Exploding the Myth of the "Mathematical Life Course"

March 3, 2002

Book Review
Charles M. Strauss

Women Becoming Mathematicians. Margaret A.M. Murray, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, 304 pages, $35.00.

Gian-Carlo Rota (you will have to imagine his continental accent) once began a lecture by saying: "I shall, in this talk, present two results. One is the nitty-gritty; the other is the hot air." Women Becoming Mathematicians, a study of "the cultural and social background, the lives and careers, of the approximately two hundred women who earned PhDs in mathematics from American institutions from 1940 to 1959," is definitely on the side of the nitty-gritty, being mercifully anecdotal in approach and for the most part eschewing the grimly sociological. The book is primarily based on the oral histories of 36 women from the above-mentioned group of approximately two hundred.

(By way of comparison, the number of men who earned PhDs in mathematics from American institutions during the same time period is 3160. This number is very roughly comparable to the number of men who played major league baseball at some time during the same twenty-year period. I make this comparison to highlight how rare it was for anyone to be a mathematician during the 40s and 50s.)

Women Becoming Mathematicians proceeds, chapter by chapter, by comparing and contrasting the lives of the 36 subjects through time: family background and childhood, junior and senior high school, college, graduate school, and finally career. The main thesis of the book is to explode "the myth of the mathematical life course," in which mathematical talent is displayed very early in childhood, focused throughout childhood, cultivated during high school and college, and allowed to begin flowering in graduate school, bursting into bloom shortly after completion of the PhD. Uninterrupted progress and compression, an emphasis on youthful achievement, characterize this myth. The author notes that this compressed timetable is, even in the abstract, unfair to women, given biological timetables of reproduction; very few of the women whose histories are discussed developed their careers even remotely in accordance with this myth.

The grouping of discussion of life stages into chapters allows the author a pleasantly relaxed and informative presentation. I was particularly struck by the large percentage of children of immigrants in the author's sample and by how general and unspecific the academic talents and interests of most of the 36 women were when they were young. They all appear to have been very bright children who excelled in all academic subjects (especially languages) in school, and most seem to have chosen mathematics as their life's work no earlier than college. I was interested but not especially amazed to find that most of these women married and had children; what did startle me was how many married other mathematicians! Noteworthy also are the numerous anecdotes in which the students took matters into their own hands, invoking pressure from high-ranking friends of the family, seeking out alternative sources of funding, and so forth, to overcome academic, administrative, or job-related obstacles.

I enjoyed most the chapter on graduate school. The general impressions of most of the respondents were of the joys, rather than the sorrows and longueurs, of graduate work: apprehending the size and beauty of the whole edifice of mathematics, talking about one's recent work around the departmental coffee pot, helping someone stuck on a problem, quizzing one another in preparation for taking prelims . . . in sum, the characteristic combination of awe, despair, and intellectual rough-and-tumble of young people being initiated into the two quite disparate communities of mathematics and the academy. It's not that the sorrows were absent, but that they were to be expected and were bearable. One sentence in the book sums up this complex of feelings:

"At the same time, the anxiety and pain of graduate school had an almost worshipful quality to it: the suffering was undergone for a higher good, for mathematics, to which Cronin Scanlon and her compatriots were as wholly devoted as acolytes."

Now that really rings true to me! This is of course a somewhat romanticized view; looking back, remembering the good times while skipping rather lightly over the bad times, is one of those weaknesses that make us human. I see nothing wrong with giving a couple of cheers for this particular weakness. (As an aside, I'd like to ask why so few novels about graduate student life have been written. Letting Go, by Philip Roth is the only one I can think of at the moment. Lots of academic novels and college novels have been written; why so few works on the important and interesting years that lie between?)

Not surprising at all were the various difficulties that all these women faced during the course of their preparation and work as mathematicians. These difficulties are, mutatis mutandis, the difficulties all mathematicians face: family problems, indifferent thesis advisers, intractable thesis topics, hostile departments, money worries. . . . Yes, women qua women have special problems, but men qua men have their own special problems ("why can't you go into the family business instead of wasting your time fooling with that crazy mathematics!"), and specific gender-related problems appear to pale in contrast with the general problem of becoming and being a mathematician in a world deeply indifferent to and in many ways actively hostile to mathematicians.

Well, I obviously enjoyed this book. I should think that anyone who has done a significant amount of graduate work in mathematics would also get a lot of pleasure from reading it.

Charles M. Strauss is a senior member of the technical staff at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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