Women's past lead in maths revealed

April 8, 2005

The popular stereotype is that maths is a difficult subject best left to men. But research has revealed that, historically at least, women may have been more numerate than their male counterparts.

Judith Spicksley, a research fellow at Hull University's history department, analysed surviving household accounts of 17th-century gentlewomen to prove that they had strong mathematical as well as accounting knowledge.

She said: "Historians have often argued that arithmetic wasn't considered a suitable subject for a lady to learn.

"But the irony is that while men were concentrating on classics and the arts, women were the ones learning mathematical skills as they had to deal with the accounts."

Dr Spicksley's research focused on the accounts of two women - an elderly moneylender and spinster called Joyce Jeffreys, and a younger gentlewoman of independent income called Sarah Fell.

Dr Spicksley will tell the Economic History Society's annual conference this weekend that both accounts reveal high levels of accuracy - unlike similar accounts compiled by men at the same time. Jeffreys displayed a solid understanding of traditional accounting methods, but Fell's sophisticated double-entry accounting system was "at the cutting edge of accountancy practice", according to Dr Spicksley's findings.

Yet the research may not represent a total triumph for women's rights. Dr Spicksley conceded that maths was understood as a mechanical rather than an academic skill, and so women may have been considered suitable subjects to learn it because of perceptions about their limited intellectual capabilities.

She added: "Their skills had probably been honed by years of teenage drudgery spent in the casting of accounts."

Columnist, page 13

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