During summer 2022, I had the opportunity to intern at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under the guidance of Emily Margolis and Daina Bouquin as part of the Because of Her Story virtual internship program. My project was titled “In Fleming’s Footsteps: Recognizing and Documenting Gendered Care Work in Astronomy.” Care work, specifically the stewardship, organization, and preservation of astronomy data, as well as efforts to make the data accessible, is historically overlooked and underappreciated.
I came to the project with no formal training in astronomy, statistics, or with any material background in the hard sciences. I did come with training in anthropology, an interest in women’s history, and a deep appreciation for and firsthand experience with care work. My positionality deeply impacted and wholly suffused my engagement with this project.
This project is very meaningfully situated within the context of over a century of gendered labor performed by the Women Astronomical Computers at the Harvard College Observatory (HCO). This history begins with Williamina Fleming, a brilliant astronomer hired to do calculations and data reduction—labor deemed too menial and repetitive to be done by men with the title of astronomer. This position, titled “Computer,” grew to encompass a number of things, from clerical work to computations to important astronomical discoveries.
After Fleming, Edward Pickering, the director of the HCO, hired dozens of women, all young and white, to do calculations and care for a massive collection of astronomical glass plates taken at Harvard Observatories in Cambridge, Peru, and South Africa. They worked 6 days a week for 25 cents an hour, which was less than men completing similar tasks as assistants. These women had keen interests and talents in astronomy and mathematics; many had earned degrees in these subjects from women’s colleges, including Vassar and Radcliffe. They were responsible for essential care work and invaluable discoveries, stewarding a collection of hundreds of thousands of glass plates that documented the entire night sky
The extraordinary work done by these women, beginning with Williamina Fleming, and continuing on through the 20th century, was systematically disregarded, devalued, and not awarded the deserved respect or recognition.
After over 100 years of care and scholarship, the last glass plate negative was collected in 1992. The mechanisms that defined the work of the Women Astronomical Computers quickly became obsolete. This part of history, and the good and bad that came with it, was, ostensibly, in the books.
But what happens next?
As Drew Pendergrass writes in his article “Harvard’s Forgotten Female Astronomers,”“after Pickering’s death, the memory of the Harvard computers began to vanish slowly from history.” Although a number of articles, books, plays, and art pieces seek to memorialize these women, history has not been fair to them, and they have largely been victims of the kind of erasure and banalization that is all too familiar for women in history.
History is ongoing and mobile. It is forever incomplete. In 2002, the plates that defined the work of the Women Astronomical Computers were given a second life. The DASCH project, Digitizing a Sky Century @ Harvard, was born, a daunting task to digitize the hundreds of thousands of glass plate negatives that fill multiple floors of “D” Building, an area christened “the stacks,” at the Center for Astrophysics.
These plates have a heaviness to them. Yes, they are literally very heavy. The building where they are housed necessitated structural reinforcements to account for their weight. But there’s something more to it. There’s the scientific weight, a temporal kind of heaviness that encompasses over a century of data about the night sky. But there’s also a historical heaviness. These plates are more than just images of the night sky. They are brought to life with notes written in the margins, circles, arrows, and other denotations, evidence of the work these women did and their invaluable contributions to astronomy.
DASCH aimed to capture the scientific potential of this historical data set for contemporary and future researchers. The project owes its progress to a majority female workforce, made up of curators, curatorial assistants, and scanners, who cleaned and scanned the plates, and digitized them for scientific use. In the early days of the project, these historical artifacts were cleaned haphazardly with Windex, wiping off dust, debris, and the decades-old notes made by the Women Astronomical Computers. Although the methods have been improved over the past two decades, the denotations made by the Women Astronomical Computers are still removed for the scanning process, simultaneously immortalizing the scientific heft of these plates while destroying their connection to the women who gave them meaning.
In many ways, the DASCH workers quite literally followed in Fleming’s footsteps. They used and cared for the same plates used and cared for by the Women Astronomical Computers. But, also, like their predecessors, their essential care work was often disregarded, devalued, and not awarded the deserved respect or recognition.
The purpose of my project was to recognize and document the diverse experiences of the people involved with the DASCH project and place value on care work within astronomy and beyond. I planned to conduct oral histories with individuals involved with DASCH for public release on the Wolbach Library website.
In my preliminary research regarding the DASCH project, it became impossible to talk about its history without the mention of unresolved sensitivities, which were inseparable from the project. The consequences of these sensitivities quickly became apparent. After reaching out to a number of people involved in the project’s past and present, not a single woman involved with the project was open to speak about their experiences without delayed publication known as an embargo. A few did not feel safe sharing their story under any circumstances. These women cited fears of retaliation or retribution, risks they were not willing to take.
The sensitivities associated with this project necessitated a shift from timely, public releases, to meaningful and private storytelling protected with an 18-year embargo. It also required an acknowledgement that the experiences of the majority woman-identifying workforce employed by DASCH over its 20 year history cannot be generalized. The stories that will be published in 18 years represent vastly different experiences, connections, and engagements with the DASCH project. Many more remain untold.
Throughout astronomy and the hard sciences, there’s a dissonance between the values and practices of those who oversee production of data and those who actually do the work. This phenomenon is brilliantly conceptualized in Ashley Sands’ comparison of “data as a product” vs. “data as a process.” When data is seen as a product, separate from the people that produce it, it becomes a means to an end. The majority femme workforce employed by the DASCH project was often seen as a means to an end, a necessary complication in service of a greater goal. On a systemic level, their voices were not heard. Beyond that, it seems it was unimaginable that they might even have voices to hear.
The specifics of the work environment at DASCH are best left to my narrators. But, at many points in its history, DASCH fostered an uncomfortable and even unsafe work environment. It is also important to note that DASCH contributors tried to combat the ongoing erasure of their predecessors, challenging the scientific norms that foregrounded data production over historical preservation. Until very recently, their suggestions were dismissed and their concerns were systematically ignored.
The data production intrinsic to DASCH is tied to a tumultuous history, one where women were not listened to, not taken seriously, and even actively silenced. The majority female workforce who are responsible for the DASCH project cared deeply for the plates and the history behind them, working, often in vain, to preserve the memory of a female workforce that was disregarded and ignored, all while living through those same powerful forces of erasure.
Today, DASCH is at an impasse. The scanner, which has already immortalized scientific data on hundreds of thousands of plates, while erasing human data, has been out of commission for almost 18 months. The project is now under different leadership and has expanded its goals to include the preservation of the work of the Women Astronomical Computers. Still, the plan, ostensibly, is to eventually resume scanning, complete the project, and move on.
But what happens next?
I’m hopeful that, in 18 years, these stories will be released into a world that is receptive to them, a world that recognizes the importance of care work and doesn’t dismiss labor because of its association with femininity. A world where more and more people have their voices heard, a luxury that has, historically, been afforded to a select few.
There’s a framework in anthropology, my own discipline, that involves “seeing the intolerable in the everyday.” It sounds exhausting, I know. But without it, we can become blind to the oppression and violence in the routine. We need to engage in that kind of critical thinking and being, lest history repeats itself. Again.
To learn more about my oral history project, click here.
To learn more about the Women Astronomical Computers, their lives and their contributions to society, click here.
Bio: Sydney Coldren is a 2022 Because of Her Story Intern. Originally from the D.C. area, she is a junior at Rice University pursuing a major in Anthropology.
 Drew C. Prendergrass, “Harvard’s Forgotten Female Astronomers,” The Crimson, September 26, 2019. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/9/26/women-computers-observatory/
 Ashley Elizabeth Sands, “Managing Astronomy Research Data: Data Practices in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Projects,” 2017. UCLA. ProQuest ID: Sands_ucla_0031D_15929. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5gv0gm6. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80p1w0pm.
 Joseph Dumit, “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time,” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2 (2014). https://doi.org/10.14506/ca29.2.09