Should astronomy be purged of gender-specific nomenclature?

Man in the Moon stencil (photo by David Drexler)

Societal unfairness probably bugs us all. I don’t know if I’m more sensitive than most, but, being tall, it has always touched a nerve that most cultures exalt height. If a guy is five-foot-four, he’s gotta wince when he hears the stereotype “tall, dark and handsome” and garbage like that. It especially bugged me that astronomy was a men’s-only club for centuries.

Vassar’s renowned professor Debbie Elmegreen, who is just retiring as president of the American Astronomical Association, was the first-ever woman to earn an Astronomy degree from Princeton. It had been men-only until the 1970s! And the famous 200-inch Palomar telescope – the world’s largest for decades – simply didn’t allow women to use it. As for Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars in 1966, a Nobel Prize was awarded for the groundbreaking discovery – but it was given to her doctorate mentor. Bell’s name wasn’t even mentioned!

I’ve been doing a slow burn about that sort of crap for years. I finally did a major article about this in a recent issue of Astronomy magazine, the world’s largest-circulation periodical on the subject. It was that magazine’s first-ever piece on that topic, and in it I highlighted all the recent astro-breakthroughs by women. But I didn’t want it too be too unrelentingly downbeat, so I finished on a lighter note with the closing line (one of our editors, Karri Stock, helped me with it): “But I guess for now we can live with the Man in the Moon.”

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Wouldn’t you know it? One woman reader wrote to say that that final sentence ruined the whole thing, and she gave the piece a two-star rating. You just can’t win.

But it did bring up a different issue: When does activism go too far, so that it boomerangs and does more harm than good?

That woman was rabidly against any gender-specific astronomy terms – or at least those that feature men. But is there really anything wrong with having both male constellations like Hercules and Perseus and female ones like Virgo and Andromeda? Is it wrong to refer to a beloved spacecraft in a feminine way, as in, “There she goes! Isn’t she beautiful?” Can we leave alone expressions like “Man in the Moon” if we also have feminine ones? After all, 68 craters on the Moon have women’s names. My own impulse is that it’s fine; but then again, it’s not my gender being discussed here.

As for language, I’ve been using “spokesperson” and the like for about 20 years on these pages. Remember, it’s a pet peeve. But equality doesn’t necessarily mean that everything must be gender-neutral. In many cultures the Sun is masculine, the Moon feminine – which is why Chandra (“Moon”) is solely a girl’s name in Sanskrit and Hindi, while boys may be named Surya. I named my daughter (her middle name, anyway) for Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. That, too, is never a male name.

As for the planets, Venus is classically feminine for obvious reasons, while Mars, the god of war, is classically masculine. However, astronomers never regard the actual planets as male or female in any way.

Animal rights are a different issue. A good friend who is an animal-rights activist spat at a woman in Italy who was wearing a fur coat. A physical, bilingual fight ensued. What’s your take on this? Perhaps that Italian will think twice in the future before wearing furs in public, and maybe the ends justify the means. On the other hand, perhaps my friend’s incivility created more harm than good for the cause.

The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wants astronomy’s official institution, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), to ban Sirius’ nickname, the Dog Star. “We believe it’s degrading to dachshunds, Doberman pinschers and other dogs to have their name flippantly used like this,” said PETA’s Ricki Lake, a TV personality. PETA wants the sky’s other starry animals gone, too. They think that names like Leo the Lion and Taurus the Bull are forms of animal cruelty. I’m not making this up.

So, yeah, we all draw the line somewhere. But where exactly that line is positioned makes a big difference.

There are 3 comments

  1. Joseph

    PETA can only speak for people, not animals. If I were a dog, I’d be rather honored that there is a “Dog Star” and 3 (!) constellations named for dogs. While only one of those actually looks like a dog, it’s still quite an honor that “man’s” best friend is given such a high status in the sky.

  2. Glen

    Short answer…NO! There are much bigger fish to fry, such as fighting light pollution; telescope time; budget cuts to research, etc.. As for PETA, it’s this kind of nonsense that causes people to not take them seriously.

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