Women Mathematicians.
October 9, 2002 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Women Mathematicians. With numerous biographies and photographs, this website indexes the many contributions that women have made to the field of mathematics. From Pythagoras' wife Theano and martyr Hypatia, also notable are the first female computer programmer and the first female Ph.D. recipient.
posted by moz (17 comments total)
Ph.D. in mathematics, i should clarify.
posted by moz at 12:48 PM on October 9, 2002

About as good as could be asked for from a college-student project, but should be supplemented with the much more comprehensive Association for Women in Mathematics biography page; the Canadian Mathematical Society has a similar page.
posted by languagehat at 1:00 PM on October 9, 2002

The site's creator is a professor.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:05 PM on October 9, 2002

It always struck me as odd that there aren't more female mathematicians and computer programmers. Neither job requires great physical strength. Both require an analytical mind, attention to detail and perseverance, areas in which women are at least as good as men.

Maybe women crave more social interaction than either of these jobs typically provides? I don't know about mathematicians, but I have a feeling the Internet is making social skills more important for programmers. Hopefully we'll see more females in the field before long.
posted by Triplanetary at 1:09 PM on October 9, 2002

Ah, but mathematics also requires some things that women have, historically, *always* been short of: leisure and access to instruction. Not matter how bright or talented you may be, it's difficult to contribute to the history of ideas, mathematical or otherwise, if you have been married off at a young age, and are trying to run a household that includes a number of children. Not to mention that even if you manage to avoid marriage and childbearing, you still are barred from higher education.

I think we'll see many more women in the sciences and mathematics in the next few decades, much as (at least where I live) women make up around an even 50% of entering classes in law and medicine.
posted by jokeefe at 1:37 PM on October 9, 2002

To clarify: my comments were meant to address the historic inequity in the numbers of female scientists. That said, remember that it really isn't that long a period of time since doors were opened to women in sciences and mathematics--less than a hundred years, and some would say far less than that: social regulation doesn't always need to be accomplished with quotas and rules forbidding woment to attend University. With more role models (a phrase I dislike, but there you go) and examples to follow, I think we will see more women moving into the field.
posted by jokeefe at 1:42 PM on October 9, 2002

Though mathematics may sound different, I think we have the same problem with there not being enough women in maths (or rather amongst the top) as with artists, writers etc. It's a question of assertive, even aggressive action which is discouraged subtly from an early age. Top level (Fermatt stuff level to use a phrase) needs the sort of brashness which somehow or other our society has either denied girls through direct and indirect action or has associated with inherent male behaviour to an extent that it thwarts the large numbers that beget the greats. For me it's a bit like the Swedish tennis boom in the 80's following the Borg years. Only when you get everybody doing it do you get some greats (and of course there weren't any great Swedish women tennis players). I don't know if it's an agressiveness of thought and stimulus and opportunity which is the problem, but as a teacher, I've had this discussion many a time and it's not just maths. You can easily find studies about how children are even held and talked to differently from days old according to their sex and what I've seen this is true in practice, so can these areas of knowledge be sought to thrive? The women in the article, though important, are unfortunately exceptions and evidence of the great waste of brains there has been, is and will be in the foreseeable future. I have to admit I'm at an end and would love to hear a good discussion here.
posted by Zootoon at 3:44 PM on October 9, 2002

As far as repesentation of women in maths goes, this study looked at enrollment in Canadian engineering, computer science and math programs from 1972-1995. I was surprised to find that although the total number of students studying math was low -- less than 2% of total university enrollment -- about 40% of undergrads, 30% of masters students, and 21% of doctoral students in math were women as of 1995, up from 30%, 23% and 8% respectively in 1972. And in some fields using applied math, such as chemical engineering, more than 50% of a class may be composed of women (this is the case at U of T, anyway).

I think confidence affects women a lot in math. When I was in elementary school, I did well enough in math but never considered it something I was good at. Whenever I switched schools, my math marks plummeted. Trig was introduced to us in grade 8 when I went to school in Montreal and I loved it. I did well enough to be moved to scholarship math next year and was having a great time, but after moving to Toronto in January, my marks dropped to a barely passing grade in the advanced math stream. And don't ask about calculus in grade 13. Just don't.

Isomorphisms is a very interesting blog by a woman studying math at the graduate level. She seems to have both the passion for math and the brashness Zootoon mentions. I would have loved to have had her as a lecturer in any of my math classes.
posted by maudlin at 4:12 PM on October 9, 2002

There's some marginal discussion of women mathematicians on the notorious math owie thread posted by tamim back in April (with an interesting comment by rodii). One of our resident mathematicians, the redoubtable gleuschk, even posted moz's main link here.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:28 PM on October 9, 2002

Here's yet another list of bios of women who have made important contributions in mathematics.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 4:35 PM on October 9, 2002

maudlin: Thanks for that blog link; I was a math major in college, and I will enjoy following her adventures in the Career I Never Had.
posted by languagehat at 4:50 PM on October 9, 2002

"Winnie Cooper" from The Wonder Years is a pretty smart cookie in math.
posted by Grum at 8:37 PM on October 9, 2002

One problem lies in the fact that women in science have always been overlooked by history. Everyone knows the names Copernicus and Newton, but few would recognize "Hildegard Von Bingen", who lived in the 12th century and theorized a sun-centered model for the Solar System and a universal law of gravitation hundreds of years before the more famous gentlemen mentioned above. Very few of the women who have made important scientific contributions are remembered, and this seeming lack of "role model" figures has certainly contributed to a gender imbalance in the sciences.

Educational bias, of course, has been addressed again and again, but it is interesting that of the women mathematicians of ancient Greece, most were students of Pythagoras, who believed in coeducational opportunities for women and included female students in his school.
posted by taz at 2:01 AM on October 11, 2002

Hi, the book "Wonders of Numbers" has these two chapters, which seem to be relevant to the discussion:

30. "Why Was the First Woman Mathematician Murdered?"

34. "A Ranking of the Eight Most Influential Female Mathematicians"

I found these chapter titles at this web site:


I have to say that despite horrible prejudice in earlier times, several women have fought against the establishment and persevered in mathematics. Until the 20th century, very few women received much education, and the path to more advanced studies was usually blocked. Many of these women had to go against the wishes of their families if they wished to learn. Some were even forced to assume false identities, study in terrible conditions, and work in intellectual isolation. Consequently, very few women contributed to mathematics. The following ranking of the eight most influential female mathematicians was compiled through extensive research and by surveying mathematicians. These women did more than just influence the course of mathematics. They also affected people's perceptions of womens' role in all intellectual endeavors.

Many of these women came from mathematical families. Emmy Noether, Hypatia, Maria Agnesi, and others never married, partly because it was not socially acceptable for women to pursue mathematical careers, and, therefore, men were not likely to wed brides with such controversial backgrounds. Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya was an exception to this rule -- she arranged a marriage of convenience to a man who was agreeable to a platonic relationship. For Sofia and her husband, the marriage allowed them to escape their families and concentrate on their respective researches. The marriage also allowed Sofia a greater freedom to travel because, at the time, it was more suitable for a married woman to travel around Europe than a single woman.
posted by Morphic at 7:37 AM on October 11, 2002

Welcome, Morphic! (Are you by any chance Anna Morphic?)
posted by languagehat at 7:46 AM on October 11, 2002

Great comment, Morphic - a warm welcome to you!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:54 AM on October 11, 2002

I had dinner with one of them. Fancy French place. She paid. No kiddin'.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:50 AM on October 15, 2002

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