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Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post-World War II America

Margaret A. M. Murray
MIT Press
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Sarah Bryant
, on

This book provides a rich account of the lives of thirty-six women who received PhDs in mathematics in the 1940s and 1950s. Through interviews with these women, the author plots the shifting landscape of academia and gender in a pivotal time in American history. This distinguished cohort includes such highly-regarded and well-known women as Julia Robinson, Cathleen Morawetz, and Mary Ellen Rudin. These women earned their PhDs in a time when the reigning myth (one seemingly very hard for our community to shake off) asserted that math talent develops early, peaks in young adulthood, and continues, slowing, until older age provides a time for some diversion from the intensity required to sustain a mathematical career. Simultaneously, these women were subject to the expectations of the “marriage plot,” the expectation that they will “just marry anyway,” as though the necessary investment in their growth and maturation into mathematicians is not worth the effort. The subtitle of the book is “Creating a Professional Identity in Post-World War II America” but the author is careful to balance the professional and personal, while addressing the necessary interplay between the two realms.

The book is divided into thematic chapters. In Chapter 1 the author provides background regarding the broader landscape of women in Post-World War II America. The second chapter provides insight into the selection of the women in the cohort, and the difficulties the researcher faced in finding these women decades after they earned their PhDs. It is made clear early on that the women have taken a variety of paths in life, though the majority did eventually find secure tenured faculty positions. The researcher then outlines the arcs of their journeys in subsequent chapters, the next four of which are: Family Background and Influences, High School and College, Graduate School and the Pursuit of the PhD, Interweaving a Career and a Life.

With so many narratives to relay, the book sometimes has a slow pace, recounting many details about these women’s lives. But there are plenty of snippets that serve to draw the reader back in to the fray, to the drama of a person recounting the ups and downs of her life. The author does a good job of making the journey as important as the conclusion; that is, you feel like you are along for the ride in many instances, not sure where life will take these women.

One particularly engaging tale “One step forward, two steps back,” in the Chapter “Interweaving a Career and Life” brings us the story of Tilla Weinstein (PhD, NYU, 1958) as she marries, navigates the two-body problem, is thrown for a loop by a sudden divorce after some professional success and stability, then goes through another marriage, divorce, and ultimately success. In this section is one of the funniest quips in the book, a line so perfect that of course it was remembered decades later, to be captured in her interview for the book. To set up the snippet, this is a recollection of Weinstein after she was reviewed early in her second year as an instructor at UCLA . The chair called her in to his office to share the department’s assessment. She recounts (p. 187):

I remember his eyes popping open as he said, ”You seem to have made a lot of friends here… But I have to be honest; you should know everything that was said. One of our colleagues said ‘Gee, you know, it’s awfully nice having her around now. She’s really very pleasant. But twenty years from now, she may just be a grouchy old lady!’” To which I said — one of the few times in my life that I’ve ever said exactly what I would have wished I would have said — I said, “Well, I can’t very well turn into a grouchy old man.”

The last two chapters, “Teaching, Research, and the Question of Identity,” followed by “Dimensions of Personal and Professional Success,” return to focus on the myth of mathematical greatness and the many trajectories the women in this book have taken in finding their own identities as mathematicians. These interviews, done decades after the struggles recounted therein, capture varying outcomes: some of the women identified as mathematicians from an early age, others adopted that identity later in life, and others are uncomfortable with the title altogether.

This book is a thoroughly researched examination of the lives of several women in Post-World War II America as they became interested in mathematics, earned PhDs, and had careers. While it is not a casual read, it is engrossing, especially to this reviewer, who could not help but constantly reflect on what has changed — and what has not — since the 1940s and 1950s. While we enjoy so many hard-won advances (e.g., abolishment of anti-nepotism laws that stifled spousal careers, establishment of the AWM and other professional organizations), there remain challenges (e.g., underrepresentation on the tenure-track, implicit bias in hiring, sexual harassment). I highly recommend this book as a useful research reference and inspiration for assignments related to the identities of women in mathematics. In seeing multiple representations we can all better learn there is no single way for a woman to become a mathematician.

Sarah Bryant is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. She co-leads the Shippensburg Area Math Circle for 4th and 5th graders and enjoys watching these young learners become mathematicians.

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