Women have been succeeding in the field of mathematics since the fourth century AD however, because math is a male-dominated profession most of these women are solving problems behind the scenes. My goal for this paper is to share these women’s stories and prove that women from all over the world have had triumphs in mathematics. Before I start talking about the women I have researched I want to clear something up.
In my research, I kept on coming across articles that concluded that men are more acclaimed for their accomplishments in math because they are biologically better at mathematics thanks to a certain chromosome they have. Studies have shown that it is false that your gender automatically makes you a genius on the subject. The only thing that affects how you feel about math is how much you practice doing it. Just like any other skill you can acquire, the more you practice math; the easier it will come to you no matter what chromosomes you have. If that study were true, I would not have found several women who made a name for themselves in their perspective careers. I could not find the exact date that mathematics was discovered but, it amazes me that it has roots in 400 AD. Hypatia, an ancient Alexandrian scholar was one of the first women to study and teach mathematics. Hypatia’s love of math came from her father Theon, who was a famous mathematician. Studying and traveling abroad to Athens, Greece also helped fuel her passion for math. When she returned home she was asked to teach math at the same school her father taught at. Her lectures were focused on Diophantus’ ‘Arithmetica.’
During her lectures, she concentrated on the techniques that Diophantus created, solutions to his general problems, and the symbolism he concocted. People came from near and far to hear her lectures. Lecturing wasn’t her only specialty though, she also wrote many treaties. It is impossible to know exactly how many she wrote because not many have lasted through the test of time but, it is known that she contributed to ‘The Conics of Apollonius,’Amagest,’ and even wrote an analysis on her father’s version of Euclid’s ‘Elements.’ The things that she wrote were intended to help her students understand tricky math concepts. Hypatia worked on her passions until she was brutally killed in 415 AD. Just like Theon, Gloria Hewitt’s parents also thought it was important to use education to help set their daughter up for success. Hewitt said her parents believed that education was the only avenue through which an African American could better themselves. Hewitt had never heard of calculus until she enrolled in it because of a professors recommendation during her second year of college. When people ask her when she realized she had an interest in mathematics she says it all began in that classroom. ‘I remember when I took calculus in college. The only book I took home over the Christmas holidays was my calculus book. I wanted to do those word problems. I worked on one problem for the whole two weeks before I solved it. It was not that hard, but I just did not understand the process involved. When the light dawned, I was so happy! I do not believe I ever felt so rewarded. It was a major breakthrough. I was hooked. After that, to the amazement of my fellow students, I recall sitting on campus doing calculus problems for recreation.’
She went on to get a bachelors in mathematics in 1956 and then her masters in 1960 and became the seventh African American women to earn her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1962. From there, she worked her way up the ladder to become an associate professor at the University of Montana in 1966 and then a full professor in 1973. She did not stop there though, she became the chair of mathematics in 1995 and did that until 1999. She finally retired in 1999 and was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus. Both Gloria Hewitt and Hypatia were lucky that society had a place for them in the mathematical world. There are some women who couldn’t start immediate work in the field because it was frowned upon for women to have a career in mathematics. Sofia Kovalevskaya and Sophie Germain were prime examples of that. Sofia Kovalevskaya became the first woman to become a full professor in Europe. She contributed to analysis, differential equations, and mechanics. Her parents tried to spark and nurture an interest in math in her as well. They didn’t waste any time establishing the bond between her and numbers. Most eleven-year old’s rooms would have a cool color on the walls but not Kovalevskaya, her wallpaper was covered in differential and integral analysis in order to prepare her for calculus which she later got a tutor for. Even though it was apparent that she had a knack for mathematics. She wasn’t allowed to attain an education in Russia because women weren’t allowed to attend universities at all. In order to study abroad, she needed written permission from either her father or her husband. As a result, she made plans for a fabricated marriage and together they emigrated from Russia in 1867.
Two years later, Kovalevskaya was admitted at the University of Heidelberg in Germany where she was allowed to audit classes as long as the professors gave their permission. Five years later, in 1874 she presented three papers focusing on the topics of partial differential equations, the dynamics of Saturn’s rings, and elliptic integrals to the University of Göttingen to serve as her doctoral dissertation. After that, she earned her doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude and became the first women in Europe to have a degree of that caliber. In 1889, she was chosen to become a Professor Ordinarius or a professional chair holder at the University of Stockholm, which allowed her to accomplish another first. Becoming the first woman to hold a position of that sort at a northern European university. After a lot of persuading and a few changes in the academy’s rules, she was allowed to hold a chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences but was never offered a professorship in Russia. Her story ends tragically in 1891 after she died of influenza. Although Sophie Germain found an escape in math unlike Kovalevskaya, her parents didn’t support or encourage her passion. At night they would take away her candles and leave her fire unlit so that it would be difficult for her to study. However, that didn’t stop her; she would wrap herself in blankets and strain her eyes in order to see the material she was learning. The challenges didn’t stop there. Germain faced another roadblock trying to be able to afford a higher education. She got around that by befriending students and then asking to copy their notes.
She submitted a memoir to mathematician J L Lagrange under a male name. Lagrange liked the memoir he received so much that he went in search of the author. He was shocked when he discovered that it was a woman who wrote the memoir and not a man. She also submitted a paper that proved the two-dimensional harmonic movement for a contest. Even though it was the only entry and her approach was correct she still did not win. She finally won on her third attempt in 1816 which gave her some public esteem but, she still felt that her gender kept her ‘always on the outside, like a foreigner, at a distance from the professional scientific culture.’ Not everybody chooses to do things in a way that is being suggested to them. Even though Emmy Noether was surrounded by mathematics her entire childhood she had no interest in the subject. It wasn’t until she turned 18 and looked into taking a couple mathematics courses at the university she attended that she thought that math could be for her. Unfortunately, she was not allowed to partake in those classes right away because she was a woman. She sat in during several courses before passing an exam that allowed her to finally get a doctorate in mathematics. She hoped to use that degree to become a teacher but, the university she attended would not hire her so, she helped her father out by doing research, teaching his classes when he was sick and started publishing papers about math. She spent her time studying abstract algebra, with special attention to rings, groups, and fields. She is asked to help with one of Einstein’s theories by some fellow mathematicians at the University of Göttingen but, was apprehensive to accept the offer because there were no other women on the faculty and she was not sure what they would think of her. She makes the choice to go and help and earns the opportunity to become a lecturer. Noether was someone who cared about her students. She considered her students to be like family and tried to be there whenever they needed. Even though her lessons were a little tough to follow, they encouraged students to think for themselves.
Many of those that she taught went on to become marvelous mathematicians. In the midst of the war, Noether decides to move to the United States of America and start teaching at an all-female school called Byrn Mawr College. That was refreshing for her because for once her colleagues were females. She taught there until her death in 1935. Seeing that I have focused on women who have made a difference in math around the world so far. It is time that I focus on someone who became popular for the contributions they have made in the profession of math in the United States of America. Katherine Johnson’s curiosity and natural brilliance for numbers helped her leapfrog through several grades in school. By thirteen she was attending high school on the historically black campus of West Virginia State College. She enrolled in the college itself at age eighteen and instantly made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and established a mentor in her math professor, W.W Schieffelin Claytor. In 1947, Johnson contributed some of the math for the 1958 document notes on space technology. In 1962, NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn.
The mission required a construction of a worldwide communication network that would link tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. Johnson was chosen by Glenn to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computers but she had to do it by hand on her desktop calculating machine. The work she did was trusted; Johnson remembered one of the astronauts saying ‘if she says they’re good, then I am ready to go.’ The mission was a success and marked a turning point in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in space and ever since then Johnson has been known as the ‘human computer.’ She retired in 1986 after working for thirty years at Langley. In 2015, President Obama awarded her with America’s highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. NASA has since then named a building after her. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility is a state of the art facility that boosts Langley’s potential in modeling and simulation and big data and analysis. When Johnson was asked how she felt about them renaming the building in her honor she said that it was a crazy thing to do but that she was excited that everyone who helped with that mission will be recognized; she stressed that she did not do it by herself. The key message that Johnson wants the world to know is that you should do your best and work hard all of the time. She thinks it is important to like what you do because if you like what you do then you will automatically do your best at it.
Writing this paper has taught me that if the world is discouraging you from fulfilling your dreams, it is still possible to leave your mark on the world if you have the determination and believe in yourself. Something tells me that these women didn’t realize that they were making such an impact on society while they made their accomplishments. It’s because of people like them that we have the opportunities that we do today. Even though mathematics is still heavily male-dominated in today’s society, I have hope that people are currently striving to make it easier for a woman to succeed in a man’s world.
- Ignotofsky, Rachel. Women in Science 100 Postcards. Ten Speed Press, 2017.
- Wade, Lisa. “The Truth About Gender and Math – Sociological Images.” The Society Pages The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture Comments, thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/03/07/the-truth-about-gender-and-math/.
- NASALANGLEY. YouTube, YouTube, 22 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgW2kpNQ7BY. Loff, Sarah.
- “Katherine Johnson Biography.” NASA, NASA, 22 Nov. 2016, www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
- Taylor, Mandie. “Emmy Noether.” Biographies of Women Mathematics, www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/noether.htm.
- “Sophie Germain: Revolutionary Mathematician.” Authentication Mechanisms, www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/germain.html.
- “History of Scientific Women.” Scientific Women , scientificwomen.net/women/kovalevsky-sofia-50.
- “Gloria Conyers Hewitt.” Mathematically Gifted & Black, mathematicallygiftedandblack.com/honorees/gloria-conyers-hewitt/.
- Hypatia. www.math.wichita.edu/history/women/hypatia.html Atkinson, Joe.
- “NASA Celebrates Katherine Johnson with Building Named in Her Honor.” NASA, NASA, 5 May 2016, www.nasa.gov/image-feature/langley/nasa-celebrates-katherine-johnson-with-building-named-in-her-honor.