Deaf Women Whose Names Should Be Household Words: Women’s Suffrage Edition

Photo of Annie Jump Cannon working at a tablet screen

Debbie says:

I was completely fascinated by Joan Marie Naturale’s article in The Conversation last month, “Deaf Women Fought for the Right to Vote.”

Naturale starts with astronomer Annie Jump Cannon (pictured above), a deaf woman with a fascinating career:

In 1896, she was hired as a “woman computer” at the Harvard College Observatory, along with another prominent deaf astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

The story of the human computers was popularized a few years ago in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (and the movie adaptation) featuring Black computers some 30-60 years later than Cannon.  I didn’t know the term computer was being used in the 19th century for people (almost all women) performing calculations.

The work involved looking at photos of stars and calculating their brightness, position and color. The two were paid between 25 and 50 cents an hour – half the rate paid to men doing similar work.

Nevertheless, Cannon is credited with cataloging 350,000 stars. Building on others’ work, Cannon revolutionized and refined a system to rank stars from hottest to coolest that is still used today by the International Astronomical Union, though it is named for Harvard, not for her.

Cannon was a member of the National Woman’s Party, formed in 1916 to advocate for passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women to vote. Cannon’s suffragist efforts used her profession as a launchpad, as when she declared that “if women can organize the sky, we can organize the vote.”

She used her prominence to pave the way for women in the sciences, becoming the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1925, and facing down eugenicists who blocked her from joining the National Academy of Sciences because she was deaf.

Cannon and Leavitt were hardly the only two deaf women fighting for suffrage. Naturale goes on to describe

  • Helen K. Watts, “a militant member of the radical Women’s Social and Political Union who demonstrated at Parliament in 1909 for the women’s vote. After one protest that year, she was arrested and imprisoned – but began a 90-hour hunger strike that resulted in her release
  • Kate Harvey, who “believed in not paying taxes until women were granted the vote – which resulted in authorities breaking into her home to arrest and imprison her in 1913.”
  • Laura Redden Searing, a successful journalist and “feminist who wrote about women’s issues such as unequal pay and women’s sexuality. She also explained her support for an 1872 campaign for women’s right to vote with an analogy to the freeing of the slaves after the Civil War”

I am simultaneously struck by how familiar this story is and how surprising it is. If you had asked me if it would be possible to name five deaf women who fought for women’s suffrage, I might have been skeptical. Now that I can name five,I know there were probably five or ten more. An equal catalog could (and should!) be created of blind women, physically disabled women, women of various ethnic backgrounds, and the list goes on.

One of the most exciting trends of this time for me is the attention on visibility of so many different kinds of people who have contributed to social change over the centuries … and the dispiriting underlying reason is how much these people have been hidden figures until recently.  I am grateful to Naturale, and so many others doing the deep research to uncover and spotlight figures who never should have been hidden, and who had to work harder for every achievement than people who didn’t share the same oppression(s).

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