Women in Astronomy at the University of Toronto

by Christine (Coutts) Clement

Professor Emerita, Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics

University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada


This paper is the subject of a talk that I gave at the 208th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Calgary, Alberta in June 2006. It was presented at a special session sponsored by the AAS committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy - Canadian Women Astronomers: Their Status and Science. When I was invited to make a presentation at this session, the first thing that came to mind was a photograph of the members of University of Toronto's Department of Astronomy in 1962. It had appeared in a book published in 2002 to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the granting of a charter to King's College, the predecessor of the University of Toronto. I was pleased that the author, Martin Friedland, a former dean of law at UofT chose this particular photograph to include in his 680-page book because I was an undergraduate in 1962 and I knew the people in the picture. They had all been my teachers. Almost half a century has passed since the picture was taken and much has changed in the field of astronomy. For me, it is particularly interesting to contemplate how the world has changed for women in astronomy since 1962. I would like to make three points.

<1962 Photo>

Members of the Astronomy Department at the University of Toronto in 1962 with the David Dunlap Observatory in the background: S. van den Bergh, Helen Hogg, D. A. MacRae, Ruth Northcott, J.D. Fernie and J. F. Heard. This photograph and caption appeared in Martin L. Friedland's book, "The University of Toronto: A History''. Credit: University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services [Jack Marshall, photographer].

1. The Demographics

Throughout the past twenty years, there has been considerable concern about the fact that women are not well represented in the physical sciences. However, this photograph illustrates that in 1962, 33% of the astronomy faculty at UofT were women, a significant proportion. In fact, there were more women in 1962 than there are today. The following table illustrates the gender distribution of the astronomy faculty at UofT in each decade from 1942 to 2002 and annually from 2002 to 2006.

Astronomy Faculty at the University of Toronto
YEARNo. of Men No. of Women Total
1942 3† 2 5†
1952 3 2 5
1962 4 2 6
1972 13 1 14
1982 14 1 15
1992 14 1 15
2002 13 1 14
2003 13 2 15
2004 13 2 15
2005 14 2 16
2006 15 1 16

† In addition, there were 2 men on leave for the duration of the war.

Between 1952 and 1982, the fraction of women declined, but the sharpest drop was between 1962 and 1972. Throughout the 1960s, the University expanded in order to prepare for the increased enrolment when the baby boomers arrived at the end of the decade. As a result, the number of astronomy faculty more than doubled. However in 1972, Helen Hogg was the only woman. This decrease in the number of women entering the professions was a general trend throughout North America in the post-war years. The phenomenon was discussed by Betty Friedan in her 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique''. An edited excerpt from this book was printed in the June 2006 edition of the AAS publication, STATUS and from this I quote a few sentences to indicate the mood of the times.
"They [women] were taught to pity the unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights - the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for".
"Fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949 - the housewife-mother. As swiftly as in a dream, the image of the American woman as a changing growing individual in a changing world was shattered."

Taking this into account, we might wonder why there were any women in 1962! This occurred because women were appointed to teaching positions in Canadian universities during World War II when some of their male colleagues were on leave to participate in the war effort. After the war, these women maintained their academic positions and this accounts for their presence in the 1960s. However, by the end of the 1970s, they had all retired. Since Helen Hogg retired in 1976 and I was appointed in 1974, there was a brief period again in the 1970s when there were two women on the faculty. It did not last long.

Another consequence of the culture of the 1950s and 1960s was that men hired during that period continued to subscribe to the 'feminine mystique' values and they held positions of influence throughout the subsequent decades. Thus their views prevailed in decisions regarding hiring. Ten astronomy faculty at UofT resigned or retired between 1976 and 2002, but all except one were replaced by men. No further women were hired until 2003. For a brief interval between 2003 and 2005, there were two of us. However now that I have retired, there is only one woman among the 16 faculty members. On the other hand, 50% of our approximately 30 graduate students are women.

By the 1990s, universities and governments became concerned about affirmative action. Consequently, policies were introduced to ensure that women served on appointment committees and also on committees responsible for allocating research funds and telescope time. Since there are so many women interested in studying astronomy, we should expect them to be well represented among the professionals in astronomy once these policies have been in effect for a few decades.

2. What's in a Name?

A second point to note about this 1962 photograph is the caption. Given names have been listed for the women, but for the men, only the initials are included. The photograph was taken for a magazine that was mailed to UofT graduates. In that publication, they were listed as Professors S. van den Bergh, Helen S. Hogg, Donald A. MacRae, Ruth Northcott, J. D. Fernie and the Director, Dr. John F. Heard. Women and full professors were identified by their given names. However in the official university documents in 1962, there was a different system. Degrees, academic rank and initials were listed for everyone, but women were designated by marital status as well. As a result, the astronomy faculty in 1962 were listed in the following manner:

J. F. Heard, M.A., Ph.D., F.R.S.C. Professor and Head of the Department
Mrs. H. B. S. Hogg, A.M., D.Sc., Ph.D., F.R.S.C. Professor
D. A. MacRae, A.M., Ph.D. Professor
S. van den Bergh, M.Sc., Ph.D. Associate Professor
Miss R. J. Northcott, M.A. Assistant Professor
J. D. Fernie, M.Sc., Ph.D. Assistant Professor

Since the marital status of women was so important, they were addressed as 'Mrs.' or 'Miss', even though the men were called 'Professor' or 'Dr.' This was a degrading system for women, particularly those who had a PhD, but did not have the coveted 'Mrs' degree. They were the object of scorn among the student body of the day. The practice of listing women by their marital status was finally abandoned in 1975 at the University of Toronto.

Of course, this was not a custom unique to Canada; it happened in the United States as well. One can readily observe this in the publications of the Harvard College Observatory. Even the famous astronomer Cecilia Payne had to endure being addressed as 'Miss' before her marriage to Sergei Gaposchkin, while her male colleagues were called 'Doctor'. Helen Hogg once told me that it made Cecilia bristle!

3. Women as Role Models

My final point is to emphasize the importance of Helen Hogg and Ruth Northcott as role models. I was an undergraduate student in the early 1960s and in those days, careers for women were limited mainly to school teaching, nursing or secretarial work. It was very encouraging for me to see that women could become astronomers and that they were so well represented in the department at UofT. I also appreciated the fact that they were respected by their male colleagues. Two other women who were my contemporaries, Judith Pipher and I.-Juliana Sackmann, also became astronomers. Helen and Ruth influenced all three of us.

In fact, Helen Hogg's influence as a role model extended beyond the University of Toronto. She was a mentor for Amelia Wehlau and Martha Hazen who had obtained PhDs in astronomy in the 1950s from Berkeley and Michigan respectively. In the 1960s, they were both raising families. With Helen's support, they embarked on research programs in her field, variable stars in globular clusters. Amelia worked at the University of Western Ontario and Martha at Harvard and they both became very productive researchers.


While there have been many changes in the field of astronomy, the prospects for women wanting to become astronomy professors at U of T seem to be worse today [in 2006] than they were 60 years ago. As the number of faculty has increased, the number of women represented has not. Where progress has been made is that women are now given the opportunity to serve on influential committees. As a result, they are treated fairly by committees that allocate research funds and telescope time. Also we are no longer addressed according to our marital status. I hope that more women will be hired in the near future. Only time will tell.


After I gave this talk, I received numerous comments from people who heard it. It was particularly interesting to note that women born in different decades had different perspectives. Two of the women were discouraged from studying science at university in the 1970s. Consequently, they pursued other endeavours for a decade before they began their scientific studies. They both told me that they found a big difference in the attitudes toward women when they resumed their studies in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the current graduate students had a different outlook because they started their university careers during the last decade when women were encouraged to pursue careers in science. They were shocked to learn about the importance of the 'Mrs' degree for women working in North American universities throughout most of the twentieth century. Sadly, I was also informed that the custom of identifying professional women by their marital status still persists in some countries.

Since I came of age in a generation when few women studied science, I sometimes wonder if there were special circumstances in my life that set me apart from other women of my generation and maybe there were. I come from a family in which women were encouraged to excel. My paternal grandmother, Katherine Ballantine Coutts (1855-1929) was an early feminist. She lived in Thamesville, a small town in southwestern Ontario, but in the late nineteenth century, she frequently wrote letters to the editors of the main newspapers in Toronto. In one of these letters, she argued that women should not be forced to accept their husband's last name as their own. It was republished in a 1985 book, "Shocked and Appalled: A Century of Letters to the Globe and Mail''. I never knew Katherine, but my father did! Another factor that probably had a big effect on my life was that my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was only five years old. This event has made me aware that tragedies can strike at any time. Also, since my father never remarried, I grew up without a mother as a role model. I had many interests in high school: languages, music, mathematics and physical sciences and I was not sure what to study at university. My father encouraged me to study mathematics and science.

I grew up in Thamesville, but because of my family situation, I spent my high school years at Havergal College, a girls' boarding school in Toronto. At Havergal, we were taught that we should become productive citizens. What a shock it was for me to find out about the real world when I arrived at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1959! I spent the next four years in a dormitory where I learned that my life would be over as soon as I graduated. There were two possibilities. If I was a loser, I would have to earn my own living. If I was a winner, I would marry and thereafter seek fulfillment through the lives of my husband and children.

Happily, the prospects for women began to improve after I graduated in 1963. Betty Friedan's book was widely discussed and people recognized that women had been duped.

I have another special memory from 1963. One evening that summer, Helen Hogg invited all of the 'astronomy' women to her home for a buffet supper. After the meal, Helen and her colleague Ruth Northcott showed slides from some of their travels. In 1958, they had both attended the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Moscow and after the meeting, they took an excursion to Samarkand. In those days, Samarkand was the end of the Earth! I was amazed. I learned that evening that women could have interesting lives and I think I have succeeded in doing that myself. And of course, I visited Samarkand as soon as the opportunity arose.


I am grateful to Pat Knezek, the chair of the AAS committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, for organizing the special session at the Calgary meeting. I was pleased that my Canadian colleagues, Jayanne English, Stephanie Cote, Brenda Matthews and Mike Reid invited me to speak at the session.
In the course of preparing my talk, I found the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services to be a valuable resource. Their collection of Calendars and Staff Directories was an important source of information. In addition, I would like to thank archivists Harold Averill and Marnee Gamble for their assistance and for their interest in the history of astronomy at UofT.

At the Calgary meeting, I also presented a scientific paper, "On the Detection of Periodic Variable Stars in the EXPLORE II Database", along with co-authors D. C. Nguyen, S. M. Rucinski, H. K. Yee, G. Mallen-Ornelas, M. D. Gladders and S. Seager. Support for this research from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Reasearch Council of Canada) is gratefully acknowledged.


Bagenal, Fran. STATUS, A Report on Women in Astronomy, A publication of the American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women. June 2006.

Coutts, Katherine Ballantine. Letter to The Globe, Toronto. June 22, 1893.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1963.

Friedland, Martin L. The University of Toronto: A History. University of Toronto Press 2002, page 333.

Kapica, Jack (editor). Shocked and Appalled: A Century of Letters to the Globe and Mail. Lester and Orpen Dennys Ltd. 1985, page 22.

Varsity Graduate, University of Toronto, Summer 1964, page 76.