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Tales of the 28 lunar craters named for women offer a chance to reflect on women’s struggle for scientific recognition

The Women of the Moon: Tales of Science, Love, Sorrow, and Courage

Daniel R. Altschuler and Fernando J. Ballesteros
Oxford University Press,
336 pp.
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Of the 1586 craters on the Moon named after individuals, only 28 are named after women—a fact that undoubtedly reveals more about the history of women in science than lunar topography. The Women of the Moon chronicles the lives and scientific work of these 28 women.

The book begins with a history of the Moon, encompassing how theories of the Moon’s formation have evolved over time as well as the various scientific attempts to measure the Moon’s distance and size. The next chapters provide biographical sketches of the individual “women of the Moon,” proceeding chronologically from Hypatia of Alexandria to Valentina Tereshkova. Little is known about some women—such as Anne Sheepshanks, a wealthy patron of astronomical research at Cambridge University for whom the Sheepshanks telescope is named. Others—such as Marie Curie and Sofia Kovalévskaya, who led more documented lives—receive a much fuller treatment.

Although the authors do not point to larger conclusions about the historical experiences of women working in scientific fields (a potential weakness of the work), several patterns emerge from the narratives of the women’s lives. The cumulative amount of unpaid or underpaid scientific labor these women performed in the service of husbands, relatives, professors, or miserly observatory directors, for example, is staggering. Often blocked from formal education and training, many resorted to whatever access to scientific work they could secure, regardless of pay or working conditions.

The Women of the Moon is strongest when highlighting voices of the women themselves—which it does liberally. Diaries, letters, and other personal accounts reveal another common theme: Many women devoted a substantial amount of time and research to assisting the publication of other people’s work. “If one could only go on and on with original work,…life would be a most beautiful dream,” Williamina Fleming, a member of a group of women known as the “Harvard computers” who worked at the observatory cataloging stars, confided to her diary on 5 March 1900, “but you come down to its realities when you have to put all that is most interesting to you aside, in order to use most of your available time preparing the work of others for publication.”

Perhaps ironically, the very system on which modern lunar nomenclature depends owes its existence to a woman. Over the course of the early 20th century, lunar nomenclature became standardized, thanks in large part to one of the women chronicled in the book, Mary Blagg. After its founding in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) adopted Blagg’s comprehensive study of lunar nomenclature as the international standard. The IAU also established an official qualification for naming lunar craters that deemed any “[d]eceased scientists and polar explorers who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field” as worthy of the distinction (1).

That only 28 women have received this status reflects the limited number of women in science, inviting (as the authors suggest) an effort to identify more women to receive the honor. It also highlights the unfortunate ways that lunar nomenclature seems to be rooted in limited visions of scientific work. Eligibility hinges on heroic narratives that privilege individual contributions over collaboration, often obscuring the diverse and multifaceted contributions of women, as this book so aptly chronicles.

Perhaps a function of the translation (the text was originally written in Spanish), there are occasional issues with tone. Repeated uses of phrases like “our women” when referring to the subjects of the book, no doubt an attempt to create further familiarity with the reader, strike a discordant note. Overall, though, the authors excel at communicating scientific concepts clearly. Their narrations of the women’s lives seamlessly interweave lessons on stellar spectroscopy with biographical accounts of marriage, tragic illnesses, and impressive scientific accomplishments to lend a fresh and much fuller appreciation for the contributions made by the “women of the Moon.”

1. Later, astronauts and cosmonauts were added to the list, with an exception for those still living.

Any opinion, finding, conclusion, or recommendation expressed in this article is strictly that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF or the U.S. government.

About the author

The reviewer is at Prime Meridian Media, contracted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Alexandria, VA 22314, USA.