Notable Women in History You May Not Know Of But Should
Updated: Aug 6
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was born Cecilia Helena Payne on May 10, 1900. She was born in Wendover, England to father Edward John Payne, a musician and fellow at Oxford University, and Emma Leonora Helena, a skilled artist. Tragically her father passed away in an accident when Payne was only four years old, leaving her to be raised by her loving but very strict mother. Payne’s mother ensured that all of her children were as well-educated as they could be. And she was indeed successful in this ambition as Payne’s siblings became archeologists and architects and she herself became an astronomer.
Cecilia Payne knew from quite early on that she wanted to become a scientist. Thus, in 1919 she enrolled in the University of Cambridge, which she attended on scholarship. She majored in Physics and throughout her time at Cambridge, she had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Sir Arthur Eddington who had confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity on an expedition to the island of Principe. It was, in fact, Eddington who inspired Payne to follow her passion for astronomy. After her studies concluded, Payne wanted to further her passion for astronomy. Feeling that she would have more opportunity to work as a woman in astronomy in the US than in Britain, Payne applied for and received a fellowship to study at the Harvard Observatory in Massachusets under Harlow Shapley.
Whilst at Harvard Observatory, Payne worked alongside other astronomers such as Edward Pickering, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and Antonia Maury. These researchers notably created a classification system that sorted stars into seven types based on their spectra, which corresponded with the surface temperature of the stars. Using this discovery, along with the work of Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha who showed how to use an equilibrium equation from physical chemistry to relate the ratio of excited states to ground states, and the fraction of ionized states to the temperature, electron concentration, ionization potential, and other properties of the stellar atmosphere, Payne that stars were mostly composed of hydrogen and helium and that they did not, in fact, have the same composition as the earth’s crust, which was previously believed. She faced great opposition from academics in astrophysics, one notable one was the astronomer Henry Norris Russell. It took until 1929 for him to concede that Payne was indeed correct. Despite this notable discovery, and that she was indeed admitted to research at the Harvard Observatory, Payne was not actually allowed to submit her PhD Thesis as Harvard did not grant doctoral degrees to women at this point in time. Instead, Payne submitted her Thesis to Radcliffe College, entitled Stellar Atmospheres, and with this, began to revolutionise the field of astrophysics.
An article published about her in the American Physical Society Journal argues that Payne’s work profoundly changed what we know about the universe. It states “The giants — Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein — each in his turn, brought a new view of the universe. Payne’s discovery of the cosmic abundance of the elements did no less.”
Cecilia Payne, after she handed in her thesis, wrote about how she had found her doctoral journey, something that I think many of us as students can relate to. It says:
“Harlow Shapley liked to say that no one could earn a PhD unless he had suffered in the process. As she neared the end of her doctoral project on stellar spectra, Cecilia Payne wrote, “There followed months, almost a year as I remember, of utter bewilderment. Often I was in a state of exhaustion and despair, working all day and late into the night”.”
Payne continued on as a technical assistant at Harvard. At this time, women were also not allowed to advance to the title of professor and her pay grade was substantially lower. So in the meantime, she focused on publishing books on her research. However, in 1956 Payne achieved two firsts. She was the first woman to be appointed as a professor and the first female department chair. A comment that was made about her PhD thesis by astronomers Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs summarises accurately the impact that her work has made on her field. They called her thesis, “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”, This is significant as it almost wasn’t allowed to be submitted and it was publicly discredited at first. Payne’s work led on to many further discoveries and it changed the way astronomers understood and studied the universe.
Ruth Miriam Ross (1920-1982) was a highly respected historian situated at the forefront of public history research in New Zealand. She was particularly well known for her work involving Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, and the Melanesian Mission. After studying at Victoria University from 1939 to 1941 under J.C. Beaglehole and F.L.W. Wood, Ross worked at the Department of Internal Affairs Centennial Branch where she refined her research skills and developed close working relationships that continued into her later life. A significant span of Ross’s life was devoted to her work with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Buildings Classification Committee, and her associated work on Pompallier House and the Melanesian Mission Museum. Later in her life, she held a three-year fellowship in the History Department at the University of Auckland.
Through her revised interpretations of the Treaty, Ross was at the forefront of a profound change in New Zealand historiography. She began working on an empirical analysis of the Treaty and its associated documents during the 1950s, where she was involved in editorial work on the facsimiles of the Treaty of Waitangi, produced by the Government Printing Office. This project was later abandoned by Ross as she felt that more archival research was needed on the Treaty and that she was not capable of doing so due to family commitments. In a letter to J.C. Beaglehole in 1957, Ross explained that ‘archives must be searched systematically for this treaty job, and that can’t be done by hit and run research raids from Hokianga’. For Ross, who was working as a part-time historian and raising two young children, her family commitments took priority over research trips. ‘Maybe when both kids are away at secondary school…I’ll feel more like tripping around…Money isn’t the stumbling block. It’s just that I’m damned if I’ll leave Ian and the kids to struggle along on their own’. The facsimile project was therefore abandoned by Ross, who turned her attention to other projects such as the Primary School Bulletin series. The series offered Ross the opportunity to convey her ideas in an experimental style, part-history and part-fiction, to primary school children in New Zealand. During the 1950s Ross produced one post-primary school Bulletin, three primary school Bulletins, and five additional stories for the School Journal.
Ross published her seminal article ‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Texts and Translations’ in the New Zealand Journal of History in 1972. The ground breaking analysis that Ross presented in this article came to shape and underpin the debates over the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi which occurred both within academia and in the public sphere for the next thirty years. In this article, Ross argued that Pākehā society routinely ignores the fact that the official Treaty of Waitangi is the Te Reo Māori version that was initially signed at Waitangi on February 6 1840, and in other locations across the country at later dates. Ross’s argument represented a fundamental revision of how the Treaty of Waitangi is interpreted and analysed by Pākehā historians, as the primacy of the English version had stood unchallenged and automatically accepted both within the historiography and in legal debates.
Following the publication of her article, Ross continued her work to educate the public about the Treaty through her involvement with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, in particular, their book Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island which was published in 1983. Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island was designed to be more than ‘a coffee-table book to be casually leafed through’; its purpose was a historical account of the individuals, families, and communities who lived in the houses and used the buildings described in the book. As well as a history book, Historic Buildings of New Zealand – North Island is a picture book, with each chapter accompanied by photography, drawings and paintings that illustrate the houses and buildings that are detailed in the book. Her five contributing chapters, in particular a chapter on Waitangi Treaty Houses, demonstrate how Ross turned her research and the knowledge gathered from her academic work into a public history with the intention of educating the New Zealand public on the Treaty – its context, its meanings, its controversies, and Māori resistance to persistent abuses of the Treaty.
Ross’s papers can be found at the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s archives. Her papers fill 84 boxes, and include documents such as personal letters, manuscripts, and meeting notes. Her letters are filled with honest and frank opinions which offer great insight into her life and perspective on New Zealand history. I’ll finish with a quote from one of her letters, which I think represents her and her work very well - I think we all, Māori and Pākehā, politician and man-in-the-street, need to know a great deal more about Waitangi, the background, the meaning, the effect of the treaty, and the changing background, the changing meanings, the changing effects over the last 138 years.
Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.