Monday, December 6, 2010

Are all mathematicians equal?

My first posting for this blog (on March 23, 2010) featured one of my earliest poems, a tribute to mathematician Emmy Noether (1882 -1935) entitled "My Dance Is Mathematics."  Even as it praised Noether's achievements, the poem protested the secondary status of math-women, not only in Noether's day but also today.  It ends with the stanza :

     Today, history books proclaim that Noether 
     is the greatest mathematician
     her sex has produced. They say she was good
     for a woman.

Emmy Noether suffered discrimination for at least two reasons:  she was a woman and a Jew.  Here is another tale of discrimination, a poem by Audre Lorde (1934-1992) about a black girl who is not selected for the Math Team. 

     Hanging Fire     by Audre Lorde

     I am fourteen
     and my skin has betrayed me
     the boy I cannot live without
     still sucks his thumb
     in secret
     how come my knees are
     always so ashy
     what if I die
     before morning
     and momma's in the bedroom
     with the door closed.

     I have to learn how to dance
     in time for the next party
     my room is too small for me
     suppose I die before graduation
     they will sing sad melodies
     but finally
     tell the truth about me
     There is nothing I want to do
     and too much
     that has to be done
     and momma's in the bedroom
     with the door closed.

     Nobody even stops to think
     about my side of it
     I should have been on Math Team
     my marks were better than his
     why do I have to be
     the one
     wearing braces
     I have nothing to wear tomorrow
     will I live long enough
     to grow up
     and momma's in the bedroom
     with the door closed.

“Hanging Fire” is in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W W Norton, 1997).

To what extent does discrimination against math-women continue in 2010?  At the website for AWM, the Association for Women in Mathematics, is found news of a study that is headlined as "Large study shows females the equal of males in math skills." But this does not reassure me.  I want to find women not only as able as men but also joining them in the public eye shouting out about mathematics--in the blogosphere, on NPR, on PBS, on BBC, and so on.  Here is a loud cheer for Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas who co-edit the marvelous online mathematics journal plus


  1. When I was 13 and a freshman in high school (1957) I was not allowed to take Algebra because I was a girl. I had to challenge my Math teacher in class and prove him wrong at the blackboard before I was allowed to move into the Algebra class with another girl who was allowed (because she was the first to agree with me about the problem.) We were ridiculed by teacher and boys alike. I was lucky to get a C in the class. Indeed lucky to survive.

  2. I double majored in math and math education, graduating in 1999. In my math ed classes, closing the gap was a point that was often revisited. For women, the gap has truly closed all the way up to the undergraduate level. But there is still a ways to go from there on--in those positions where women can really "[join men] in the public eye". My single female math professor was well-understood to be the toughest teacher in the department. She ran the Honors program. But when it was time to consider giving her a tenured position, the fact that her energies went into nurturing students instead of publishing papers really held her back. She did get tenure after all, but it highlighted for me another issue: gender conditioning--both my teacher and I used our math skills to nurture others; my male peers (and hers) used their math skills in corporate or scholarly settings--often competitive arenas.

    For people of color and working class students, the situation is much more dire: the gap is still horrendous on down the line even at middle school and especially high school levels.

    Thank you for posting Lorde's poem. It touches on so much including the intersection of race, class and mathematics education.

    Lisa McCool-Grime

  3. fraid of Spring" and my poem "Blue Sunday" appeared together, along with our pictures on the same page of the "It's All Yours" in Seventeen magazine. This was a really, really, long time ago. I was proud that my poem had been accepted, but Audre's poem was so much better {and shorter} that I felt embarrassed. Since than I have tried to keep up with Audre's poetry & books. She is missed.