Hypatia of Alexandria (370? - 415 C.E.)
A mid-19th century wood engraving of Hypatia, one of the earliest known female mathematicians. (Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
Sophie Germain was a self-taught French mathematician. Although her parents tried to discourage her from learning (it was believed that mathematics was an inappropriate trade for women at the time), Germain would sneak into her father's library to read the works of great mathematicians going so far as to wrap herself in quilts and use candles she had hidden in order to study throughout the night.
After learning what she could on her own, she decided to advance her knowledge by corresponding with prominent mathematicians Adrien-Marie Legendre and Carl Friedrich Gauss under the male pseudonym “M. LeBlanc.” Her decision to identify as a man to prove her worth in the male-dominated field of mathematics was fruitful. Her work in number theory, the theory of elasticity, and in developing innovative approaches to prove Fermat's Last Theorem are highly significant contributions to mathematics. Fighting against the social prejudices of the times, she rose to the top becoming an equal collaborator with male mathematicians toward the end of her career.
Charlotte Angas Scott (1858-1931)
Charlotte Angas Scott (June 8, 1858 - November 10, 1931) was the first woman in England to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Going against the social scripts of the time and with her family’s support, she sought education from a young age and this sparked an early interest in mathematics. In 1880, Scott ranked eighth in the highly prestigious Cambridge Mathematical Tripos Exam but because she was a woman, she could not attend the award ceremony. After earning degrees from the University of London, she traveled to the United States and became a founding faculty member of the Department of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr College where she mentored other women to pursue careers in mathematics. Scott’s work with algebraic curves and plane analytical geometry played a significant role in the modern development of abstract mathematical proofs. Her 1899 article “Proof of Noether's Fundamental Theorem” is widely recognized as highly influential in the field of mathematics.
NASA’s Human Computers
The 1950s ushered in a new wave of women mathematicians, although many have been “hidden” from dominant discourse. Take, for example, a group of African American women mathematicians known as NASA’s “human computers” due to their highly skilled abilities to perform the complex calculations that helped humans into outer space. These women include Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan who have all been celebrated in the book and subsequent Oscar-winning film, Hidden Figures, as well as Miriam Daniel Mann, Kathryn Peddrew, Christine Darden, and Annie Easley who are featured in the book Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA. Another woman who worked for NASA to help get man to the moon was space engineer Mary Golda Ross, who was a member of the Cherokee Nation and the first female Native American rocket scientist. Facing both gender and racial discrimination, the accomplishments of these women should not be understated. Without their mathematical brilliance, space travel would not have been possible.
In our eyes, these women who helped break down barriers for today's women in science, mathematics and engineering are our heros.
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