As a young woman of German heritage growing up in the United States in the early-20th century, Dorrit Hoffleit experienced multiple layers of discrimination first-hand. None was more devastating, by her own account, than an incident when she and her mother were walking and ran into one of her teachers. The teacher, having also taught her older brother Herbert, looked to Mrs. Hoffleit and exclaimed, “Dorrit isn’t nearly as bright as her brother, is she?” What really stuck with Hoffleit, however, was her mother’s response: “What can you expect?” she asked. “She’s only a girl.” Only a girl who would go on to become a prolific astronomer, working until her death, at age 100.
Ellen Dorrit Hoffleit was born in Florence, Alabama, the daughter of German immigrants, Fred and Kate Hoffliet. The family relocated to New Castle, Penn., when her father was hired as a bookkeeper there. Hoffleit’s interest in stars began at a young age, as she watched what appeared to be fireballs colliding in the skies above her backyard.
In 1924, Hoffleit began her studies at Radcliffe College, where she struggled to decide between focusing on fine arts or mathematics. She chose mathematics, hoping to be a geometry teacher, but, upon graduation in 1928, had a difficult time finding a teaching position. That winter, Hoffleit was offered a research assistant position at the Harvard College Observatory. She accepted the position and quickly became enthralled with the work. With only two college-level astronomy courses under her belt, Hoffleit soon became an expert at determining, spetroscopically, the absolute brightness of stars. In 1932, she received her M.A. in Astronomy from Radcliffe and, under the guidance and encouragement of Harlow Shapley, the director of the Harvard Observatory, went on to earn a Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1938. Her dissertation earned her the Carolyn Wilby Prize for best original research.
Hoffleit continued her work at the Harvard College Observatory until taking a job with the Ballistic Research Lab at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1943. Here, she computed trajectories for World War II missiles. She was the only Ph.D. hired at a sub-professional rating, the result of a discriminatory practice that was later corrected. Hoffleit remained here until 1948, when her love for astronomy pulled her back to Harvard.
By this point, the environment at Harvard had changed. Shapley was no longer the director, and Hoffleit was working for 40 cents an hour when men were paid $1.00. In 1956, after 25 years at Harvard, Hoffleit moved on to Yale University to run its star cataloging program.
In 1957, Hoffleit was named the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, where she initiated a summer research program for undergraduates, primarily young women. Under her mentorship, 11 of these women went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy. Collectively, they discovered more than 1,000 new variable stars and published more than 90 research papers.
During her years at Yale, Hoffleit’s major work was The Bright Star Catalogue. She also wrote Astronomy at Yale, 1701-1968; produced hundreds of scholarly papers; co-authored the fourth edition of the Catalogue of Trigonometric Parallaxes; and, for 15 years, provided “News Notes” on astronomical events and trends for Sky and Telescope magazine. Though she officially retired in 1975, Hoffleit continued her work until her death in 2007.
Dorrit Hoffleit’s many awards include the 1988 George van Biesbroeck Award for dedication to astronomy and the 1993 AAS-Annenberg Prize for science education. She is a past president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, a Hoffleit Assistantship has been established at the Mitchell Observatory to honor her work, and she has had an asteroid named after her: Asteroid Dorrit.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.