March 1st is the start of Women’s History Month, and we’re kicking things off with a Guest Geek post from Eric M Earle, an education and parenting blogger who is also the founder of multiple mathematics tutoring companies. He’s compiled a list of pivotal females in mathematics who broke the odds to pursue their biggest dreams and break societal confines like never before.
Influential Women Mathematicians from the USA
Math has been a very male-dominated field of study and career for most of its development. It’s very rare you hear endless praise and commendation about women mathematicians in the ancient and classical history of math, even up until the 19th century. However, that’s not to say they don’t exist.
With the evolution of time has come the essential debunking and unlearning of internalized societal standards regarding gender roles. Women were almost always given more domestic responsibilities, unable to pursue an individual career being that they were too busy taking care of others. And even if they were able to achieve jobs and careers of their own, for quite a long time they were limited. For whatever reason, math was a subject they seldom specialized in.
Below are just eight of the most influential women mathematicians with ideas that remain relevant to our knowledge today.
Dorothy Lewis Bernstein (1914-1988)
Most known for her work in applied math and statistics, Dorothy Bernstein was an ardent researcher. She helped research what’s known as the Laplace transform. The Laplace transform is a mathematical function she studied in partial differential equations. This helped shape the twentieth-century operational calculus! One of her most amazing achievements is being elected as the first female President of the Mathematics Association of America.
Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924)
Evelyn Boyd Granville was the second African woman in America to receive a doctoral degree in America – from Yale studying functional analysis. She spent her career doing a variety of things, such as a postdoctoral fellowship at NYU and working on missile fuses at the NBS. However, her most prominent contribution arose once she joined IBM in 1956 to pursue her passion for computer programming. She went on to join their Vanguard Computing Center to write programs for orbits such as the Vanguard satellite and the Mercury spacecraft.
Winifred Edgerton Merrill (1862-1951)
Winifred Edgerton Merrill abandoned Victorian ideals of women’s domesticated roles in society to pursue her dreams. Not only was she the first woman to ever receive a Doctoral degree from Columbia, but the first woman in America to receive a Ph.D. in 1866. It took her a lot of networking, communicating, and advocating for a woman’s right to receive doctoral education. After teaching at various institutions, she founded the Oaksmere School for Girls in New York.
Karen Uhlenbeck (1942)
Despite her flourishing interest in books and science for much of her childhood, Karen Uhlenbeck was meant to be a mathematician. She even pursued physics in college before she realized math was for her! Once she received her doctoral degree from Brandeis University, Uhlenbeck had quite a decorated career. Throughout her teaching at institutes around the country, she was known as one of the core founders of modern geometric analysis. Currently, Uhlenbeck is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Mary Jackson (1921-2005)
Mary Jackson had quite a few job jumps before her long prominent career in math. Starting as a research mathematician at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s Research Center, she reported to the brilliant Dorothy Vaughn in the segregated West Area Computing section. After a transition from math to engineering, she landed the title as the first black female engineer at NASA. Jackson went on to pioneer promotions for other women and minorities in engineering.
Julia Robinson (1919-1985)
By high school, Julia Robinson was the only girl in her math AND physics class; she was meant to stand out! She was discouraged from pursuing math past a teaching degree but still received a Doctorate in 1948. Robinson’s work centered around Hilbert’s Tenth Problem for Diophantine equations, and she even gave a fundamental result now known as the Robinson hypothesis. Much of Robinson’s work shone through research in mathematics and also bled into politics for a few years. Her contributions led her to be the first woman elected into the National Academy of Sciences.
Mary L. Boas (1917-2010)
Mary L. Boas was a mathematician and physics professor most known for her textbook the Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences, which she wrote while teaching at DePaul University. Boas published the THIRD edition of her college textbook in 2005. Mary Boas established a scholarship in her name at the University of Washington, where she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees; this was dedicated to giving young women in physics more opportunities.
Annie Dale Biddle Andrews (1885-1940):
Annie Andrews was the first woman – EVER – to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, specifically from UC Berkeley. Her doctoral dissertation, Constructive theory of the unicursal plane quartic by synthetic methods, was very pivotal for her time. Andrews went on to be a math instructor at the University of California, then published another paper in the Journal of American Mathematical Society.
It’s shocking to see that women’s contributions were not given the amount of attention and appreciation until semi-recently. What would be possible for us if they weren’t given the opportunities to showcase their intellectual talents? These women, among many others, have made it a priority of theirs to prove that women in math are just as capable as men. They paved the way for many other young women to follow.
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