STEM Women in Astrophysics: Professor Vera Rubin, ‘Ardent Feminist’

Astrophysicist Professor Vera Rubin, USA National Medal of Science awardee who confirmed the existence of dark matter, died on 25 December 2016.

One of the things I want to highlight especially for this post is the wonderful job Professor Rubin’s institution, Carnegie Institution for Science, did in their press release. They focus on Rubin’s scientific discovery using plain language, but they were bold in also highlighting her gender equity work in science, by calling her an “ardent feminist”. This is so important because women’s advocacy for gender equity is scientific work that is unpaid; it is undertaken on top of research, teaching, and grant work; and goes largely unacknowledged.

This post is dedicated to Professor Rubin’s legacy and all the other ardent feminists in science and elsewhere.

Scientific Pioneer

Dark matter is “the invisible material that makes up more than 90% of the mass of the universe.” Rubin’s pioneering work progressed from 1965 to the late 1970s. Her webpage describes the beginning of this discovery:

“By the late 1970s, after Rubin and her colleagues had observed dozens of spirals, it was clear that something other than the visible mass was responsible for the stars’ motions. Analysis showed that each spiral galaxy is embedded in a spheroidal distribution of dark matter — a “halo.” The matter is not luminous, it extends beyond the optical galaxy, and it contains 5 to 10 times as much mass as the luminous galaxy. The stars’ response to the gravitational attraction of the matter produces the high velocities. As a result of Rubin’s groundbreaking work, it has become apparent that more than 90% of the universe is composed of dark matter.”

Rubin’s research remained prolific until the early 2000s, as she continued to study various models for the composition of the dark halos. Among her most recent publications was an examination of the rotation curves of spiral galaxies.

Until her retirement, Rubin worked at the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C. She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993. She was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and in 1996, she received the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal, the first woman to do so 168 years after Caroline Hershel (1828).

The Ardent Feminist

Neta Bahcall of Princeton University describes Rubin’s scientific significance: “A pioneering astronomer, the ‘mother’ of flat rotation curves and dark-matter, a champion of women in science, a mentor and role model to generations of astronomers.”

Carnegie Science describes Rubin’s scientific impact extends far beyond her pioneering research: “She was an ardent feminist, advocating for women observers at the Palomar Observatory, women at the Cosmos Club, Princeton, and she even advised the Pope to have more women on his committee.”


Originally published for Science on Google+ with some edits.

Image: Quote Carnegie Science. Graphic: Zuleyka Zevallos.

[Top image is a photo of Rubin with quote: Vera Rubin was a national treasure as an accomplished astronomer… She was an ardent feminist, advocating for women observers at the Palomar Observatory, women at the Cosmos Club, Princeton, and she even advised the Pope to have more women on his committee.]

Learn more

Read some background on Rubin from Carnegie Science.

See Rubin’s biography and publications.

See Yonatan Zunger’s tribute to Professor Rubin.


8 thoughts on “STEM Women in Astrophysics: Professor Vera Rubin, ‘Ardent Feminist’

  1. m1aws Russia has a very long history of feminism, dating back to the 18th Century, including influential women in the aristocracy and other social classes. The Decembrists also served as inspiration to later feminists in Russia. The Communist movement also had important contributions from feminists; there was a suffragist movement in Russia; an all-women’s congress; and various other women’s rights movements that have thrived up to the present day. For some history, see: – Equality and Revolution For academic views see:

    Have fun learning about Russian feminism!


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