American Women in Mathematics
September 28, 2012 by Ann Harmon
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
Women’s contributions to mathematics have often been overlooked. For example, everyone knows the Pythagorean Theorem, yet few know that the Greeks recorded that Pythagoras learned most of what he knew from Themistoclea, a priestess at Delphi. Even in America today, Danica McKellar is better known for her role as Winnie Cooper in the television show “The Wonder Years” than as a mathematician who co-created the Chayes–McKellar–Winn theorem, not to mention the author of four popular books which encourage middle-school and high-school girls to have confidence and succeed in mathematics. While American culture’s disdain for mathematics in general may contribute to this, we cannot overlook women in particular being discouraged due to supposed innate inferiority. (Need I mention Larry Summers’ infamous remarks?) In order to discourage such discouragement, I have created a timeline of American women in mathematics. I hope this will shed some light on the unsung contributions of women to what has often been seen as a masculine field.
Timeline of American Women in Mathematics
1886: Winifred Edgerton Merrill became the first American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, which she earned from Columbia University.
1897: Mary Frances Winston became the first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from a European university (she earned hers from the University of Göttingen in Germany).
1913: Mildred Sanderson published her theorem about modular invariants in her thesis. It states: “To any modular invariant i of a system of forms under any group G of linear transformations with coefficients in the GF[pn], there corresponds a formal invariant I under G such that I = i for all sets of values in the field of the coefficients of the system of forms.” She was Leonard Dickson’s first female graduate student, and he later wrote of her thesis, “This paper is a highly important contribution to this field of work; its importance lies partly in the fact that it establishes a correspondence between modular and formal invariants. Her main theorem has already been frequently quoted on account of its fundamental character. Her proof is a remarkable piece of mathematics.” ET Bell wrote, “Miss Sanderson’s single contribution (1913) modular invariants has been rated by competent judges as one of the classics of the subject.”
1943: Euphemia Haynes became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, which she earned from Catholic University.
1949: Gertrude Mary Cox became the first woman elected into the International Statistical Institute.
1966: Mary Layne Boas published Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences, an undergraduate textbook that is still widely used in college classrooms.
1970: Mathematician Mina Rees became the first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
1971: Mary Ellen Rudin discovered a topological space known as a Dowker space, whose existence had remained unsettled despite 20 years of considerable efforts by general topologists. The modern and active branch of set theory and logic owes much to the discoveries of Mary Ellen Rudin.
1971: The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) was founded. It is a professional society whose mission is to encourage women and girls to study and to have active careers in the mathematical sciences, and to promote equal opportunity for and the equal treatment of women and girls in the mathematical sciences. It is incorporated in the state of Massachusetts.
1971: The Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences (JCW), was founded as a committee of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). It is now a joint committee of seven mathematical and statistical societies which works to identify mechanisms for the enhancement of opportunities for women in the mathematical and statistical sciences, recommend actions to the governing bodies of the member societies in support of these opportunities, and document its recommendations by presenting data.
1973: Jean Taylor published her dissertation on “Regularity of the Singular Set of Two-Dimensional Area-Minimizing Flat Chains Modulo 3 in R3” which solved a long standing problem about length and smoothness of soap-film triple function curves.
1974: Joan Birman published the book Braids, Links, and Mapping Class Groups. It has become a standard introduction, with many of today’s researchers having learned the subject through it.
1975-1977: Marjorie Rice, who had no formal training in mathematics beyond high school, discovered three new types of tessellating pentagons and more than sixty distinct tessellations by pentagons.
1975: Julia Robinson became the first female mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
1983: Julia Robinson became the first female president of the American Mathematical Society.
1992: Gloria Gilmer became the first woman to deliver a major National Association of Mathematicians lecture (the Cox-Talbot address).
1998: Melanie Wood became the first female American to make the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team. She won silver medals in the 1998 and 1999 International Mathematical Olympiads.
2002: Melanie Wood became the first American woman and second woman overall to be named a Putnam Fellow in 2002. Putnam Fellows are the top five (or six, in case of a tie) scorers on The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.
2004: Melanie Wood became the first woman to win the Frank and Brennie Morgan Prize for Outstanding Research in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Student. It is an annual award given to an undergraduate student in the US, Canada, or Mexico who demonstrates superior mathematics research.
2004: Alison Miller became the first ever female gold medal winner on the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team.
Women in Mathematics, a book by Lynn M. Osen
About Mary Frances Winston
About Mildred Sanderson
About Euphemia Haynes
About Gertrude Mary Cox
About Mary Layne Boas
About Mina Rees
About Mary Ellen Rudin
About the Association for Women in Mathematics
About Jean Taylor
About Julia Robinson
About Marjorie Rice
About Gloria Gilmer
About Melanie Wood
About Alison Miller