Women in Math

Cora Ratto de Sadosky (1912-1981). Image credit: Courtesy Cora Sadosky. This photo and biography was featured on MAA’s Women of Mathematics poster, via flickr.

As I have gone through the process of gaining a higher education in mathematics, I have made a startling realization that I am alone. Sure, there are other women in my math classes, but the majority of the students are men. I have had to rely on my own strength and diligence to get through the challenging courses. When I started working on my degree, I had many counselors and professors that discouraged me from entering into such a field due to the fact that it was challenging, and the odds were I would not succeed.  Whether this opinion was developed from me being a female or not, I have a hard time believing that a male would receive that same type of consolation. Also, it is a popular belief in our culture here in Utah that most women should not enter into the fields of science and mathematics, and are better off obtaining degrees that will benefit them as   homemakers. Hence, most women do not pursue a degree in mathematics or science. It troubled me to know that there are no women that I could turn to for help in my field of choice. In my History of Mathematics class, we have been learning about the great minds of mathematics which have mostly been men. However, last week in class, we learned about Sophie Germain, a woman mathematician. This got me thinking that I have never before heard, or learned about other women in the field of mathematics. I’ve been asking myself, why don’t I know more about these women? So I decided to do some research and find other women who have contributed to the field of mathematics and made it possible for other women, like myself, to gain a higher education.

One of the first known female mathematicians was Hypatia (370-415 A.D.). Her father was a well-educated man, and Hypatia spent a lot of time in the world of education learning from her father. From her father’s teachings, Hypatia become very educated in math, science, and astronomy and would impart this knowledge to students in her home. Large crowds would also come and listen to her teach in the streets. Her fame and popularity, however, turned to be her downfall as she was killed by Christian zealots.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was born in a time of revolution, which was shown in her character. During this time, it wasn’t socially acceptable for women to have access to the same education as men. This didn’t stop Sophie from becoming a great mathematician, and being the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for her work on the theory of elasticity. It should be noted that during her life she often worked under a false name to avoid persecution for breaking social boundaries of women in education.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was born in Russia, where women were not allowed to attend universities. In order for her to pursue some type of higher education, she decided to get married so she could travel to Germany, and was able to be privately tutored by a professor. Sofia was granted a PhD, and went on to produce wonderful works in the fields of mathematics and science, but was always faced with adversity. Despite her hardships, her contributions were vast, and she expanded the opportunities for women in education and women’s rights.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935) grew up in Germany, where she wasn’t allowed to receive a university education. Growing up, she was educated in language, and the common tasks expected from women. At age eighteen, she decided to take courses in mathematics, and was able to become a university student. She received a PhD, and became an unofficial associate professor at the University of Göttingen. However, in 1933 she lost that title because she was Jewish. She decided to move to America and became a lecturer and researcher. There she developed many of the mathematical foundations for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein later wrote of her that she was “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began”(Zielinski).

Ingrid Daubechies (1954-Present) is the first female president of the International Mathematical Union, and is a strong advocate for women in science and mathematics. As a girl, she studied physics and eventually received her PhD, along with other awards. Her most important discovery was in the field of wavelets, which are “mathematical functions useful in digital signal processing and image compression as well as in many other branches of applied and pure mathematics”(Riddle). In a recent interview Daubechies was asked why there is the assumption that men are better at mathematics than women. Her response to this question, “I disagree with this view – completely. There is a highly variable percentage of women in academia and in departments of mathematics across Europe. Differences are so enormous that it becomes obvious that it has something to do with cultural habits, which differ from one nation to another, and not with intelligence”(TWAS).

In conclusion, there have been many women who have made significant contributions to the fields of math and science, and have influenced the works of other male scholars. As a woman in higher education and mathematics, I admire the hardships and work these women accomplished, and wish that more was said about them. In doing this research, I’ve realized I am not alone, and I have many great examples of women who have worked hard and overcame societal obstacles.  As a future teacher, I aspire to influence more girls to pursue college degrees and not be intimidated by the “male dominated” subjects, and realize that women are just as intelligent as men.


“Math Is (also) for Women.” TWAS. July 29, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014. http://www.twas.org/article/math-also-women.

Riddle, Larry. “Women Mathematicians Alphabetical Index.” Women Mathematicians Alphabetical Index. Accessed September 28, 2014.

Zielinski, Sarah. “Five Historic Female Mathematicians You Should Know.” Smithsonian.com. October 7, 2011. Accessed September 28, 2014.

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