Statistics shows that there are few women who pursue mathematics as a career. As mathematics teachers, we must motivate them as early as we can.
One way to motivate girls to study mathematics is to let them read biographies of women mathematicians. This way, they would know that many women became successful as mathematicians. The list below shows women mathematicians who “made it big” even though most of them lived during the time that society discouraged them to study mathematics.
Hypatia (350-370 AD, Greece)
Hypatia was the first noted woman mathematician. Little is known about her. She was educated in Italy and became head of the Platonist School in Alexandria. She taught not only mathematics but also philosophy.
Her mathematical masterpiece was her edition of Euclid’s Element. She has also written commentaries on Diophantus’ Arithmetica and Appolonius’ Conics. In addition, she charted celestial bodies and invented (or possibly improved) the hydrometer.
Hypatia was ahead of her time. She was born the time where people were forbidden to practice mathematics. Her life was short too. She was accused of witchcraft, and one day on her way home, she was attacked, stripped, and killed by angry mobs.
Sophie Germain (1776-1831, France)
Sophie Germain taught herself mathematics at her father’s library at the age of 13. She was fascinated with Archimedes’ story of ignoring a Roman invader while doing mathematics. This was the reason of his untimely death.
During Germain’s time, mathematics was considered to be inappropriate for women, so her parents denied her to study the subject. At night, she would secretly light a candle, wrap herself with quilts, and study mathematics. Her parents would find her asleep in the morning with dry ink on her hand and unfinished mathematical notes.
When Germain was 18, she obtained notes from friends studying in Ecole Polytechnique because women were barred from attending university. She studied notes and began working on them on her own. She submitted solutions and proofs to several problems to top notch mathematicians Joseph Lagrange and Carl Gauss. She wrote here work under the pseudonym M. Leblanc for fear of discrimination because of her sex.
In 1809, Germain joined the contest held by the French Academy of Sciences on elasticity theory. She submitted her work in 1811, but did not win the prize. The contest was extended, and in 1813, she sought the help of Legendre and resubmitted her paper. She received an honorable mention.
In 1816, she finally won the prize with the help of Siméon Denis Poisson, and was the first woman to win the French Academy of Sciences prize.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852, England)
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician, She was one of the reasons why we are enjoying computers today. She was popularly known for writing algorithms for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Had Babbage’s Analytical Engine work, her algorithm would have been the first computer program. Consequently, she is considered as the first computer programmer.
Babbage was so impressed by Lady Ada’s intellect and writing skills that he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”
Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891, Russia)
Sofia Kovalevskaya’s interest in mathematics sparked at a very young age. When she was 11, she studied her father’s calculus notes which were used as wall papers due to the shortage of paper. At age 14, she taught herself trigonometry to understand physics. Just like Sophie Germain, her father did not approve of her interest in mathematics, but eventually gave in several years later.
In 1969, Kovalevskaya studied at Heidelberg by obtaining permission of lecturers since women were not permitted to attend university. Most of her professors admired her and spoke of her as an “extraordinary phenomenon.”
Sofia studied under the tutelage of mathematician Karl Weierstrass. In 1874, she presented three papers on Partial Differntial Equations, Abelian integrals, and Saturn’s rings. Because of her papers, she was the first woman granted a doctorate degree (summa cum laude).
In 1888, Kovalevskaya won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences for what is now known as the Kovalevskaya top.
Emmy Noether (1882-1935, Germany)
Emmy Noether, a Jewish mathematician, was probably the most prolific among the women mathematicians. She was known for her groundbreaking contributions in abstract algebra, particularly in theory of ideals, commutative rings, and Galois Theory. Her monumental work on physics was regarded highly even by Albert Einstein.
In the 1930s when the Nazi power grew in Germany, Jewish professors were expelled from German universities. In 1933, Noether was able to escape from Germany and went to the United States and taught at Bryn Mawr College. However, she died after two years due to infection after a surgery. Many would consider Noether as the greatest woman mathematician ever.
Knowing the women mathematicians above, we could only say that had women been permitted or encouraged to study mathematics like men, we would have enriched mathematics a lot more.
Suggested Project: Let the students research about five more women mathematicians.