Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. The Dyer's Hand

Below are five short extracts from reviews of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography [Katherine Haramundanis (ed.), Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (Cambridge University Press, 1984)].


  1. The following extract from John Lankford's review of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography gives a fascinating look at the feminist perspective. The extract is from John Lankford, Explicating an Autobiography, Isis 76 (1) (1985), 80-83:

  2. What is missing is any sign of a scholarly perspective informed by a feminist historiography of science. ... What I propose to do here is suggest aspects of a feminist interpretation of the life of Payne-Gaposchkin. The feminist perspective is defined as, first, admission of the pervasive nature of sexism in Western culture and, second, the willingness to take seriously the experience of women in all its varied forms and contexts. Payne-Gaposchkin was an exceptionally gifted child who early became interested in science. Her first love was botany, but she turned to astronomy at Cambridge. She grew up in an essentially female environment. Her father died when she was quite young and her brother was early sent to boarding school. She was a legatee of Edwardian culture, from which she gained a love for Renaissance art and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as a fundamental ambivalence concerning organized religion that she could never resolve. In her youth Payne-Gaposchkin tried her hand at verse and prose, and some of her sonnets appear in the autobiography. So varied were her talents that at St. Paul's the choir master and organist, Gustav Hoist, urged Cecilia to make music her vocation. I find two aspects of her childhood and adolescence especially striking. Payne- Gaposchkin was early committed to the vision of a research career and had a keen sense of what that life entailed. Because of the environment in which she grew up (a fatherless household, girls' schools, Newnham College) she had very little experience interacting with males. This second point must be supplemented by reference to her psychological make-up, which, among other things, included an emotionally charged way of looking at human relationships, an adjective-ridden prose style, and a tendency toward self-depreciation (she was too tall, too plain, too bright), self-dramatization, and self-deception. Thus we see a woman who is by turns a deeply committed and competitive scientist and an extremely vulnerable schoolgirl. She had a keen hunger for professional success and recognition but lacked the knowledge of self and others to manage her career. Payne-Gaposchkin early came to know the burdens of being a woman. In her family, for example, she quickly learned that her brother was the centre of attention and that she was his inferior. Throughout her life she chafed at having to live in a man's world. She also learned that in the domain of science women could not compete with men for major appointments or honours, and that gender explained most of the variance in wage scales. Yet, unlike others of her generation (on both sides of the Atlantic), Payne-Gaposchkin did not openly rebel against discrimination. She embraced a number of sexist assumptions including gender polarization. Cooking and sewing were described as "feminine urges" and she approvingly quoted Swedenborg to the effect that "All Nature is masculine; the Earth is the Mother." Indeed, her identification with Demeter is a richly textured aspect of her own sense of identity. It can be argued that Payne-Gaposchkin chose science for a career in order to escape from a society that was not prepared to fully appreciate or accept her because of her sex. Nature became something more than an object of study. It supplied the emotional and intellectual rewards lacking elsewhere. She counselled young women to undertake a career in science "only if nothing else will satisfy you" because "nothing else is probably what you will receive." In science, the rewards for women will not be money or fame, but "the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other." On the last page of her autobiography Payne-Gaposchkin lovingly transcribed the lines
    Knowing that Nature never did betray
    The heart that loved her.
    If Nature never betrayed Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, male scientists certainly did. One of the most interesting and complicated aspects of her scientific career is Payne-Gaposchkin's relationship with Harlow Shapley (1885-1972), who assumed the directorship of the Harvard College Observatory a few years before she arrived. Driven and hard-driving, egotistical yet caring, a master manipulator who reckoned the expenses of his research empire in "girl hours" (much cheaper than man hours), Shapley was dedicated to expanding and strengthening the observatory to his own greater glory and, probably, to that of Urana as well. Payne-Gaposchkin confessed, "I looked on Shapley in those early days with uncritical adoration." To please the "Dear Director" (or DD, as she and some of her peers referred to Shapley) she would put in marathon work sessions sustained by coffee and cigarettes. At the end of her first decade at Harvard, Payne-Gaposchkin emoted to the DD, "You have turned me from a schoolgirl into a scientist, from a child into a woman." But what a high price both Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and science paid.

  3. The following extract is again from a review of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography. The following extract is from Deborah Jean Warner's review in American Scientist 73 (3) (1985), 306-307:

  4. This very good book provides the best glimpse to date of the challenges, successes, and frustrations of a woman who would be an astronomer. Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin (1900-79) was as smart as the men of her generation, as well educated, as hard working, as devoted to her profession. These strengths, combined with changes in society at large, offered her opportunities available to few women at the time, or for years to come. But because she was a woman, she faced obstacles that men did not. Salary and title restrictions were unpleasant, as were limitations of collegiality. But her inability to work in the area she loved, a decision made by the director of the observatory, was a crushing blow. Looking to Shakespeare's sonnet, she termed her autobiography The Dyer's Hand:

    And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works in, like the dyer's hand;
    Pity me then and wish I were renewed.
    Well aware of the negative effects of gender discrimination, historians are beginning to explore the extent to which gender (whether from nature or social conditioning) empowers women in special ways. Keller, for instance, has argued recently that Barbara McClintock's respect for the organism enabled her to perceive significant details that men, in their rush to develop and apply theory, overlooked. Though she did not recognize it as such, Payne-Gaposchkin's work might be seen in this light. In his introduction to this book, the astrophysicist Jesse Greenstein points to "her personal friendship with individual stars" and her fond description of "the eccentric behaviour of certain spectral lines in a southern supergiant." In her own words: "If I have made a contribution, it has been by collecting, turning over in my hands, comparing and classifying the data of astronomy." Surely she was too modest. Her attention to detail, well informed by theory but not blinded by it, enabled her to see patterns others had missed, or were reluctant to recognize. Men often compartmentalize their lives into the public and private spheres, or so their biographies suggest. Most women do not. Payne-Gaposchkin tried to - she says precious little about her family - and yet human relations play a central role in her story. As was true for so many women, men offered information and inspiration, women offered encouragement and friendship. In her autobiography, Payne-Gaposchkin means what she says but does not always say all that she means. Seldom rude or critical, she damns with faint praise. Her silences are redolent with meaning, and her seemingly offhand comments meaning, and her seemingly offhand comments provoke psychological speculation.

  5. The following extract is from a review of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography. The following extract is from Robert W Smith's review in The British Journal for the History of Science 31 (3) (1998), 372-373:

  6. Autobiographies, of course, present all sorts of problems for readers. Payne-Gaposchkin's is no exception. For example, a chapter 'On being a woman' is disappointingly short and leaves much unasked. Payne-Gaposchkin also paints a vivid picture of some of the developments in astrophysics between the 1920s and 1970s, but does frustratingly little to portray her own style of research. The autobiography nevertheless contains much fascinating, illuminating and at times moving material. Payne-Gaposchkin recounts well the exhilaration she felt exploring scientific questions, as well as the obstacles and discrimination she faced because of her gender. The head of the Harvard College Observatory between 1921 and 1952, Harlow Shapley, looms very large in the autobiography. In the first half of the twentieth century, observatory directors in the United States tended to be absolute rulers of their kingdoms. Shapley's mode of operation, as Payne-Gaposchkin tells it (and other former staff members have offered similar judgements elsewhere), was to divide and conquer. Payne-Gaposchkin's early feeling of uncritical adoration were replaced in time by a far darker view of her former hero. She acknowledges his great zest and ability to make research at the Harvard College Observatory absorbing and even thrilling at times, but eventually saw his nature as essentially vain, manipulative and vindictive, and him as someone who had both spurred and damaged her career. But, as Payne-Gaposchkin recalls, whatever Shapley's faults, he and the Harvard College Observatory at least provided her with numerous scientific opportunities, opportunities she reckoned she would not have enjoyed had she remained in Britain.

  7. The following extract is from a review of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography. The following extract is from Evelyn Fox Keller's review in The Women's Review of Books 1 (12) (1984), 12-13:

  8. Payne-Gaposchkin herself tells us too little of her many other loves - her love of her children, of music, of theatre, of friends. But we can learn something about these, as well as about the creative and productive uses to which she put them, from her daughter's recollections. Both mother and daughter were privileged to enjoy the very special opportunity of professional collaboration, and the testimony of Katherine Haramundanis survives as a document at least as moving as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's own. Even though we cannot but mourn the tragedy of missed opportunities in Gaposchkin's scientific career - especially the waste of her theoretical talent, pre-empted first by Shapley and later by the demands of a woman's life- her story, as she tells us herself, is primarily one of survival:

    It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent. I was not consciously aiming at the point I finally reached. I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery, towards an unexpected goal.
    A little later, in the same vein, she evaluates her contributions as a scientist: "I have not been one who fashioned new theories, as I once dreamed of doing; if I have made a contribution, it has been by collecting, turning over in my hands, comparing and classifying the data of astronomy." But as I protest the waste of part of her talent, I want also to protest the willingness to accept a view of science in which the dream of fashioning new theories takes precedence over all other dreams Science grows out of many kinds of labour, many kinds of insight, and many kinds of dreams. But the training of scientists (especially of physicists) teaches a particular way of measuring labour, insights, and dreams - one in which the making of theories is given paramount value, and all other kinds of contributions are regarded as lesser. Perhaps this hierarchy too needs to be challenged as we begin to learn about the value of difference - in scientific creativity as well as in other areas of life.

  9. With the following words Philip Morrison ends a long review of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's autobiography in Scientific American 252 (4) (1985), 35-36:

  10. The book artfully records a life of worth and delight won against obsessive, powerful but not pervasive forces. The record has value beyond its period and its circle. This is a chronicle of affirmation and hope, a near poetic witness to a burst of profound discovery insufficiently recognized.


JOC/EFR November 2017

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