Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880-1914

April 8, 2010

The decades surrounding 1900 were pivotal both for the relationship between abstract mathematics and practical science and changes in Victorian ideas of a gendered intellect. Claire Jones makes a compelling case that in a time when, unlike today, there were many external impediments to women's participation in mathematics, proportionally more women were active in abstract mathematics than earlier in the 19th century, or for that matter in the 1960s. On the other hand, few women were involved in applied mathematics such as engineering and mathematical physics. Jones, in her well-crafted book, provides some tentative explanations as she explores gender in the changing relationship between pure and applied mathematics.

She anchors her discussion in the lives and works of two women: pure mathematician Grace Chisholm Young (1868-1944) and experimentalist and electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923). Although the backgrounds and life stories of these two women could not have been more different, each illustrates the importance of gender in their lives and work.

Young was born into an affluent family. Ayrton (born Phoebe Sarah Marks) was from an impoverished Jewish immigrant family and was able to enter Girton College, Cambridge thanks only to the support of a patron. Both women sat the mathematical tripos at Girton. Young received the equivalent of a first-class pass on part one and a high score on the specialised part two, but Ayrton, the first Jewish woman to attend Cambridge, performed poorly, scoring only 15th in the Third Class. Her interest was in experimentation and invention, not theoretical mathematics.

The tension between marriage and careers, women's suffrage and ideas of male genius, and pure versus applied science was highlighted in their lives and careers. Young received her doctorate from the University of Gottingen, married her tutor who was a brilliant theoretician, had six children and spent most of her research time collaborating with her husband without credit. She and her husband were opposed to the suffrage movement. Ayrton married her physics professor at Finsbury Technical College; he was sympathetic towards women's suffrage and encouraged her in her experimentation and invention.

Abstract mathematics had long been considered superior to applied mathematics, demanding a naturally gifted (male) intellect and, at least in England, possessing a relationship to class. From the mid-19th century, the mathematical tripos at the University of Cambridge was the most prestigious degree that an upper-class young man could achieve and was connected with the ideals of masculine intellect and physical stamina. However, after candidates from Girton and Newnham, the Cambridge women's colleges, did well on the examination (despite being ineligible for degrees), the result was not that these successful women's status was raised, but rather that the reputation of the exam was devalued. The explanation was that women were successful only because the tripos stressed rote memory and repetitive problem-solving rather than creative thinking. Theoretical mathematics became more feminised and thus less desirable, and the natural science tripos replaced the mathematics exam as the most desirable path for men.

Considering the careers of Young and Ayrton, Jones suggests the centrality of gender studies in different fields and in different times. We may ask whether the study of gender relationships and the complex interaction between abstract and applied mathematics in England in the last decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th century is relevant to a more universal application in the early 21st century.

In the US, the paucity of women mathematicians, physical scientists and engineers is a well-documented concern. In Britain, questions about the merits of vocational versus academic education and whether diplomas should replace A levels speak to the relative importance of pure and applied sciences. Jones posits that by moving and extending gender from the periphery of the discussion nearer to the centre, we may have the beginnings of an answer that goes beyond women and the practice of a specific discipline.

Much work already has been done in this area, and no proposed solution has worked yet. Jones' study is fascinating and beautifully constructed; it adds additional insight, if no solutions, to the complexity of gender relations in mathematics and applied sciences.

Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880-1914

By Claire G. Jones. Palgrave Macmillan 280pp, £55.00 ISBN 9780230555211. Published 15 October 2009

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