Womens Rights and Astronomy in Australia – an International Women’s Day perspective

On this International Women’s Day in 2021 Dr Toner Stevenson reminds us that it’s timely to reflect on many aspects of gender equality and the status of women past and present.

It is important to view gender disadvantage through an historical lens to understand the reasons why women have been poorly represented, discouraged and lacked acknowledgement in many fields, including astronomy. In this blog post one of the ‘hidden’ women who made a significant contribution to the development of astronomy in Australia in the late 19th Century is highlighted for her work as one of John Tebbutt’s ‘Computers’.

Going back further in time there is no doubt that Aboriginal Peoples had cultural and scientific knowledge of the cosmos (1). The Notebooks of Lieutenant William Dawes, who established the first western-style observatory on a point of land we now call ‘Dawes Point’ in 1788, have revealed the knowledge of a young woman called Patyegarang who spoke with him and taught him her language, including words for the sun (Go-ing), the Moon (Yan-nă-dah) and the Magellenic clouds (By-do-nong) (2).  It is not until almost a century later, in the late nineteenth century, that I have uncovered women’s involvement in astronomy in Australia (3).

Margie Ann Arnold (1866-1948) was John Tebbutt’s student and computerJohn Tebbutt was one of the most widely acclaimed and prolific amateur astronomers of the late nineteenth century (4). Tebbutt was respected around the world as an authority on comets, double stars and Southern Hemisphere astronomy. What is not commonly known was that a young woman called Margie Arnold assisted him in his calculations.

Tebbutt’s report on the Windsor Observatory in the Sydney Morning Herald posted in February 1889 reflected on the achievements of 1888 (5).  He detailed the observations of Jupiter’s satellites, of occultations of stars and of the observations of Barnard’s comet and the ‘glimpse’ he had of Faye’s comet, magnitudes of Eta Argus and R Carinae, the meteorology work and the additions to the Library collection.

Tebbutt emphasised that he did all the observations, and the most difficult mathematical reductions but that ‘the occasional services of an ordinary computer are required’. Tebbutt had sought a ‘competent lad’ but had experienced unexpected difficulty obtaining such services of such a person. However, he found two people who had the required attributes, one of whom was a woman.

Margie Arnold, who was 20 years old and employed as a teacher by the Public School Department in Sydney, and Mr L. A. Parker who worked in the Windsor Branch of the Commercial Bank were employed.  Arnold was the daughter of William and Mary Arnold, who worked for Tebbutt and was born in Windsor. She was singled out for praise in Tebbutt’s 1888 report with her attributes noted by Tebbutt as ‘intelligence, quickness and accuracy…as a computer both in logarithms and natural numbers, is exceptional’ (6).  Tebbutt reported to the British Astronomical Association that Arnold worked with him in 1889 and ‘during the Christmas break’ of 1890 and he vowed to ‘give testimony as to her qualifications’.

If proof could be found of payment for Arnold’s computing services, this would position her amongst the first women in Australia to be paid for her work in astronomy.  Her only known contemporary is Mary Emma Greayer who was employed at Adelaide Observatory in 1890 (7).

In Arnold’s obituary, reported in The Manning River Times and Advocate (8), it was noted that she had studied astronomy with Tebbutt before she was a teacher.  Therefore it is quite possible, but not conclusive, that she had not only studied but also worked with Tebbutt even before 1888.

In 1890 at the age of 23 Arnold was promoted to headmistress at the new Infants School in Broken Hill. Broken Hill was a big city, and the second largest in population in the state. This was reported in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette (2) a ‘well-deserved promotion’.  In 1890 another keen amateur astronomer and geologist, Farquhar Wallace, was appointed to a school in Broken Hill (North Broken Hill Public School).  Not long after taking up her appointment as the headmistress Arnold married Farquhar Wallace in Broken Hill.  As was required at the time, when Arnold married she had to resign her position. However, she taught voluntarily at her husband’s schools, and raised a family of three sons and four daughters.

Staff and students from North Broken Hill public school on excursion
Staff and students from North Broken Hill public school on excursion on New Year’s Eve in 1910. Margie Arnold may be in this group. NRS15051/1/5

In 1890, on the other side of the globe, women were being employed in Paris Observatory as ‘computers’ for the Astrographic Catalogue. Over the next half-century women became vital as data sets and the astronomical workforce grew. But this was repetitive work with little opportunity for research. As more women were admitted to University to study physics and mathematics and this created a strong desire for the nature of their work to change.

Another early astronomy ‘computer’, Muriel Heagney, campaigned for equal pay for women and changes to workplace restrictions for married women. The right to remain employed in the Australian Public Service once you married was finally achieved in 1966. This had major implications for women seeking a long research career in astronomy.  Since the 1930s resources for astronomy had been increasingly controlled by federally funded agencies (12). By 1966 almost all large-scale astronomy research happened in Universities or the Commonwealth Scientific Institute for Research (CSIR – now called CSIRO), and these organisations were guided by Australian Public Service workplace agreements.  The formation of the Astronomical Society of Australia was instrumental in uplifting Australia’s participation in global astronomy and also in the recognition and, after a few years, increasing the involvement of women in research astronomy.

The Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) was founded in 1966 and it’s first President was Harley Weston Wood, NSW Government Astronomer and Director of Sydney Observatory.  In 1995 Elaine Sadler was elected as the first female President. Throughout her extraordinary career Professor Sadler AO continues to advocate for gender equality and the recognition of women in astronomy . In recent times the  presidency of the ASA  has been almost equally shared between the sexes, with past presidents  including Ann Green, Kate Brooks, Virginia Kilborne. The current president is Associate Professor Cathryn Trott.

Professor Elaine Sadler AO, receiving a Pleiades Award. Photo Helen Sim.
Professor Elaine Sadler AO, receiving a Pleiades Award on behalf of CAASTRO. Photo Helen Sim.


In 2009 the Women in Astronomy (WiA) chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia was founded. The WiA established the Pleiades Awards in 2014. What was vital to the success of the awards, and the effectiveness of WiA was the involvement of both genders in activities, conversations and capacity for change to increase the number of women at all levels of astronomy. Since 2016 the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in Astronomy (IDEA) chapter encompasses the aims of the WiA but includes wider diversity, equity and inclusion.

Interested in becoming an astronomer? Find out more.



  1. Norris, R 2016, Dawes Review 5: Australian Aboriginal and Navigation, Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, Volume 33, id.e039 39 https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/link_gateway/2016PASA…33…39N/doi:10.1017/pasa.2016.25
  2. The notebooks of William Dawes on The Aboriginal Language of Sydney Website is the result of collaboration between the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and the SOAS University of London Library Special Collections. https://www.williamdawes.org/indexes.html#weather
  3. There are likely women yet to be found in archives.
  4. Orchiston W. 2004. John Tebbutt and observational astronomy at Windsor Observatory, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol.114, no.3, p.141-154. http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/pdf/2004JBAA..114..141O
  5. 1889 ‘THE WINDSOR OBSERVATORY’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 4 February, p. 3., viewed 21 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28339529
  6. 1890 ‘WINDSOR AND RICHMOND Gazette’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette (NSW: 1888 – 1954), 1 February, p. 4., viewed 21 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72561410
  7. Stevenson, T 2014, ‘Making Visible the First Women in Astronomy in Australia: the measurers and computers employed of the Astrographic Catalogue’, PASA, v.31, pp. 1-10.
  8. 1952 ‘Mr. Farquhar Wallece.’, The Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer (NSW : 1898 – 1954), 11 January, p. 1., viewed 21 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168538169.
  9. 1948 ‘OBITUARY’, The Manning River Times and Advocate for the Northern Coast Districts of New South Wales (Taree, NSW : 1898 – 1954), 6 October, p. 2., viewed 21 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172286461
  10. 1890 ‘Literary Notices.’, Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931), 27 March, p. 3. , viewed 21 Nov 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article108803731
  11. Goss, William Miller; McGee, Richard X. (2010), Under the Radar: The first woman in radio astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott, Springer,
  12. Lomb, N. 2015, The Formation of the Astronomical Society of Australia, https://eprints.usq.edu.au/27197/15/Lomb_HRAS_v26n1_AV.pdf


Dr Toner Stevenson is Honorary Affiliate, History, University of Sydney, where she currently manages the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry. She was Manager Sydney Observatory from 2003 to 2015.

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