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Resources on Women in STEM (March 2020): Mathematics

by Janet Ochs, Jennifer Parker, and Jeremy Pekarek


In the title of her biographical work The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel, author Gabriella Bernardi alludes to a poem by Siv Cedering about Caroline Herschel and other early mathematicians such as Hypatia, who did not get due credit for their efforts. Bernardi presents an extensive group of biographies for outstanding women in mathematics and astronomy dating back to 2000 BC. Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, by Talithia Williams, is another collection of biographical sketches, visually appealing and suitable for use in undergraduate mathematics education, which describes over thirty notable women mathematicians and their contributions to the field over the last two thousand years. It also explores some of their careers, detailing how they used advanced mathematics to help solve real-world research problems.

Recent best sellers have brought to light that more women were employed as mathematicians in the early twentieth century than was generally realized. College-educated women, particularly those with mathematics or linguistics degrees, were aggressively recruited to work at classified jobs within the military establishment in Washington during World War II. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy, tells the story of these women, with details on their jobs and personal lives during their wartime duty. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Shetterly, reveals occurrences of racial and sexual discrimination as it follows the careers of several women from the 1930s through the 1960s. Shetterly notes, in her preface, that there were likely hundreds of women employed as “human computers” during this time, a fact that had been mostly overlooked. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, by Nathalia Holt, provides a view of the female human computers in space programming through the eyes of the women who worked at Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) beginning in the 1930s, and continuing through the early 2000s. 

Although Hypatia was not the first woman mathematician, she is possibly the best-known one in the ancient world. Hypatia’s work in fourth-century Egypt consisted of commentaries on advanced works of mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. She was best known as a teacher. Author Charlotte Booth complements the limited primary source material with relevant historical context in Hypatia: Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth, to provide a more complete picture of what Hypatia’s life might have been like. In Prime Mystery: The Life and Mathematics of Sophie Germain, Dora Musielak describes Germain as a self-taught mathematician who initially worked under the pseudonym M. LeBlanc when trying to pass as a student at the university, since women were generally discouraged from undertaking advanced education, particularly in mathematics. Her scholarly efforts, primarily in number theory and mathematical physics, led her to work with her mentor, Joseph Lagrange, and with Carl Gauss and Joseph Fourier as well. Germain is best known for her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem. This title has unique value in that it includes discussion of Germain’s mathematics research explained in language that the layperson can understand.

Allan Chapman’s Mary Somerville and the World of Science thoroughly discusses Somerville’s work in the context of the period in which she lived, offering an easy-to-read book that would be suitable for high school or undergraduate students. A polymath with little formal education, Mary Somerville became a well-known author and mathematician. Her book, published in 1832 and entitled A Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanisms of the Heavens, was the first mathematics text written by a woman to be used in a British university. Somerville published several more books on mathematics and other scientific areas of study, and became a friend and colleague of Charles Babbage. Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, by James Essinger, provides many colorful details about Lovelace’s chaotic family life and her early education. Lovelace’s translation, with explanatory appendixes, of an article about Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” contained an original algorithm that conceptually described how a machine could take different inputs, resulting in appropriately different outputs depending on how it was set up or “programmed” for that run. On the strength of this algorithm, Essinger makes the case that Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer.

In Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhD’s, Judy Green and Jeanne Laduke describe in depth what job prospects awaited women mathematicians prior to World War II. In Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Case and Anne Leggett compile recollections, biographical sketches, and excerpts from speeches and previously published works authored by past and present female mathematicians. The essays include discussion of real-life situations, paths to and within the field, guidance for future mathematicians, and in some cases outlines of the subject’s current mathematics research. In another biographical work, I Died for Beauty, Marjorie Senechal reconstructs the life and career of Dorothy Wrinch, educated in mathematics at Girton College (Cambridge) prior to World War I, and the first woman to receive a doctor of science degree from Oxford University (for mathematics, in 1929). Wrinch is best known for her study of the molecular structure of proteins, which was inspired by her background in geometry. Senechal combines archival research with firsthand knowledge of her subject to uncover the personal and social challenges endured, and only partly overcome, by a controversial woman scientist.

Women in Mathematics: Celebrating the Centennial of the Mathematical Association of America, edited by Janet Beery and colleagues, is the result of a themed paper session held at the MAA’s MathFest conference in 2015. This work represents an eclectic and diverse selection of writings, including works by Polish women mathematicians, interviews with course designers on how to teach young women about mathematics, and one essay on Florence Nightingale as a pioneer of data visualization. Finally, Leadership and Women in Statistics defines those characteristics that make a good leader in the statistical fields, focusing on women. Edited by Amanda Golbeck with colleagues Ingram Olkin and Yulia Gel, this work includes information on career paths as well as real-life stories about particular barriers some contributing authors themselves have been able to overcome while working in various government and research positions.

Works Cited