McKellar and Hypatia Prove the Theorem that Girls Can Do Math

November 20th, 2009 in Women's History by Tracey McCormick

1992 was a big year. Toy giant Mattel decided that year to subtract one phrase from the 270 that were embedded in the computer chip of Teen Talk Barbie. The axed phrase? “Math class is tough.”

Carrie Bradshaw and her gaggle will be glad to know that “Want to go shopping?” was one of the lucky remaining 269 phrases.

Now, as someone who majored in math in college and who, coincidentally, graduated in 1992, I can honestly say that the Teen Talk manifestation of Barbie was actually onto something. Math is tough. It’s abstract thinking squeezed into formulas. I always had trouble understanding why we could manipulate numbers in the eleventh dimension even though dimensions pretty much cease to exist after four or five (and that’s being generous). My linear algebra professor was nonplussed by this. And things didn’t get any better for me in number theory or abstract algebra.

I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Barbie, but, hey, “Wanna have a pizza party?”

Girls Can’t Do Math is stereotype that unfortunately continues to thrive. In 2005, Larry Summers, then-president of Harvard, got in a parabola of trouble when he suggested that the fairer sex didn’t have the natural ability to deal with polynomials.

To paraphrase 80s pop star Bonnie Tyler, “We need a hero.”

Enter Danica McKellar, who is most famous for her role as Winnie Cooper on the 80s television show The Wonder Years. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Winnie proved so good at squeezing the abstract into formulas that she’s actually got a theorem named after her, the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem. The theorem says something important about magnetic fields lining up in a certain direction. That’s about all I understand about the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem. I would tell you more, but math’s not really my thing.

McKellar has also written two books for girls on math: Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. Go get ‘em, Winnie.

Now there aren’t that many famous female mathematicians out there, but one woman is credited with being the first.

Her name was Hypatia and she lived in Alexandria, a port city in Egypt that secretly always wanted to be Greek. Like most events that happened 1600 years ago, the information on Hypatia is scarce.

Here’s what we do know about Hypatia: She was born in the fourth century AD, daughter of the brilliant astronomer and mathematician Theon. Theon was in charge of the Alexandrian Museum, the center of higher learning in the port city.

Hypatia was a charismatic and popular teacher of algebra. (Let’s face it; that’s an accomplishment itself.) She also taught astronomy, astrology, and philosophy. We know for sure she wrote commentaries on other mathematicians’ works, and she contributed to the invention of the astrolabe.

Michael Deakin, writing in the March 1994 edition of The American Mathematical Monthly, posits that at the time of her death, she was the greatest mathematician in Greco-Roman territory and possibly the world.

Her death. It was awful. She died at the hands of a mob of angry Christians. Accounts range from dismemberment to being burned alive. We’re also not sure if she was targeted because she was a woman, a pagan, a brilliant mathematician, or d)All of the above.

Hypatia and McKellar provide us with hope that the female mind can bend toward mathematics. And a 2008 University of Wisconsin study of seven million schoolchildren across ten different states also indicates that the gender gap in mathematics has essentially closed.

Extrapolate that.

About the Author: Tracey's interests in history range from the ancient Greeks to the medieval monks to the women of the American West. She holds a B.A. in History, Math/Philosophy, and the Classics. When not writing, editing, or teaching, she's out exploring, via her mountain bike, the Anasazi ruins in and around her home state of Colorado.

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4 Responses to “McKellar and Hypatia Prove the Theorem that Girls Can Do Math”

  1. mdula said:

    Muy interesante.

    Since we’re all goo-goo for genetics as the explanation of all, have there been any studies that have isolated genetic markers or predispositions towards Math? Are they the same in both men and women, and is there any prevalence in either sex?

    I know Math is a pain for both me and my wife. In fact, one of her first Math classes in college (the remedial, pass em’ along class) began with the students conveying their Math horror stories. Very therapeutic.

  2. Bambi Yost said:

    I think the bigger issue is how math is associated with a lack of popularity and being cool. Plus it isn’t considered feminine. I know many female college students who are good at math but they don’t brag about it, unless I prompt them to do so. I’m happy that mth is finally not considered a gender-biased ability but I wonder how long it will take for the rest of the world to catch up when it comes to gender stereotypes. Personally I have always loved math but I felt the sting of male classmates all through algebra, calculus (differential & integral), applied and theoretical, and beyond as I blasted exams and blew any chance for a class curve. I was hated because I was able to math and eventually left engineering simply because I couldn’t stand the thought of working with men who were so easily threatened and hostile. But that was a long time ago – back in the 80’s – so hopefully by now things have changed enough in the world that it is okay to be smart and okay to be a math wiz even if you are a girl. Thanks McKeller, Winnie, Hypatia, and McCormick! Now where are the other female mathematics super star role models? Oh right, probably out shopping. Thanks to mattel, tv sitcoms, socially constructed social norms for women, and a whole slew of other factors. At least we know that statistically we are capable and that the entire theory that women are not spatially and mathematically able is bunk. Now ladies, go encourage a young woman to show that she is good at math and to be proud of her abilities. And while you are at it, see if you can get a few men to applaud her abilities as well. Social change is slow. Let’s make sure it happens beyond the classroom.

  3. Martin-
    As with all things, some folks have a genetic predisposition towards the math and sciences. I suspect that Bambi’s observation about how being good at math (or even being smart) is not cool and plays a part in the shrinking pool of female mathematicians and scientists. I was always outnumbered in my math classes, something like 5 to 1, and I never asked a single question lest I look stupid.

    Hilariously, a member of the math dept. at my college convinced me to stay the course on the Math/Philosophy major. When I told him I wasn’t capable of A’s he said, “No problem! You can be the mediocre math major.” Thus I became.

  4. Tracey,

    This reminded me of being at the Origins game convention back around ‘85 with my then-fiance. She stopped to look at a war game set in the Ancient World. The game designer knew me because I sold advertising to him, and – in front of her – he said, “She could probably play this, Gerald. It doesn’t require too much math.” Apart from the ignorance of that statement, the irony was that one of her math instructors in graduate school had tried very hard to convince her to switch from linguistics to mathematics for her Master’s because she was so good at math – which is basically another form of linguistics. For some odd reason, she didn’t buy the game. She did, however, frequently kick my butt in war games . . . even those that required math.

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