Who is a mathematician? From women making complicated calculations as ‘computers’ to those managing household accounts, the stories of women in maths are countless but mostly obscured.
Even those women who managed to make a name for themselves through their talent, determination and hard work, despite the obstacles of gender discrimination, have not been widely celebrated. Let’s find out about the lives of five remarkable women who from the 18th to 21st centuries produced original mathematical work and made a lasting impact on mathematical research and education around the world.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi: The first woman to write a mathematical textbook
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was the first woman to write a mathematical textbook and be appointed to a university chair in mathematics.
From a young age Agnesi, who was the eldest daughter of a Milanese silk merchant, was encouraged to debate scientific and philosophical issues in her family's evening salons to promote her father's ambitions of climbing the social ladder of Milanese society. At the age of nine, she gave an oration in Latin defending women’s education and lamenting the limitation of learning to a closed circle of elite men. That she was able to do so was the result of a rigorous, privileged and rare education for a girl at the time, education which included training in modern and classical languages, geometry, algebra, natural philosophy (equivalent to today’s physics) and complemented by a strict Catholic catechism that would shape Agnesi’s entire work and life.
Mary Somerville: 19th century’s Scottish maths queen
Born Mary Fairfax in Burntisland outside Edinburgh, Scotland, in a family of noble ancestry, Somerville received an education fit for an upper middle-class ‘young lady’ with lessons in Ancient Greek and Latin, needlework, piano and art, and she was chastised for her love of reading. In contrast, her brother was encouraged into a high school and university education.
Sofja Kovalevskaya: the world’s first woman professor of mathematics
Sofja Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) grew up in the Russian countryside in a noble family. She was educated in arithmetic, geometry and algebra by private tutors and was attracted to mathematics from a young age, influenced mainly by her uncle who often visited and spoke about mathematics. Her sister Anyuta also influenced her future pursuit of a mathematics education and career in an unconventional way: it was through Anyuta and her connection to a radical St Petersburg nihilist group that Sofja’s marriage of convenience was arranged as a way for both sisters to travel abroad to further their education, one as a married woman and the other chaperoned by a married couple.
Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes: first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics
Euphemia Haynes (1890-1980) was the first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics.
Mariam Mirzakhani: the first woman to win a Fields Medal
Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) was the first woman to win a Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics.
Mirzakhani grew up in Tehran during the years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and as a child she loved making up stories. She thought she would become a writer. Her middle school mathematics teacher believed that she was not particularly talented in mathematics until in high school Maryam came across a copy of six Mathematical Olympiad problems, solving three of them.
Unequal access to mathematical education and careers is not only gender based but also dependent on factors such as class, geography, and cultural and societal perceptions. However, as these five women’s stories show, the gender gap in mathematics is not new and it’s far from over today. The path to inclusive global mathematics maybe still a long way away but like Maria, Mary, Sofja, Euphemia and Maryam, more role models are getting increasing visibility, to hopefully inspire a new generation of women mathematicians.
- Paula Finden ‘Calculations of faith: mathematics, philosophy, and sanctity in 18th century Italy (new work on Maria Gaetana Agnesi)’ Historia Mathematica 38 (2011)
- June Barrow Green, The Historical Context of the Gender Gap in Mathematics. In: Araujo, Carolina; Benkart, Georgia; Praeger, Cheryl and Tanbay, Betül eds. World Women in Mathematics 2018 - Proceedings of the First World Meeting for Women in Mathematics (WM)2. Association for Women in Mathematics. Springer.
- Stenhouse, Brigitte (2021). Mary Somerville: Being and Becoming a Mathematician. PhD thesis The Open University