In too many early accounts of women working in fields dominated by men, the story includes a bathroom. Specifically, that there wasn’t one for them to use.
For Vera Rubin, this particular predicament came in the mid-1960s, when she was invited to the Palomar Observatory, a telescope facility in California. The mountaintop observatory, as well as its living quarters, were not open to women; if you wanted to get some telescope time at Palomar, you had to sneak in under your husband’s name. As such, the lavatories were labeled for men. Rubin, the first woman to be formally allowed in, cut paper into the shape of a skirt and stuck it to the door of one of the bathrooms. “There you go,” Rubin said, according to a former colleague. “Now you have a ladies’ room.”
Rubin worked in astronomy for more than half a century after that, and this week, officials announced that a new observatory will be renamed in her honor. According to the National Science Foundation, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, née the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, is the first American observatory to be named after a woman.
Starting in 2022, the Rubin observatory will collect data on the solar system, the Milky Way, and, among other things, its namesake’s specialty: dark matter, the invisible material that permeates the universe. Rubin’s work in the 1970s provided convincing evidence that dark matter existed, a revelation that sparked, as The New York Times’ Dennis Overbye put it—and without any exaggeration—“a Copernican-scale change in cosmic consciousness.”