Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol43 Issue61 19–23 March 2018

From the RSPE Equity and Access Commitee

The award rejection that shook astronomy

Margaret Burbidge’s 1971 decision to decline the Annie Jump Cannon Award forced the astronomy community to reconsider the prize and examine discrimination against women in the field.
In the early 1970s Margaret Burbidge was the best-known woman in astronomy and a prominent figure in the American Astronomical Society (AAS). So it caused quite a shock in May 1971 when she declined the Annie Jump Cannon Award, the society’s oldest prize and the only one exclusively for women.
In a letter to AAS secretary Laurence Frederick, Burbidge wrote, “I believe that it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.” Underlying that official statement was the suspicion that the Cannon Award had kept women from receiving other recognition. In conclusion, Burbidge wrote, “It would be interesting to know, however, how often our names have been excluded from consideration for professorships, directorships . . . because we are women.”

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