By Guest Author 18/09/2018


Dr JJ Eldridge

Writing this article and contributing to this series comes at a strange time for me.

While I was assigned male at birth I have struggled with my gender for a long time. It has become apparent to me that I am transgender; my sex assigned at birth does not match my gender identity, which I have recently come to understand is that I am probably a non-binary trans woman. Thus, I wonder if I should really be included here, “am I woman enough to be able to say something about suffrage?”.

It is certainly an odd form of impostor syndrome. One thing is that I carry the weight of having been male for so long that it can feel like it invalidates what I might have to say, but then I do have a unique viewpoint. I have seen the change in the way people talk to me and interact with me. It makes me realise how women can be shut out of so many opportunities by not being in the clique male groups.

Dr JJ Eldridge, supplied.

One thing that has been helping me make decisions about who I am is that my view of history of science has been changed. Thanks in no small part to having to teach the history of astronomy in a first-year class where a student, Paula Hogg, pointed out it was so difficult to see themselves in astronomy as all our stories were of “old bearded white men”. It made me put in more of the stories I already knew, such as those of Celia Payne Gaposchkin and Annie Jump Cannon.

The stories that have had the biggest impact on me have been finding the stories of the “Women Scientists Who Made Nuclear Astrophysics” [1]. While the list begins with internationally well-known names such as Marie Sklodowska Curie and Lise Meitner there were two names that resonated with me, Erika Helga Ruth Böhm-Vitnese and Beatrice Muriel Tinsley.

The work of both these women led to key contributions in my own field of research, stellar astrophysics, and yet during all the time I studied at university neither the fact they were women, nor their pioneering work was ever highlighted.

Böhm-Vitnese created the first accurate method to include convective zones within numerical models of stars. Her work [2] is still an integral part of such models 60 years later. While her work was highly cited, the fact she is a woman was never mentioned in stellar evolution courses where nearly every name is male. Learning about her allowed me to begin to see myself within my own field of research.

Beatrice Tinsley.

Then I became aware of the work of New Zealander Beatrice Tinsley, a few years after moving to the University of Auckland. Within New Zealand, her achievements and life are well known. However, recently I came across a paper written a few years before I was born, “What stars become supernovae” [3]. Upon reading it, seeing the original attempt to answer the question I still work on today for the first time left me feeling an empty resonance. Seeing the tools and methods I use today so clearly laid out for the first time was inspiring, but with it not being more widely known left me disappointed. It has inspired me to share this paper widely, especially with future students.

There are many more examples in all fields of science, more stories have been uncovered by Kate Hannah from Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. Her historical research for her current project, Hidden Networks [4,5], has enabled departments of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science to adopt the names of women scientist alumnae to mark 125 years of universal suffrage in New Zealand.

Learning of all these stories and following those of women in science today, has had a significant impact on me during a key time in my own life. It tells me how important such stories are. Not just to encourage more women into science but to also make everyone of all genders realise that women have been contributing to science for a long time, and importantly leading the field and making key developments that allow us to move forward in our understanding of the Universe.

I write these thoughts from a perspective that is unique because I am transgender. For a long time, I feel like I was brainwashed that to be good in astrophysics I had to be a man, and always tried to fit the mould. As I become more at home in understanding who I am and transition to a new self, finding out that role models have been hidden leaves me frustrated. But I’m also inspired to find out more of these stories and make sure more people discover these hidden histories, knowing the importance of their impact.

Dr JJ Eldridge is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland. They study exploding binary stars while trying to explode the myth of a gender binary.

[1] Hampton et al, Women Scientists Who Made Nuclear Astrophysics, to appear in Proc. of Intl. Conf. “Nuclei in the Cosmos XV”, LNGS Assergi, Italy, June 2018. Preprint at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1809.01045

[2] Böhm-Vitense, E., Über die Wasserstoffkonvektionszone in Sternen verschiedener Effektivtemperaturen und Leuchtkräfte, 1958, ZA, 46, 10

[3] Tinsley, B. M., 1975, What stars become supernovae, 1975, PASP, 87, 837T

[4] New Zealand’s invisible women scientists, Radio NZ, 26 April 2017.

[5] Hannah, K., 2017, Finding Matilda: deconstructing women’s invisibility in Finding New Zealand’s Scientific Heritage, 47, 148

Featured image: The grand-design spiral galaxy Messier 74 as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration – Public Domain.