• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Women’s History Month

Making history.

March 10, 2016

I recall a Statistics text book that presented a question about probability, asking what was what the chance of a randomly selected person having a birthday in the month of March. Immediately after posing this question, they followed it up by specifying that all the months have the same number of days in them, probably because the original question had an intrinsic flaw in not recognizing this. Of course, March has the maximum number of days in it, 31, while other months have as few as 28 (in most years.) I found myself thinking of this recently when I ran across a collection put together in honor of Women’s History Month, which is being celebrated this month, in March. As I teach at a women’s college, I thought that it was worth commenting on them.

The collection was called “16 Amazing Women Who Made History - That You’ve Never Heard Of”  and I was happy to see that I was very familiar with two of the women.

The first woman listed is a local hero in my home town of Danbury, Connecticut. Sybil Ludington, a young girl from New York State was not much different in age from my own daughter, when she became a “female Paul Revere” and rode a horse through the hills of New York and Connecticut to warn the Continental Army of the arrival of the British to the city of Danbury, which was being used as a munitions storage depot. I still marvel that her parents, including a father who was involved with that Continental army, encouraged her to take the journey. I am sure that I would not have allowed my own daughter to do so.

Another woman listed is Hypatia, an ancient Greek who was both a philosopher and a mathematician. When I tell my students in History of Math to write a paper on a woman mathematician, Hypatia is often the chosen topic for many of their papers. Alas, she was killed for speaking out about her ideas. Her death, and the additional fact (also learned in History of math) that studying math in ancient China without the emperor’s approval was punishable by death, lead us to create the unofficial logo of the math department of “do something dangerous- study math.” Unfortunately, I could not convince my student that we should order tee shirts with that logo on it!

Other women listed included Amelia Bloomer, after which the garment was named. In some ways, I have her to thank every time I throw on a pair of kakis to run out to work, instead of wearing a floor-length dress.

I was particularly struck by the number of women on the list who are related to math or science (alas, there are no economists are among them.) There was Cecilia Payne, an astronomer and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Radcliff, and Rosalind Franklin who played a major role in discovering DNA (hum, why don’t we know about her?) as well as Edith Cavell, an English nurse who also served as both a nurse and a spy during World War I. Also included is Ada Lovelace, who is often seen as the first computer programmer, for the work she did with Charles Babbage.

So, whenever I leave for work in slacks, carrying a laptop, and go on to teach students who are on their way to becoming nurses, my life is intertwined with some of these women who helped shape the world as we know it. Like my women ancestors, my mother, my grandmothers and generations of (mostly anonymous) great grandmothers who helped shape my family and bring me to the place I am today, they had a profound influence on what we call the “present” but they would have called the “future.”

And so I ask my readers, as we make our way through women’s history month;  who are some of the women who are unsung heroes in your own histories?

Speaking of amazing women, I want to take a moment to wish the Ursuline Arrows Basketball Team the best of luck as they participate in their first ever NCAA basketball tournament!




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