Are the constellations sexist? The Atlantic goes the way of Salon; Grania responds

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

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.

h/t: Cindy


  1. Posted August 17, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I knew it! There are equally powerful arguments against botanical discrimination and oppressive entomology.

    • eric
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Don’t forget HIStory. On the other hand, maybe McNeill can declare a victory over Herpetology.

  2. Posted August 17, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Thank Ceiling Cat for the planet Venus!

  3. steve oberski
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    As Atlantic read Paris Hilton commented:

    This is some of the best work The Onion has done in a long time!

  4. geckzilla
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    The astronomy community is aggressively rooting out sexism and encouraging diversity. Sometimes it’s tiresome, but it seems overall to have a positive result. Outing the perpetrators of sexual harassment and having no apologies for it is sorely needed. We stopped calling it “manned” spaceflight years ago, but I’ve never seen anyone call for a change in the constellations. They’re sexist in a way, sure, but it’s kind of like wanting to change the name of the U.S.A. to something else since the country was founded on slavery.

    There are all sorts of interesting sky cultures out there other than the Western one, anyhow. The most popular asterism is probably the Pleiades and even cultures from which hardly any records survived managed to retain some record of their Pleiades lore.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I can never see my telescope the same way, as it is obviously a phallic symbol which I had used, uninvited, to probe the heavens. But I thought the sky wanted it, for the stars were winking at me.

    • Reggie Cormack
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink


      • Reggie Cormack
        Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Dunno what happened there. Should’ve been a smiley face.

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          No, the winky face is somehow better.

  6. Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I’ve been increasingly bothered by the low quality of thinking in some of what is in the Atlantic. Some of that is not “leftist” but indeed struggles to be “balanced” and championing false equivalence, like the recent article decrying ineffective democracy by Jonathan Rauch – which left out the anti-science leanings of the GOP as a major issue.

    • Karl Heinz
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I feel the same way, and it’s why I elected not to renew my subscription to The Atlantic. It was one of my “go-to” magazines.

      Thankfully, we still have Harper’s.

    • cherrybombsim
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      For a real hoot, you should read the ignorant tirade against “deceptive” SPF values on sunscreens.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        A classic example of failure to understand percentages:

        “A majority of patients at the clinic falsely believed that SPF 30 was twice as protective as SPF 15. That does seem like it should be true. But it’s nowhere close, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. SPF 30 is roughly four percent more protective than SPF 15 — SPF 15 filters out around 93 percent of UV-B rays, and SPF 30 filters out around 97 percent.”

        So SPF 30 lets through less than half as much as SPF 15. So assuming damage is proportional to the amount of UV-B, SPF30 IS twice as protective. NOT 4 percent as this doofus claims.


  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    We all know the Ancients were sexist and misogynistic. They also had slaves and waged bloody wars. They were cruel to humans and other animals and often included them in spectacle. This was the pre-enlightenment world and there’s lots we can find bad in it. Still, it influenced our laws, our language, our philosophy and our science. It may have even helped anticipate the Enlightenment….so which story do we focus on? Am I supposed to be all upset with my name because although an Amazonian warrior, Diana was expected to be chased and was even tricked into killing a suitor with an arrow?

    This is why I detest art courses that exclude the history and concentrate purely on story or aesthetics; the context is lost and meanings of things are conflated with modern ideas.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you (and Jerry and Grania). One of my favourite sayings is, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

      The ability some have to find offence everywhere and anywhere is not new. What does seem to be new is the amount of validation they’re getting. It’s manifesting itself not just in articles like this, but the safe spaces movement and the authoritarian/regressive left.

      And it needs sensible voices (like Jerry’s website) pushing back against it otherwise the only opposition they have is the far right, whom they can justifiably ignore.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      Ah, classical names – I, too, am the bearer of one.

      One of my first introductions to the dark power of organised religion, was when I was four or five. ‘Now’ exclaimed our teacher brightly, ‘ Do you know that your names mean something? Timmy, do you know what your name means?’
      ‘No,’ I said.
      ‘It means ‘God-fearing!’ said the teacher with a smile of true Xtian joy on her face…

      The class finished, we were dismissed, and when I got outside the door there were a few boys from the class waiting for me in the corridor.

      ‘You fear God!’
      ‘You’re God’s enemy!’
      And then there was some shoving and hitting… Such faith as I may have had at that age never recovered from that experience and another experience at Sunday School when I was about the same age – but the story of that I shall leave for another time.

      Later in life, I was pleased to discover that Timotheus was not merely the artificially constructed name of Paul’s depressing disciple, but a pre-Christian name meaning ‘Fearing the gods’, or, in modern English, ‘respecting the gods’. Good and polytheistic, and some of the most notable bearers of the name turned out to be musicians, poets and sculptors…

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 2:34 am | Permalink

        I’m sure the irony is not lost on you that “God-fearing” was supposed to be a *good* thing… and the bullies got it completely arse-about-face.

        My Christian (!) name is Chris, I don’t have to tell you how much baggage *that* carries. (Except for one work acquaintance who misheard as ‘Cecil’ and ever after called me ‘Cess’. I never enlightened him).


    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      In the case of your own name, Diana, (Greek form Artemis)it was the goddess who did most of the chasing, and woe to the man, even the hero, who happened upon this virgin bathing naked in some limpid forest pool. He was doomed to be hunted to death and his body torn to pieces by her hounds.

      My point is that the ancient Greek, Mediterranean and Near-eastern world was a cruel one always–no matter who was naming the constellations or after whom. Two surpassingly excellent books by Robert Graves have helped my understanding of the mythos of these many tribes and cultures, from 1500 BCE until well into the Roman Empire. Titles: ‘The White Goddess’ and ‘The Greek Myths.’

      Graves makes one overarching and striking claim, namely, that much of the conflict and violence in these mythic stories indicates the great anthropological transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, which involved the gradual domestication of goddesses by gods (reflecting the sociocultural change taking place).

      But a few goddesses could never be tamed. Virgin Artemis/Diana was the most notable one.

      Concerning the magazine article. Doesn’t the sheer historical human reality behind a constellation’s name–Orion, that most stunning of winter displays, was a close hunting friend of Artemis–make the silly fuss in the ‘Atlantic’ an embarrassing waste of everybody’s time, a foolish display of ignorance that makes you want to turn away? To look around, or up at the sky, for something substantial? Something up there where you live that as one of your greatest troubadours sings, ‘leaves us helpless’?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        I think Diana/Artemis isn’t really an untamed goddess but an example of the woman as “other” and in this way, something to be feared. She’s in the same category as Circe – a witchy woman that turns people into pigs but only after they show up and act brutish.

        Orion is actually one of my favourite constellations because of the nebula that I forever try to get a good picture of.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 18, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          ‘I think Diana/Artemis isn’t really an untamed goddess but an example of the woman as “other” ‘

          But, Diana, which would *you* rather be?


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 18, 2016 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            Depends which society and if they fear witchy women and if I weigh more than a duck.

  8. Steven Obrebski
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Whenever I am asked what my sign is I say it is
    Scampi, a constellation between Cancer and

  9. J.Baldwin
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Such are the excesses of social constructivist thinking. The underlying rationale of her argument is that the words we use reproduce and/or maintain particular social realities that are not real at all but are merely conceptual constructions – but these constructions have real effects, they say. What she is arguing is that there is this concept called misogyny comprised of a number of disparate ideas concerning the inferiority of women to men. By using the historical mythic female names we reproduce/maintain misogyny in society.

    Of course she never offers any proof…it’s simply assumed to be true that such constructions actually have an effect on anybody’s actual attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I’ve been meaning to say – sorry to hijack the post:

    I’ve been listening to Car Talk for decades. You know why I’m bringing this up if you know anything about it. It’s on NPR. In light of the recent rise of the offense crowd, I am struck when I hear Tom (PBUH) and Ray just let loose on all matters. In fact I wonder when the offense crowd will get it cancelled like PETA ending the elephants at the circus…. bad analogy maybe…

    I guess the question is why NPR lets Car Talk keep going.

    • Steven Obrebski
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      They don’t want you to forget
      Tara Lipinski’s tutu.

      • Posted August 17, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        What is that?

        • Steven Obrebski
          Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          It was one of the comments on Car Talk referring to the figure skaters costume.
          The tutu was rather small.

          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

            Just guessing, but the phrase ‘Tara Lipinski’s tutu!!’ might serve as an exclamation over some small matter.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        This was just on Car Talk, #1635. It should be available as a podcast for a week from now. Ray says it during Stump the Chumps.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Hell, I should add the original The Muppet Show in here with Car Talk on the list of Authoritarian Leftist targets – have you seen it lately?

  11. Barney
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I’d be slightly more willing to read McNeill’s column if she knew enough about Caroline Herschel to get the basic facts right. She did not write anything in 1879, since she was born in 1750, and died in 1848. You could technically call her ’19th century’, but more of her work was in the 18th century.

  12. Ariel Karlinsky
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    “Society hasn’t managed to solve all the problems of misogyny or racism or bigotry or inequality yet. But Jesus, things have gotten better”

    by using “Jesus”, a deeply patriarchal-christian concept, Grania proves McNeill’s point.

    • Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I presume you’re joking.

      • Ariel Karlinsky
        Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        yes. It’s quite sad that it’s not really obvious these days, isn’t it?🙂

  13. Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Never mentioned in the astrophysics and astronomy (introductory) course from CEGEP I did 20 years ago. (Taught by a woman, to boot.)

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Re: “Cassiopeia’s daughter, Andromeda, was also made to suffer for her mother’s sins by being chained naked to a rock”.
    Andromeda was chained to that rock BY HER MOTHER CASSIOPEIA(!!!!!) which this author avoids mentioning by use of the passive rather than active voice.

    Andromeda won out in the end (though largely by being rescued by Perseus). She wound up co-founding Persia and was the great grandmother of Hercules.

    Orion “the hunter” is WOOING the Pleiades, but he is NOT described as “hunting” them in the way that he hunts animals. A really loaded verb choice not justified by any classical texts!! He doesn’t go after them with bows and arrows.

    There are several versions of why the Pleiades became stars, one of which is that they were so saddened by the death of their father, Atlas, that they killed themselves after which Zeus turned them into stars. Either way, Orion is usually portrayed as a fairly decent though over-eager suitor.

    While the constellations are indeed male-dominated, there are plenty of stories in Greek mythology about strong muscular self-reliant women, of which a good list may be found here.

    Cool new word of the day. The act of being transformed into a star is called…..catasterism.

    • Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Atlas ever died.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you’re right. The daughters are mourning Atlas’ doomed fate to carry the celestial sphere on his shoulders for the rest of his days.

        • Posted August 18, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          Notice that the Greek myths (both in Atlas’ case, and that of Prometheus) show the horribleness of an infinite punishment. Christians, Muslims etc. claim sometimes that they want humans to be immortal so that punishment is applicable to them! Yowza.

  15. Joe
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    They’re ovaryacting.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:41 am | Permalink


  16. allison
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I do wonder what the author of this article would have astronomers do – does she want Cassiopeia and Andromeda and Virgo (not to mention those testosterone-fueled brutes Hercules and Orion) to all be renamed?

  17. Posted August 17, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Constellations are names given to meaningless groups of stars that may be millions of light years apart but which appear to be related because of our position in the universe.

    They’re an example of apophenia: the illusion or imposition of meaning onto random stimuli.

    Identity politics seems to have gone the same way: imposing patterns where there are none.

    These are people wave their fists at clouds because they don’t like what they see.

    • Bernardo
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      Best comment so far

    • eric
      Posted August 18, 2016 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      IMO you denigrate them too much. AIUI the ancients developed them basically as navigation and agricultural mnemonics. They used the stars to figure out where they were and keep track of seasons, and it is much easier to do that if you give specific sets of stars a pattern identification name.

      Kinda like having months. How long they might be and what we call them is largely arbitrary, but collecting a group of days and giving them a name is still useful.

  18. Mike
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I read McNeill’s article only to find out what her objections to the use of Artemis were. I can’t say I was that surprised to find it was based on an error on her own part – Artemis is associated with childhood, not motherhood which would have been the domain of Hera/Juno.

    On an unrelated point, am I the only one who is surprised that McNeill doesn’t also accuse modern astronomers of imperialism, in preferring to use the Greek constellation system over the Chinese?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      Or the Japanese. So long Pleides, hello Subaru! Maybe just stuck with M45.

      Artemis is the Greek equivalent of Diana. She is associated with the moon, women in childbirth and probably all those moon-y menses type stuff.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 2:40 am | Permalink

        “Maybe just stuck with M45.”

        What? It’s named after a motorway?


  19. Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Just to help Leila McNeill with her next sexist name target – she really needs to change her last name. After all, “McNeill” means that she is named as descendant of a male named Neill.

    • Genghis
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      Actually the Mc and Mac prefixes mean “son of”, so the naming situation is even worse.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      MacPherson is “son of parson” so male AND religious!

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:46 am | Permalink

        Worth having a rant about?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 18, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink


  20. Hempenstein
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    They worry about stuff like this instead of things like the suburban heroin epidemic. How precious.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      To wit. (I wasn’t aware of this in today’s news when I wrote the above.)

  21. Posted August 17, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Most stars these days have sexist names like F21 P32 or whatever. Can I take offense?

  22. Alpha Neil
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    What’s that fuzzy patch below Orion’s belt?

  23. eric
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    …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.

    I think this qualifies as a deepity. It sure sounds like it means something profound, but if you really think about it, it doesn’t really seem to mean anything. Astronomy’s self-image? What is that? And who is telling stories about the abuse of women? The astronomers?
    If we try and parse it differently, its pretty clear it just word salad. ‘The way the astronomy community views itself comes from regularly telling stories about abuse of women.’

  24. Bernardo
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I used to follow Aeon magazine on facebook until I realized it had become a postmodernist, antiscience ditch

  25. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 18, 2016 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    Give up feminists; all is lost. The stars in their courses conspire against you.


  26. Doug
    Posted August 18, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Is anyone going to talk about the abuse of males hidden in astronomical names? For instance, in classical mythology, Saturn [Cronos to the Greeks] emasculated his own father, Uranus [Oranos]. And Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, is named for a boy Jupiter [Zeus] raped. Is using these names promoting emasculation and male rape? Or is this okay because it is punching up?

  27. Posted August 18, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Yea she is crazy, but you don’t seem to get why she is crazy. Losing my religion by REM is such a good song, it’s not just about church. Church is only but one single fraction, of the deeply religious. They unfortunately are normal in that don’t get it’s not all about them and what they think, and they argue with each other, which all about me is right!!! Some kind of wierd ass co dependency group of the narcissists’. Normals.

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