Mathochism: Invisible women

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day in which writers all over the world are encouraged to celebrate women who have made a difference in math and science. Given my recent and continuing attempts to get over my math phobia, this subject has become close to my heart.

To be honest, I only learned about Ada Lovelace a few years ago. As a lit major, I certainly knew her famous father George Gordon, AKA Lord Byron. I started reading Byron’s poetry before high school, and found myself fascinated and repulsed by his lifestyle and ego. The most I knew about his family was that he was allegedly in love with his half-sister Augusta, and that he was not particularly enchanted by his legal wife, cheating on her continuously with various mistresses.

I never heard a thing about his daughter Ada, who is credited as one of the world’s first computer programmers.

Why not? Was it because my English teacher was too busy telling me about female writers in Byron’s circle like Mary Shelley, and we were only discussing authors, not mathematicians?

Perhaps.

However, I took plenty of computer classes as a child and teen, and Ada was nowhere there either. And come to think of it, women were hardly present in most of my science classes. The only woman I remember studying was Marie Curie, and even then, it was implied that her husband Pierre did most of the work. And when we studied DNA and the double helix, Watson and Crick were of course mentioned, but nothing was said about Rosalind Franklin.

As for math class, I have yet to take one that talked very much about any of the mathematicians behind the proofs. But the few that are mentioned, even in passing, are usually male. (Perhaps as I continue with my studies, I will learn more about female mathematicians. But I do wonder — had I learned about more women who kicked butt in math as a girl, would I have been as math phobic?)

Can I be blamed, then, for thinking for years that there weren’t any women in math and science until just recently? It makes sense, after all, since women have been treated like chattel throughout history, and not even allowed to go to university until recently. Even Marie Curie put up with her share of sexist bullshit.

But as it turns out, my belief was a lie. I will go so far as to call it a “lie from the pit of hell,” a quote from a friend of mine who happens to be a priest. And as a woman in the priesthood, this friend certainly has experience with another profession where women are considered invisible!

But this isn’t just about women being overlooked in the scientific canon. It’s about some being actively suppressed. Case in point: Emile du Chatelet, a French mathematician and scientist who lived in the 18th century. Du Chatelet not only did research on fire, which established the base for studies on infrared radiation and the nature of light, she translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Matematica, (with her own insightful commentary that sometimes disagreed with Newton) into French. Her translation is still used today, but by the 19th Century, her contributions were largely forgotten. Why?

Well, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, women are as likely to be scientists as grow a beard. Therefore, the men who came after du Chatelet were happy to forget her even as they used her ideas, including an early concept of E = MC squared. It wasn’t until the 20th century that she was once again honored.

So please join me as I raise a math book in honor of those women, visible and invisible, who made and make a difference in science and math. And though I have no ambitions to become one of them, just knowing about them reaffirms my mission to continue studying.

Thank you.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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4 Responses to “Mathochism: Invisible women”


  1. 1 Shauna March 26, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I can’t remember learning about a single female scientist or mathematician in school, but over the past several years I’ve really come to love reading their stories – Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, Sophie Germain, Mary Somerville, etc. Thank you for bringing up Emilie du Chatelet. I’m eager to learn more about her.

  2. 2 akwhitney March 26, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for reading, Shauna. And doesn’t it suck how schools (or at least the schools you and I went to) ignore these awesome women? Thanks also for bringing up Barbara McClintock and the others. I must research them now!

  3. 3 sophia b March 29, 2010 at 10:13 am

    one problem is that in school you learn mathematics that was done a long time ago mostly. and there were fewer women involved in maths then, becuase if you read much about a lot of their lives you soon realised to be a woman in mathematics you had to struggle through a lot more than any male mathematician and had to have other priviledge (such as significant wealth) too. You had to love maths more than the male methematicains. I’m not really sure what to do about this other than having a bunch of pictures/info about mathematicans thats not included in the cirriculum on the walls.
    Also, can’t bypass a post like this without mentioning Emmy Noether, one of my favourite mathematicians

  4. 4 Brittany-Ann June 7, 2010 at 12:04 am

    I know I’m really late to the party, but Hypatia, the first female mathematician, is a woman I’ve admired since I discovered her in high school.


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