Monday, June 14, 2010

Girls and Mathematics

In Indiana, Pennsylvania, my senior high school advanced math teacher was Laura Church--a Barnard College graduate and a flamboyant silver-haired woman who never let any of us suppose that girls could not do mathematics. In college my science scholarship kept me from fleeing mathematics to study literature when I was the only girl in my classes.
Without particular ambitions I stumbled into graduate school, where all of the professors loved a good student and T K Pan was particularly encouraging -- perhaps because he was father of three bright daughters.  About fifteen years later and a mathematics professor, after I had found that the professional world was not as gender-blind as the academic one, in the first of my math-related poems I wrote:

       If a woman's dance
       is mathematics
       she dances

The full text of this poem, "My Dance is Mathematics," is available at my website

New York poet Sharon Olds has a wonderful girl-math poem entitled "The One Girl at the Boys' Party."  Olds has commented, "Being a mother poet, children often just hand you a poem, especially if they're very good at something that you're very bad at."  The full text of Olds poem available here, presented as part of a conference held in 1986 in honor of the centenary of Emily Dickinson's death.   

from:  The One Girl at the Boys' Party:

   When I take my girl to the swimming party
   I set her down among the boys. They tower and
   bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
   her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
   They will strip to their suits, her body hard and
   indivisible as a prime number,
   they'll plunge in the deep end, she'll subtract
   her height from ten feet, divide it into
   hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
   bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
   in the bright blue pool.

"The One Girl at the Boys' Party" first appeared in The Dead and the Living (Knopf, 1984).  A Californian by birth, Olds has taught for many years at New York University.    She was my professor in a poetry workshop at Hunter College in 2001 and one day she brought, in a spirit of fairness, a draft of one of her own poems to join ours on the workshop table.  After reading it aloud she said, "It has too many words.  One-third of them need to be eliminated."  I was amazed at her quantitative diagnosis but have found, in the years since, that I sometimes can make similar assessments.  (Still one more way that mathematics influences poetry!) 

One of the milestone events of math-in-popular-culture was the introduction in the early 1990s by Mattel of a Barbie that could utter brief sentences.  One of them was "Let's go shopping," and another was "Math is hard."  Initial reaction by mathematicians was angry at the bad-mouthing of mathematics to girls, already wary clients.  But, in truth, math is hard--and Kyoko Mori's poem acknowledges this:

from Barbie Says Math Is Hard

   As a boy, I'd still have asked
   why Jack must spend exactly
   two dollars at the corner store.
   Give him a coin purse is as
   good an answer as five apples
   and two oranges.
    . . .
                          If Satsuki has
   daughters, she might remember
   the grasshoppers we caught,
   how we cupped two hands together
   into crooked globes to
   hear them rattling inside like
   a small motor. She would tell
   her daughters: Yes, math was hard,
   but not because we were girls.

Kyoko Mori teaches creative writing at George Mason University.  The complete text of "Barbie Says Math is Hard" is available online in a variety of locations.

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