Posted Friday evening, January 13, 2017.
This is a heartwarming little story from The Glass Universe, Dava Sobel’s new chronicle of the lives and careers of some of the women who worked as computers and astronomers at the Harvard Observatory between the 1870s and the 1950s when Cecelia Helena Payne became Harvard’s first female professor of astronomy. It’s a story of family love and and a distant friend’s generosity, and like I said, it’s heartwarming. Except…
Well, you’ll probably figure out the except.
In the fall of 1906, the director of the Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering...
...received an appeal...from Elizabeth Lidstone Bond, a granddaughter of the observatory’s first director...she and her sister required his advice on a personal matter. “You know, of course, of my Aunt Selina’s poverty,” she wrote...He did know if, yes. Sudden poverty had driven Selina Cranch Bond to beg Pickering, almost from the moment he took over the observatory in 1877, for employment. Although her father, William Cranch Bond, had provided for his heirs through the family’s watch, clock, and chronometer factory in Boston, a scurrilous trustee later cheated the descendents out of their inheritance. Pickering was still sending Miss Bond occasional computing work that she, now seventy-five, could do at home in Rockland, Maine.
Elizabeth and her sister, Catherine,...had been impoverished by the same blow dealt their aunt Selina. They, too, had worked briefly for Pickering, as copyists and translators, before establishing themselves as schoolteachers. Elizabeth thought her aunt, “the aged daughter of an eminent man like my grandfather, as poor as she is, “might justly claim assistance from a certain Harvard pension fund.” The sisters hoped Pickering could direct them to a member of the pension-fund committee, and counsel them about how to proceed, “given your position in the observatory, and the unfailing kindness and consideration you have always shown us.”
Pickering assured the anxious nieces of his aid, and wrote the same day to [Harvard’s President Charles Eliot] to inquire about the pension fund. On learning that it could support former faculty members only, Pickering devised an annuity tailored to the situation...Starting immediately, Selina Bond would receive $500 a year (nearly double her present salary as a part-time, at-home computer) for as long as she lived. In addition, she would be relieved of all responsibilities and granted the title of assistant emerita in the observatory, “in consideration of the distinguished and long continued service to astronomy of her father, her brother, and herself.”
Heartwarming, right? Restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it? Did mine, at any rate. But here comes the except…
How was it that a seventy-five year old woman was living out her life in poverty, depending on the measly $250 a year she made doing what we’d call contract work or freelancing but was really a form of intellectual piecework to keep body and soul together? And what would have happened to her if her nieces hadn’t stepped in or Pickering not been able to help?
Now, Sobel doesn’t say “poverty” meant to the nieces and Pickering. Poverty, as Republicans like to remind people who are poor, is relative, and they should be grateful they don’t live in some other country where poverty means a dirt floor and no electricity. Two-hundred and fifty dollars a year wasn’t a lot of money even in 1906. But the average income for a family of five was about $875 a year. Maybe someone living on her own, if she was thrifty and careful, could get by. She’d been working for Pickering for thirty-one years by then. Maybe she’d been able to put some money away for rainy days and to cover the occasional emergency expense. Maybe she owned her home free and clear and didn’t have to pay rent or a mortgage. And there might have been some money left over from plundered estate. It’s possible that the little she earned doing computing part-time supplemented what she had in the bank. She might have been getting by comfortably if hardly living the life of Riley and what the nieces were trying to do was fix it so she could finally retire or set things up so that when the day she could no longer work inevitably came she wouldn’t starve or be tossed out on the street. She appears to have been blessed with good health and energy and she must have still been sharp mentally or she wouldn’t have been able to do the computing work Pickering sent her way. But everybody’s body and mind fail them sooner or later. Aunt Selina might have been able to work until she dropped, but dropping doesn’t necessarily mean dying, and who knows how many years of sickness and debilitation she’d have had to face with no money coming in.
I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a rarity. Not in being old and alone and poor. In having her health, a pair of loving nieces with the desire and means to help her, and a kind and generous benefactor willing to go out of his way to see that she didn’t live out the rest of her life in penury and want.
But what about other seventy-five year olds with no family connections, no money in the bank, no family of their own who cared for them and who were in a position to help them? It was 1906. There was no Social Security. Wouldn’t be for almost thirty years. Not that the idea wasn’t being batted about. Social Security was a long time in the works. It’s not something FDR pulled out of his hat when he got to be President. A national old age pension was proposed by various founders at the beginning of the Republic and it came up again and again until FDR finally got his version of it passed. It was stymied every time until the last by rich conservatives who didn’t want to pay taxes to support it, because rich conservatives don’t want to pay taxes to support anything, and by businessmen who didn’t want to deal with workers who weren’t terrified of losing their jobs because then they’d have no money to sustain them in their old age. It’s important to keep reminding people that, politically, conservatives have only two motivations: cut taxes for themselves and create and maintain a large pool of desperate workers who will take whatever pittance they’re offered without complaint. The justification for letting old people starve was the same as for letting the sick suffer. It’s good for them. Saves them from lives of “complacency and dependency.” Makes them work hard and save their money.
They said this in the 18th Century. They said it when the Populists and Progressives brought it up again a hundred years later. They screamed it when Franklin Roosevelt got it done. And they’ve been muttering, ranting, grumbling, and hollering it non-stop ever since. As I’ve said, it’s practically a matter of religious doctrine for them.
Paul Ryan was raised in the Old-Time Religion. I wish the sycophants in the Washington press corps would get this into their heads. He isn’t a new man with new ideas. He’s a zealot on a mission. And his mission is to save the souls of people in danger of committing the sin of needing help the government is best able to provide by getting them up out of the hammock the social safety net has become. First he must stop the scourge that’s Obamacare. Next to go are the twin abominations of Social Security and Medicare. What Ryan believes we need to make this land fit for Objectivist heroes and saints like him is seventy-five year olds living in penury, surviving by doing piecework, and working until they drop. Yes, people will die of curable diseases, starve to death and freeze to death with no roof over their heads, ending their days in misery and want, but they will do it with clean consciences, comforted by the knowledge that Paul Ryan is going to the conservatives’ heaven.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.