The Royal Astronomical Society is a ‘learned society’, a charity that works to advance astronomy, space science, and geophysics. It was first conceived by 14 ‘gentlemen’ in a Tavern in London on 12 January 1820, and had its first Council meeting on 10 March 1820.
Sir William Herschel agreed to be the first President, although he never chaired a meeting.
Caroline Herschel became the first woman to be presented with a Gold Medal, the society’s greatest honour, in 1828. In February 1828, James South addressed the meeting as follows:
“The labours of Miss Herschel are so intimately connected with, and are generally so dependent upon, those of her illustrious brother, that an investigation into the latter is absolutely necessary ere we can from the most remote idea of the extent of the former…but when we have enumerated the results…a most important part yet remains untold.
Who participated in his toils? Who braved with him the inclemency of the weather? Who shared his privations? A female! Who was she? His sister!
Miss Herschel it was who by night acted as his amanuensis! She it was whose pen conveyed to paper his observations as they issued from his lips; she it was who noted the right ascensions and polar distances of the objects observed; she it was who having passed the night near the instruments, took the rough manuscripts to her cottage at the dawn of day, and produced a fair copy of the night’s work on the subsequent morning; she it was who planned the labour of each succeeding night, she it was who reduced every observation, and made every calculation, she it was who arranged every thing in systematic order, and she is was who helped [William Herschel] to obtain an imperishable name.
But her claims to our gratitude end not here; as an original observer she demands, and I am sure she has, our most unfeigned thanks…we stand indebted for the discovery of the comet of 1786…1788…1791..1793…1795…[and] many of the nebulae contained in Sir William Herschel’s catalogues were detected by her…
Indeed, in looking at the joint labours of these extraordinary personages, we scarcely know whether most to admire the intellectual power of the brother, or the unconquerable industry of the sister.
In the year 1797, she presented to the Royal Society a catalogue of 555 stars…Shortly after the death of her brother, Miss Herschel…completed the laborious reduction of the places of 2500 nebulae…bringing to a close half a century spent in astronomical labour…
[I]t was resolved unanimously, ‘That a Gold Medal of this Society be given to Miss Caroline Herschel’…a vote which I am sure every one whom I have the honour to address, will most heartily confirm…since the foundation of this Society no one has been adjudged, which has been earned by services such as hers.”
The Astronomical Society became the Royal Astronomical Society in 1831, receiving its Royal Charter from King William IV. The only pronoun in the charter was masculine, and so it was deemed that Fellows must be male.
Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville were named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. The report of the council meeting in February 1835 states:
“Your council has no small pleasure in recommending that the names of two ladies, distinguished in different walks of astronomy, be placed on the list of honorary members.
On the propriety of such a step in an astronomical point of view, there can be but one voice: and your Council is of the opinion that the time is gone by where either feeling or prejudice, by whichever name it may be proper to call it, should be allowed to interfere with the payment of a well-earned tribute of respect…
[Y]our Council therefore recommends this meeting to add to the list of honorary members the names of Miss Caroline Herschel and Mrs Somerville, of whose astronomical knowledge, and of the utility of the ends to which it has been applied, it is not necessary to recount the proofs…
Motions were then made for passing these several resolutions, and the same were carried unanimously.”
Anne Sheepshanks became the third woman to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1862.
Isis Pogson became the first woman to be nominated to become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1886, when she was nominated by three Fellows.
After Pogson was nominated:
“[T]he Council thought it well to obtain the Council’s opinion on the admission of women. Mr. Ranyard reported, that unless it could be shown that a woman could not consistently exercise the rights and perform the duties of a Fellow, the Council could be compelled to allow the name of a women to be suspended for election.
But when a second opinion was called for, it was to the effect, that regard being has to the social habits of the time when the Charter was granted female Fellows were not likely to have been in contemplation; and as the masculine pronoun is used throughout, they must be taken as not included.”
After this, Isis Pogson’s name was withdrawn from consideration.
In February 1892, Elizabeth Brown, Alice Everett, and Annie Russell Maunder were nominated but they were not elected for the same reason as Isis Pogson.
One Fellow stated:
“[I]t was practically a proposal to introduce into these dull meetings a social element, and all we shall require is a piano and a fiddle…and I am sure many of my young friends will be glad to dance through most of the papers.”
Agnes Mary Clerke and Margaret Huggins became the fourth and fifth women to become honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society in May 1903, following Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, and Anne Sheepshanks.
Williamina Fleming became the sixth woman to become became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1906, followed by Annie Jump Cannon in 1914.
In February 1915:
“[T]he President announced that the Council had met, and that a Petition to the King for a Supplemental Charter to enable women to be elected as Fellows and Associates had been duly sealed, and would be forwarded to the Home Office.”
Eleven women were elected Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1916.
The first five women were elected Fellows on 14 January 1916, having been proposed for election in November 1915. These were Mary Adela Blagg, Ella Church, Alice Grace Cook, Irene Elizabeth Toye Warner, and Fiammetta Wilson.
Six other women were elected in 1916, these were Margaret Theodora Meyer, Mary Proctor, Francisca Herschel, Gertrude Longbottom, Sallie Duffield Proctor-Smyth, and Annie Russell Maunder.
Margaret Theodora Meyer and Mary Proctor were nominated in December 1915, and elected Fellows in February 1916. Francisca Herschel was proposed for election in February 1916 and was elected in April.
In April 1916, it was decided in a bye-law that:
“words denoting the masculine gender only shall include the feminine gender also.”
Gertrude Longbottom and Sallie Duffield Proctor-Smyth were proposed for election in March 1916, and were elected Fellows in May.
Annie Russell Maunder was proposed, for the second time, that month and was elected in November.
Many more women were elected after this, including Isis Pogson in 1920, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin in 1922, and Mary Ackworth Evershed in 1924.
Vera Rubin was awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1996. She was the first woman to receive this honour after Caroline Herschel. Only three other women have received Gold Medals: Carole Jordan and Margaret Burbidge (shared with G Burbidge) in 2005, and Michele Dougherty in 2017.
Carole Jordan became first female President the Royal Astronomical Society in 1994, followed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 2002, and Kathryn Whaler, the third and latest female President, in 2004.
As far as we know, all the women mentioned above are white women and we would welcome more information on BAME fellows.