applicants in the early stages of their careers. We suggested that applicants submit a research proposal and a statement of how the funds would benefit their work.

Margaret Harwood received this galaxy-shaped gold pin when she won the Annie Jump Cannon Award in 1962. Credit: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Despite the curious decision by AAS president Martin Schwarzschild that committee members not speak at Preston’s presentation to the AAS Council, the society’s governing body accepted our recommendations. In 1973 AAS transferred the award to the AAUW.

Twenty-four young women received the Annie Jump Cannon Award from 1974 to 2004. In 2005 AAS reassumed responsibility when the AAUW could no longer support it. Another ad hoc committee was appointed to decide on the guidelines for the award. The group’s minutes have a certain déjà vu, with many of the same arguments we had in 1972. The Cannon Award is now based on outstanding research and promise for the future. It is given to a North American woman astronomer within five years of receiving her PhD. It now includes a talk at an AAS meeting.

Bigger implications

Although the charge of the 1972 committee was to focus on the Cannon Award, our second recommendation proved even more important in the long term. Because “the problem of women in professional life transcends the disposition of the AJ Cannon Award which is only the tip of an iceberg,” the committee concluded, “we recommend that the AAS sponsor a working group on the status of women in astronomy.” Our recommendation was accepted.

Membership in the working group was voluntary, with an elected executive committee chaired by Cowley with Beverly Lynds, Vera Rubin, and me. We completed a survey of women in AAS in 1973; the report and recommendations were published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS). In that year women made up 8% of the membership, the highest percentage for any field in the physical sciences. Yet that number represented a remarkable decline from 1940, when 17% of AAS members were women. We attributed this to an influx of members from other fields such as engineering and physics with the growth of the space program, radio, and x-ray astronomy.

Women in AAS membership
A 1973 survey of astronomers found that although the number of women in AAS had gradually increased from 1900 to 1973, female representation as a percentage of total membership had actually decreased beginning around 1940. Credit: BAAS

Our report included a roster of 166 women members to encourage their consideration for society offices, committee appointments, prizes, lectureships, speaking engagements, and journal editorships. We also recommended adoption of affirmative action policies, an end to nepotism, and equal pay for equal work.

Note: The 1972–73 data are from a survey of AAS members. The 2014 data are from the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics Today) and include only standalone astronomy departments at US universities.Percentage of astronomy faculty members who are women
1972–73 2014
Full professor 2% 15%
Associate professor 5 29
Assistant professor 2 29
Other 15 22

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy was established in 1979. So where are we today? Women now represent 27% of the AAS membership, and since 1972, eight women have served as president of the society. The table at right compares the percentage of women in academic positions in 2014 versus 1972–73.

As for awards, five women have received the Russell in the past 45 years. The first was Payne-Gaposchkin in 1976, whose recognition was long overdue. Burbidge received it in 1984. Only two women have received the Warner. AAS now has other awards. In 43 years, nine women have received the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize for observational astronomy; four have received the midcareer Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, which was established in 1980.

Clearly there has been progress, but more is needed in hiring, promotion, salaries, and recognition. That applies not only to women but also to other underrepresented groups. Over the past two decades, AAS has established the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy and the Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy.

I had my own Burbidge/Cannon moment in 2001 when the University of Minnesota established a Distinguished Women Scholars Award. Len Kuhi, the chairman of our small astronomy program, asked if I’d like to be nominated. I gave this some thought and said, “Thanks Len, but I’m going to pull a Margaret Burbidge on you. I want to be nominated for the Distinguished Professorship.” No woman had received this honor in the College of Science and Engineering. Somewhat later, the dean, Ted Davis, emphasized to me that it was “a very prestigious award, the college’s highest honor, and only the best faculty receive it.”

A few months later, I got the award. At the ceremony, Davis whispered to me, “I’ll never forget what you did.” A year later I was his associate dean. Today four of the 18 Distinguished Professors in our college are women. As Burbidge showed by example 47 years ago, sometimes we have to be our own advocates.

Although there is still work to be done, Margaret Burbidge’s rejection of the Cannon Award and its consequences, including the first report on the status of women in astronomy, marked the beginning of increased awareness by AAS of obstacles and discrimination against women and other underrepresented groups.

Roberta M. Humphreys is a College of Science and Engineering Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota. This article is based on a talk at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2018.

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