Oh, Cecilia, You’re Breaking My Glass Ceiling

Q: Where does a mansplainer get his water?

A: A well, actually.

If you’re not familiar with mansplaining, it’s pretty simple and pretty common. It’s when a dude interrupts a woman to explain something she already knows, was already explaining or has first-hand experience with.

There are some pretty extreme examples of mansplaining, and its equally abhorrent cousin, whitesplaining, out there. I imagine every woman has experienced it at least once.

I went on a first (and only) date with a guy and mentioned I had done improv comedy in college. Lucky for me, he had “seen a lot of improv” and spent 20+ minutes telling me about all the ways “society” is primed to think women aren’t funny — and all the ways women make it worse for themselves.

(Sidenote: when I said I wasn’t interested in seeing him again, he asked if it was because he’d ruined the end of Lost for me. No, I replied, it wasn’t just that.)

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We all agree that mansplaining is annoying and at the top of the list of things men shouldn’t do, after rape, pillage and sit with their legs super wide on the subway at rush hour. But for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, mansplaining was more than annoying. It was LEGACY RUINING.

Never heard of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin? Blame Henry Norris Russell. (Never heard of Henry Norris Russell? Go back to astronomy school.)

Payne (let’s treat the lady, and use her maiden name) was born in 1900, which was, all together, not the best time to be a lady astronomer. But that wasn’t going to stop her. She won a scholarship to Cambridge University and completed all of her coursework. Now, at that time, women could get scholarships, they could take classes, they could study for exams, they could pass those exams, but they couldn’t be granted a degree. So she technically never graduated. (Strike one, patriarchy.)

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Despite that, Payne went on to earn her PhD at Radcliffe College, which was the lady-arm of Harvard University. She was the first person to ever earn a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe, and her dissertation was lauded as one of the finest works of astronomical research ever.

In a nutshell, she was the first person to determine that stars — and thus, the sun — were primarily made up of hydrogen. This was a really big deal, for reasons I can’t explain because I am not Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. But basically, she was right and proved that everyone else had been wrong the whole time.

Good on you, Payne! Unfortunately, her adviser, the person paid by the university to advise her work, advised her not to publish that finding, since it disproved common astronomical understanding. This Henry Norris Russell, it seems, didn’t like common beliefs being disproven.

Unless it was he who did the disproving. Four years later, Russell published a paper with the same conclusion as Payne, proven using different methods. He credited her in one line, but he is remembered by history as the one who discovered the chemical makeup of stars. (Strike 2!)

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Payne went on to do many other amazing things in astronomy, but continued to run into the brick wall of the patriarchy. For years, she was a professor at Harvard but her title remained “Assistant.” Her courses weren’t even listed in the course catalog, since female professors were such an anomaly. But eventually, Payne was made the first female head of a department at Harvard University.

She won many awards over the course of her career. The last major award she ever won? The Henry Norris Russell Lectureship at the American Astronomical Society, in 1976.

And the whole committee, when she accepted the award, reminded her to “smile!” because “God, it’s a joke. It’s funny. Can’t you take a joke?” …I imagine.

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