More and more, The Atlantic, once a bastion of sober and liberal thought, is going the way of Salon; that is, it’s becoming both clickbait and Authoritarian Leftist, devoted to sniffing out anything that could exude even the merest whiff of social offense. One example is a yesterday’s online piece by Leila McNeill, “The constellations are sexist.” Yes, you got the title right. But how can an arrangement of stars be sexist? In fact, McNeill just doesn’t call them sexist, but “misogynistic”.
McNeill’s piece (which apparently came from Aeon), makes a pretty lame argument, and I quote:
To this day, astronomy remains one of the only scientific fields that relies so heavily on ancient Greek and Roman mythology for its naming conventions. Cosmology and mythology have been interwoven throughout human history, so it’s not surprising that modern-day astronomers have inherited this tradition. But classical mythology is deeply misogynistic, and using it to identify celestial bodies contributes to a scientific culture that diminishes the achievements of women like Caroline. Male deities and figures reign with nearly unlimited power, while their female counterparts suffer violence and humiliation.
Among the myths we have used to name and claim the heavens is Cassiopeia, a constellation in the northern hemisphere. It is named for a mythical queen of Aethiopia, whom Poseidon punished for her vanity by lashing her to her throne. Cassiopeia’s daughter, Andromeda, was also made to suffer for her mother’s sins by being chained naked to a rock, where she waited for the sea monster Cetus to rape her. In the myth, Perseus saved Andromeda and took her as his wife, but as a constellation, she still waits chained to her rock.
The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters, is a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation. The Seven Sisters were once women who danced together under the night sky, but Orion desired them, so he hunted them for seven years. To help the sisters escape, Zeus turned them all into stars—but Orion, another constellation, still chases them night after night.
And get this about “coded male names”:
Male astronomers, when they look at the sky, can find more uplifting role models. The constellations named after men tell stories of heroism and conquest, not submission and subjugation. Even today, NASA continues to recycle the names of mythological figures and great men of history when naming spacecraft and missions. Orion, a crewed spacecraft meant to facilitate travel to Mars, is named for the same Orion that hunted the Seven Sisters. Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, and Cassini—names pulled from the scientific establishment that excluded women like Caroline—are all unmanned spacecraft sent to explore the cosmos. Even spacecraft with seemingly gender-neutral names are coded male: Voyager and Pioneer evoke the men who heroically left home and hearth on voyages of exploration.
McNeill goes on to womansplain how even astronomical objects or probes associated with women or minorities are really tools of oppression. Her contorted take on the seemingly progressive names Sojourner, Artemis, and Juno shows you how deep McNeill’s confirmation bias runs: she can find offense in literally anything. And, of course, most of the misogynistic constellations cited by McNeill were not named by modern sexist astronomers, but by ancient Romans and Greeks!
Her final paragraph is a pathetic wail that once again conflates largely nonexistent sexism with misogyny, which, of course, is the hatred of women:
Today, the skies are still filtered through this tradition of mythic misogyny. Naming conventions for spacecraft and constellations are a subtle but significant way that the discipline of astronomy perpetuates a male-dominated culture. Simply giving more celestial bodies female names is not the solution. Rather, change must begin with the recognition that astronomy’s self-image is built upon an age-old habit of telling stories about the abuse of women.
To get a feminist woman’s point of view, I sent the article to Grania without any editorial comment, and asked for her take. I reproduce it below (with permission):
It’s tendentious claptrap.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in society today who tries to glean and internalise life lessons and societal norms from the names of stars and planets. People who look at the Pleiades constellation are interested in the night skies. I’d wager that almost none of them are familiar with the ancient mythology behind the name. But even if every single person who studies astronomy is intimately acquainted with Ancient Mythology, I bet none of them looks at the stars and thinks wow, now I realise that’s what women are : the prey of psychopathic rapists.
Instead of recounting the story of a depressed and under-acknowledged woman from 1876—an era that hardly marked the pinnacle of modern enlightenment and female emancipation—as “evidence” of her hypothesis, perhaps McNeill could have mentioned actual women in astronomy like Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Caroline Porco, or add that now there is a whole PAGE on Wikipedia devoted to the names of notable women astronomers. (JAC: Brian Cox has named his cat after one of them.)
Society hasn’t managed to solve all the problems of misogyny or racism or bigotry or inequality yet. But Jesus, things have gotten better; and they got better without re-naming Orion as Gloria Steinem (Peace Be Upon Her).
JAC addendum: Equally offensive is what happened to one cat-named constellations. I quote from Space.com:
Another faint star pattern now no longer recognized is Felis, the Cat, which was the creation of an 18th century Frenchman, Joseph Jerome Le Francais de Lalande (1732-1807).
“I am very fond of cats,” he said, explaining his choice. “I will let this figure scratch on the chart. The starry sky has worried me quite enough in my life, so that now I can have my joke with it.”
Although this celestial feline does not exist today, cat fanciers will be consoled by the fact that there are three other members of the cat family — Leo (the Lion), Leo Minor (the Smaller Lion) and Lynx — that are well situated and close together in our current evening sky.