If at previous meetings of the Woman’s Congress the press had sometimes ridiculed the speakers as grotesque harpies, the reviews now seemed unequivocally positive. “Professor Maria Mitchell of Vassar, who came to describe the solar eclipse at Denver with graphic and beautiful language, must have satisfied every man fortunately present that the highest scientific attainment is compatible with true womanliness,” a Boston daily commented. “Possibly they may have felt that she gave a masculine stroke in drawing her diagrams, but would certainly concede that she proved herself perfectly feminine when she lost her trunks.”
Mitchell’s story of robustly feminine Vassar astronomers surely helped her cause—transforming public attitudes toward women in science. However, proponents of the broader effort to expand women’s education were still haunted, as the founding dean of Bryn Mawr College later put it, “by the clanging chains of that gloomy little specter, Edward H. Clarke’s Sex in Education.”
The idea had not yet been banished that—as proposed in Dr. Clarke’s 1873 book—education itself could coarsen and sicken American girls. By the early 1880s, though, a group of female college graduates would form an organization, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (now the American Association of University Women), which would boast among its members a physician, Emma Culbertson, Vassar class of 1877, who had received her medical degree after participating in Mitchell’s eclipse expedition to Denver. The association would immediately take up Clarke’s screed and answer it with logic by surveying more than 700 alumnae, inquiring extensively into their health (including menstrual health) before, during, and after college. The completed questionnaires were then delivered for analysis to an impartial outsider, the head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor. His findings, issued in 1885, were clear: “The graduates, as a body, entered college in good health, passed through the course of study prescribed without material change in health, and since graduation ... do not seem to have become unfitted to meet the responsibilities or bear their proportionate share of the burdens of life.”
College did not harm women, the report emphasized, and the evidence was so conclusive “that there is little need, were it within our province, for extended discussion of the subject.” In other words, the case was effectively closed, and while the ghost that Dr. Clarke had conjured would linger for some time, its reign of terror finally began to lift, due—fittingly—to a scientifically minded group of women.
Overall, the 1880s would be a time of energy and optimism for women’s higher education, but Mitchell herself, after a long run of good health, slowed down. Two years after her journey to Colorado, she fell seriously ill and left Vassar to convalesce with family on Nantucket. “If I am to get really well,” she wrote a short time later, weak in body but strong in resolve, “may I be enabled to work for others and not for myself.” She did just that, returning to Vassar to teach and fight for women’s rights until she physically could do so no longer. She died at age 70 in 1889, still 31 years before American women were finally granted the vote.
This article is adapted from Baron’s new book, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World.