Toner Stevenson* writes about a champion of women’s rights…
Muriel Heagney (1885-1974) was employed as an astrographic measurer and computer at Melbourne Observatory from November 1906 until August 1910. Heagney is better known as a pioneer of women’s rights and equal pay, a feminist and trade unionist, but it was those four formative years, from the age of 21 when she was calculating the position of stars and determining their magnitudes (brightness), that really interested me.
Heagney worked on an international astronomical project called the ‘Astrographic Catalogue’. I researched her work as one of the 72 women ‘computers’ who were essential to this project in Australia for my doctoral thesis for the University of Sydney. The women were historically regarded as process workers who toiled in factory-like conditions within the observatories, strictly supervised by the male astronomers. There were male ‘computers’ too, but they had a higher status. What I found in the archives demonstrated that in contrast to popular opinion, these women had considerable agency, often identified astronomical phenomenon, such as double stars, and the more senior women took on supervisory roles, calibrated instruments and advised on process improvements and other aspects of the work.
Heagney’s employment at Melbourne Observatory came after her matriculation from FCJ Convent School in Richmond. She was trained as a primary school teacher, but like some of the other Astrographic women, she was offered a job at Melbourne Observatory after sitting an exam. Heagney had been brought up in a family of trade unionists and was the daughter of Patrick Reginald Heagney, one of the founders of the Australian Labor Party. Heagney was already a member of the Labor Party and active in the Labor movement when she joined the Observatory where she was paid 54% that of her male counterparts for the same work.
In the star catalogue and notebooks she left her insignia ‘M.H.’. This evidence of Heagney’s four rigorous years of work at Melbourne Observatory, as one of the first women working in astronomy in Australia, had not previously been examined. Patricia Ranald researched Heagney’s campaign for equal pay for women during the Depression; and Beverley Symons examined her contribution to the Labor movement (Ranald 1979, Symons 1997). Heagney’s employment in teaching and defence, and her work in equal rights and the women’s rights movement in Victoria, was further researched and documented by Rosemary Francis (2011, pp. 205–217). Heagney is featured in a publication commissioned by the Australian Heritage Commission in 2002 (Nugent, pp. 40-41) but there was no mention of Heagney’s employment in astronomy.
The logbooks held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and State Records in NSW and Victoria revealed that Heagney’s work was mainly measuring the stars photographed by Sydney Observatory. The women worked in pairs, one measuring and calling out the co-ordinates whilst the other took down the notations and they were regularly tested for their speed and accuracy. Eileen Sheldon was one of Heagney’s regular measuring partners. Sheldon demonstrated high speed and consistent accuracy whilst Heagney’s skill at measurement was not exceptional.
It seems that she left her work in astronomy to pursue a career campaigning for women’s rights, spurred on by an initiative to form a Labor Women’s Committee by Heagney’s father and in 1909 she became a delegate. From this initiative the involvement of the Labor Party in women’s rights escalated and soon after Heagney resigned her position at Melbourne Observatory in 1910.
From 1914, Muriel Heagney was the press secretary for a branch of the Labor Party and she held a number of positions. She actively campaigned for women to have equal employment rights and pay, and to be able to maintain their employment after marriage. Heagney’s rationale in her papers and speeches included statistical analysis and she championed women’s rights vigorously. She travelled to Russia and the United States, established and worked for many Women’s Movement organisations, wrote articles and gave ‘Town Hall’ style presentations based on her observations and analysis, articulating the economic relationship between women’s income, or lack thereof, and poverty.
In 1972 women were granted equal pay to men through the Equal Pay Decision 1972 (Kramar 1990, p. 4). In 1975 Heagney was posthumously featured in the Canberra Times with the words:
“… the person who worked hardest and longest for equal pay in Australia died in May last year. Tiny, redoubtable Muriel Heagney stood for women’s rights … all her life she was a rebel and a fighter.” (Browning 1975, p. 17)
It has been difficult to prove if the precision required for the Astrographic Catalogue, Heagney’s use of mathematical formulae, or her employment conditions influenced her life once she left the observatory. Heagney’s work at Melbourne Observatory and her star calculations still form the basis of star catalogues that positions stars for astronomers. Her social and scientific connection to astronomy, and its impact on her work for women may yet have potential for further detailed research.
*Toner Stevenson is Manager of the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at The University of Sydney. She has a Doctorate in Museum Studies and extensive museum and heritage experience as Manager of MAAS Sydney Observatory, Head of House Museums for Sydney Living Museums, project manager for the Natural History Museum, London’s Darwin Centre and Exhibition Co-ordination manager and designer at MAAS. She is Vice-President of the Sydney City Skywatchers amateur astronomy society.
Francis, R 2011, ‘Muriel Heagney (1885-1974): Pioneering Labour Women Leader’, in Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-century Australia, The eScholarship Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Kramar, R 1990, ‘Women’s Wages in Australia: Stability and Change’, Equal Opportunities International, vol. 9, no.6. pp. 1-10.
Nugent, M 2002, Women’s Employment and Professionalism in Australia: Histories,Themes and Place, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra ACT.
Ranald, P 1979, ‘Feminism and Class: A Study of Two Women’s Organisations During the Depression and War years 1929-1949’, MA Thesis, University of Adelaide.
Symons, B 1997, ‘Challenging and Maintaining the Traditional Gender Order: Labour Movement Responses to Women Workers in the Metal Industry, and to Equal Pay, during World War II’, PhD Thesis, University of Wollongong.