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Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhD's

Judy Green and Jeanne LaDuke
American Mathematical Society/London Mathematical Society
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
History of Mathematics 34
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee strongly recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

Popular history indicates that before the women’s movement of the 1960s and later, the raw numbers and relative percentages of women obtaining advanced degrees in mathematics in the United States were extremely low. As is demonstrated in this book, both the numbers and the percentages were low but not extremely so. America was much more progressive than Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There women were often forbidden from having any active role in higher education. Except for the traditional acts of cooking and cleaning, of course.

This book is an element of that unusual set of math books that can be read and understood by anybody, yet only people deeply interested in the history of mathematics, particularly in the role of women, will find it a critical read. The first half of the book describes the institutions that granted the higher degrees, their locations, the number of degrees awarded and other generalized data about the status and stature of women.

The result is something of a sociological history. For example, we learn about the standard practice of requiring a woman to resign her position when she either got married or gave birth. Another interesting fact is that the average life expectancy of women who earned higher degrees in math was significantly higher than that of the general female population.

However, not all of the rules of resignation were entirely based on gender bias. Most institutions and departments had an anti-nepotism policy that forbade a husband and a wife from both being members of the same mathematics (or other) department, the reasoning being that more people could be supported by mathematics if only one person in a family was earning the wages. This was especially true in the depths of the great depression when teaching jobs in mathematics were in very short supply.

The second half of the book consists of a set of short biographies of all of the women who earned PhDs from American universities in mathematics before 1940. Roughly 2/3 of a page in length, each summary includes where they were born, grew up, went to school, where and when they achieved their terminal degree, a few highlights of their life, their immediate family, and when and where they died.

This book is an excellent resource for information in this area. While it is interesting to read, when you get to the later pages it becomes one of those books that you read in 5–10 page snippets.


Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.