Skip to main content
No. 227:
Women in Mathematics

Today, some concluding thoughts about women and mathematics. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just finished nine episodes on women mathematicians. I'd like to recommend one of my richest sources of material. It's an MIT Press book, Women in Mathematics, by Lynn Osen.

Some patterns have come out of all this. The ancient Hellenistic world gave women a place in the intellectual life. But for most of European history, women were allowed to exercise their minds only in cloisters. Take the 10th-century Benedictine nun, Hroswitha: she not only talked about the class of "perfect numbers," but she also clearly stated that the earth is held to rotation around the sun by a gravitational field. Hroswitha was pretty well known in her time, but most of these nuns were anonymous.

The Protestant reformation put the cloisters under attack, and they offered no alternative. The great rise of modern science and mathematics that began in the 17th century gave women no place at all. The first women who tried to join that movement had to overcome terrible difficulties.

The first women mathematicians in the modern world were all excluded from formal education. They not only had to educate themselves; they also found their way into the field by making end runs on the establishment. Those ruses were as imaginative and diverse as their mathematics was. And even then the best of them were lucky to find roles as interpreters of other people's work.

Large numbers of women began reappearing as great originators of ideas only when society itself began to see women as the equal of men. The emergence of real genius among women mathematicians synchronizes perfectly with the Women's Suffrage movement.

Lynn Osen is able to finish her account with a stirring roll call of 20th-century women who have been giants in mathematics and science. Released from the cage of role definition, remarkable women began to appear in large numbers.

Women have been slower to take up experimental science and engineering. People with a conventional view of male/female roles seem even more offended by the wedding of mind and matter than by the pure mental sport of mathematics. Still, a sixth of our engineering students are now women, and that number is rising. More and more women are attending that wedding of concept and object that we call engineering. After all, if there really is a natural female role, perhaps improving life by linking mind and matter fulfills it as clearly as anything could.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.

For more on Hroswitha, see Episode 294.