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Women in astronomy clubs

Female readers share their experiences.
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Suzie Dills is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium in Canton, Ohio. She’s also a member of two nearby astronomy clubs.
Sheila Wayne
Last month, I highlighted a handful of female members in my astronomy club, the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston. This time around, we hand the mic to women in other astronomy clubs who responded to questions I posed in my January column. A summary of their replies follows.

But first, it’s important to note that not all responses were positive. In 1993, Doreen McLaughlin (captain, U.S. Air Force, retired) learned of a public meeting at a local astronomy club and decided to attend. She was “greeted” at the door by a male member. Upon learning that McLaughlin was single and didn’t own a telescope, she recalls he “said I could come back when I had a scope AND a husband — as he (gently but firmly) pushed me out the outside door and locked it behind me.” McLaughlin has since moved to Colorado. And I greatly hope she has had better luck with astronomy clubs, and their members, since then.

What got you into astronomy?

No surprise here: Anyone can catch the astronomy bug. Some learn about the subject while in school. Others are introduced to the cosmos by friends or family. Nancy McGuire, president of the Western Colorado Astronomy Club, writes, “The sight of Saturn and its rings through my little Sears refractor when I was a kid got me hooked for life.” Sound familiar?

Astronomy fever often strikes at a young age. Francine Jackson, a member of the Rhode Island Skyscrapers and frequent contributor to their newsletter, says, “I’d wanted to be an astronomer since I was 8.” Then there’s Ayesha Darekar, who not only joined the Raleigh Astronomy Club in North Carolina as a teenager, but also founded a club at her high school.

Finally, Abigail Bollenbach, winner of the 2018 Horkheimer/Smith Youth Service Award, joined the Bartlesville Astronomical Society in Oklahoma at age 13. She immediately became involved in the club newsletter and later formed a youth astronomy club. Now, as she begins college, Bollenbach is finding time to collaborate with Astronomy to produce a short video series, Infinity and Beyond, which covers the cosmos.

Why did you join a club?

Charlotte M. DuPree, a member of the Wehr Astronomical Society, states emphatically, “Women join astronomy clubs because they have an interest in astronomy and want to learn more, not because they’re looking to meet men.”

A strong passion for the night sky led Suzie Dills — planetarium director at the Hoover-Price Planetarium in Canton, Ohio — to join two groups, the Cleveland Astronomical Society and the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association. “I wanted to learn more about the night sky and telescopes,” Dills says. Similarly, learning about telescopes prompted Sandy Rose of Groton, Massachusetts, to join a local astronomy club after her husband bought a telescope for her as a birthday gift.

How can clubs increase female membership?

Because women are historically a minority in astronomy clubs, Dills says, “Perhaps a ladies-only night at the club observatory or telescope night would make women more comfortable.” Darekar advises clubs to “plan a meeting that celebrates and informs others about women’s achievements in astronomy.” Virginia resident Jackie O’Neill suggests clubs encourage “members to bring their daughters to meetings and observing sessions.”

And to avoid losing a potential female member who ventures to a club meeting or star party for the first time, O’Neill reminds members to “see her as a person who enjoys looking into the night sky. Treat her as you would any student eager to learn.”

Advice for women considering joining a club?

Sue French of the Albany Area Amateur Astronomers encourages newcomers to “introduce yourself. Tell members what you’re interested in. If you’d like help with anything, just ask.” We all bring our own unique sets of knowledge and experience, which is why McGuire suggests: “Add your passion and talents for astronomy to the club! Don’t be afraid to give it your personal touch. Women have great capacity for attention to detail that can enhance a club’s overall environment.”

A common reason given for not joining a club was a perceived lack of knowledge. The good news is that astronomy clubs aren’t just for those with a doctorate in astrophysics. Joyce Jentges of the Northern Cross Science Foundation agrees. “I could[n’t] care less about gravitational waves and black holes,” she says. “But let me look at the planets and deep-sky stuff, [and] I am happy.” Cristina Montes of Muntinlupa in the Philippines sums up the feeling shared by many female members of astronomy clubs: “Just join! We need more of us.”

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