'A woman can win the victory, though she may not wear the wreath': women and mathematics in late nineteenth-century Cambridge

Barrow-Green, June (2016). 'A woman can win the victory, though she may not wear the wreath': women and mathematics in late nineteenth-century Cambridge. In: Rooney, David ed. Mathematics. How it Shaped Our World. London: Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with The Science Museum, London, pp. 183–186.

URL: http://www.scalapublishers.com/title.aspx?category...

Abstract

In 1869, the young Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya was visiting the novelist George Eliot in London when she met the philosopher and social theorist, Herbert Spencer. It was a memorable encounter, as she later recalled:

George Eliot at once turned to [Spencer]. “I’m so glad you have come today” she said, “I can introduce you to the living refutation of your theory – a woman mathematician. Allow me to present my friend,” she continued, turning to me still without mentioning his name, “only I have to warn you that he denies the very existence of a woman mathematician. … Try to make him change his mind!”

Sofia—who was later appointed to a professorship in Stockholm, the first woman in modern Europe to attain such a distinction—may not have been able to make Spencer change his mind, but Spencer was not alone in thinking women incapable of doing mathematics. This was an age of great public prejudice against women studying mathematics and science, and when it was still believed that a woman’s ability to bear children would be seriously compromised if she exerted herself by engaging in scientific thought. Little wonder then that any woman who wished to study for the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos, the most prestigious examination in Britain, faced an uphill struggle.

Viewing alternatives

Item Actions

Export

About

Recommendations