Female Mathematicians, the Unsung Super-heroines

During most of my schooling I’ve generally only heard about male mathematicians and how they changed the way we do math. On occasion I have heard a woman’s name come up, but she is usually brushed over and not too much detail is given. I did some research and there are quite a few women throughout history that have contributed to mathematics and made numerous discoveries of their own. Why don’t we hear about them more often? It’s somewhat the same as how we don’t see much about super-heroines, even though comics and superheroes are all the rage right now. Women tend to get over looked and I believe this should stop. Maybe if I write a comparison of how female mathematicians can be compared to superheroes it will bring about a different view and we can get behind the power of the female brain.

Portrait of Sophie Germain.

Sophie Germain

Black Widow.

Black Widow

Female superheroes have been around since the early 1940’s, but with some caveats. They were still portrayed as being controlled by outside forces. Also why do we have to put them in the clothes we do; it’s just another way to classify them as less than a man. Wonder Woman had to have her bracelets to keep from going crazy, and this symbolized control. This reminds me of how early female mathematicians had to hide who they were and only communicate with fellow colleagues through letters and under different names. Sophie Germain was one such mathematician. She started teaching herself, at the young age of 13, when she ran across a book in which the legend of Archimedes’ death was recounted in her dad’s library. The story fascinated her and began her love for math, but like most stories about our female heroes, she was told she was wasting her time and her parents tried everything to keep her from studying on her own. To no avail, they couldn’t keep her from the love that bloomed over a terrible tale of how “Archimedes was so engrossed in the study of a geometric figure in the sand that he failed to respond to the questioning of a Roman soldier. As a result he was speared to death” (Perl 64). When she was 18 Ecole Polytechnique, a school, was built, but being female she was unable to attend. How have we been so blind to the contributions that females can make?

Her inability to attend any type of formal classroom to advance her knowledge makes me wonder how we have made advances in science and math at all. It reminds me of how we highlight male superheroes to be better and why female fans are so rare to come by in the world of comics. Portraying women to be less or just objects to admire doesn’t seem to be the way to advance in any area, but it happens, still to this day. Germain’s view in different fields has won her recognition as a wonderful mind and a fresh breath of air to the field of math and science. She wrote to Lagrange, Gauss, and Legendre under a pseudonym, surprising each of them that she was in fact a she. They helped her grow and learn more than she could ever on her own, but it saddens me that she would even need a man to obtain documents and texts for her to even expand her knowledge in the first place. Being left out is something I am all too familiar with and I don’t know what I would do if I had to solely rely on one or two men to get me the proper supplies to further my education. I value my education and see myself going far.

I’m very happy to not live in the time where a man had to vouch for a woman to be accepted into the scientific community like Emmy Noether had to deal with. Having to see her mentioned in comments with the pretense that Einstein said she was good so therefore she must be is quite ridiculous (Angier). With her inability to teach under her own name for quite some time and then to receive a ridiculously small pay when they did decide she was worth pay is shameful (“Emmy Noether Lectures”). I believe that a person’s merit is there whether someone says it is or not, especially if you’ve done the same research and studying as the next guy. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t make you any less intelligent nor should you have to rely on a man vouching for your intelligence. How often have we watched a TV show or movie where there was a man vouching for a woman? Or where a man is trying to keep a woman from getting credit or keeping her under control as if she was a crazy person who has no self-control of her own?

Take Iron Man 2, Black Widow. At first he assumes she’s just a pretty face, until she has to come in and save him with her awesome butt kicking skills. Not only is he shocked, but he takes a bit to adjust to the fact that she is her own hero. Female mathematicians have had to face this same stigma throughout the years. Germain eventually won her own right to her work and proved she wasn’t just a pretty face. The saddest thing is she wasn’t the only female that had to prove her worth.

Throughout the years, women did have to prove themselves, but this was also not always the case. There were a few women who had respect for their minds from the get go. One such woman was Hypatia, the first women to make a substantial contribution to mathematics, or so believed or documented. She was taught by her father and I believe that this might have been why she was accepted so easily in the circle of great minds of that age. She was led in by a great man and had very little to prove besides to show that his words about her were correct. She was the head of a school in her time, leading discussions on math and science to many students. She was a great hero in her time and I only wish that the many other female mathematician super-heroines throughout the ages had an easy path to their greatness.

Perl, Teri. Math Equals: Biographies of Women Mathematicians + Related Activities. Menlo Park: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1978.

Angier, Natalie. “The Mighty Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of,” New York Times Science section, page D4, March 27, 2012 (print edition). March 26, 2012.

“Emmy Noether Lectures,” Association for Women in Mathematics.