Today, some concluding thoughts about women and
mathematics. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I've just finished nine
episodes on women mathematicians. I'd like to
recommend one of my richest sources of material.
It's an MIT Press book, Women in
Mathematics, by Lynn Osen.
Some patterns have come out of all this. The
ancient Hellenistic world gave women a place in the
intellectual life. But for most of European
history, women were allowed to exercise their minds
only in cloisters. Take the 10th-century
Benedictine nun, Hroswitha: she not only talked
about the class of "perfect numbers," but she also
clearly stated that the earth is held to rotation
around the sun by a gravitational field. Hroswitha
was pretty well known in her time, but most of
these nuns were anonymous.
The Protestant reformation put the cloisters under
attack, and they offered no alternative. The great
rise of modern science and mathematics that began
in the 17th century gave women no place at all. The
first women who tried to join that movement had to
overcome terrible difficulties.
The first women mathematicians in the modern world
were all excluded from formal education. They not
only had to educate themselves; they also found
their way into the field by making end runs on the
establishment. Those ruses were as imaginative and
diverse as their mathematics was. And even then the
best of them were lucky to find roles as
interpreters of other people's work.
Large numbers of women began reappearing as great
originators of ideas only when society itself began
to see women as the equal of men. The emergence of
real genius among women mathematicians synchronizes
perfectly with the Women's Suffrage movement.
Lynn Osen is able to finish her account with a
stirring roll call of 20th-century women who have
been giants in mathematics and science. Released
from the cage of role definition, remarkable women
began to appear in large numbers.
Women have been slower to take up experimental
science and engineering. People with a conventional
view of male/female roles seem even more offended
by the wedding of mind and matter than by the pure
mental sport of mathematics. Still, a sixth of our
engineering students are now women, and that number
is rising. More and more women are attending that
wedding of concept and object that we call
engineering. After all, if there really is a
natural female role, perhaps improving life by
linking mind and matter fulfills it as clearly as
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds