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Fifty Years of Women in Mathematics

Janet L. Beery, Sarah J. Greenwald, Cathy Kessel, eds.
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Tricia Muldoon Brown
, on
When I opened Fifty Years of Women in Mathematics I was surprised at just how heavy it is – the text is over 1,000 pages and is divided into 17 parts. The book spans the existence of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) from its inception in 1971 to today. It even includes some predictions for the future.  The chapters vary widely. Some are dense with data and read like a statistical report. There are also papers that could appear in the academic literature in fields such as gender studies or mathematics education.   Others are personal stories reading like a memoir of the author’s career, and a few even veer towards poetry! These personal narratives are definitely my favorite parts of the book. I found them authentic and sometimes emotional. They are instructive and at times depressing, but can also be up-lifting.
Continuing with the theme of variety, the chapters are authored by an impressive collection of researchers, teachers, advocates, and allies. I feel the editors allowed each author to write in the way that would effectively convey their purpose. While I tend to prefer a tighter cohesion in style across the chapters, in this case, it worked. The aims of the chapters could be quite disparate, so it really wouldn’t have made sense to have a personal narrative read like a scientific article. You can also see these differences in style in the illustrations.  Some chapters contain color photographs showing the writers at conferences or meetings while others have statistical tables. The chapter lengths vary as well, from a short two page reflection to 30-40 page chapters describing multi-year periods and large endeavors in the AWM’s history.
I admit I was not very aware of the background of the AWM. New to me were the history of the establishment and growth of the AWM; the work began with a fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX and grew into a focus on diversity and inclusion in multiple forms. The aims have included working to fight discrimination and harassment and increasing representation and support of women through sponsorship of awards and conference sessions. The specifics for these aims can evolve, think statements on maternity leave to parental leave to child care, but the fundamental principles of equity for any underrepresented group are the same.
I did not read straight through (although the book is certainly designed well enough to do so) but rather flipped back and forth. I would get a dose of the historical context and then flip forward to get some positivity about the future, and then skip to a biographical chapter in the middle. Generally not technical, this is a good book for anyone interested in the AWM, or in the experiences of women in mathematics over the last fifty years. As we realize reading any work of history, we can all benefit from appreciating the changes and obstacles that have been overcome by those who came before.
Tricia Muldoon Brown ( is a Professor of Mathematics at Georgia Southern University with interests in combinatorics, recreational mathematics, and sports.