Thursday, August 20, 2015

Women and the "Math Excuse" then and now.

McGill Co-Ed Class of 1912 as in the Yearbook Online.

A while back, Maryam Mirakahani has become the first woman to win the Fields' Prize, the Nobel Prize for Mathematics.

Here's the link to the CBC article

Many,many  years ago in high school I was in a debate about 'women's lib' - and I recall my opponent, a young man brought up the issue that there have been no women geniuses.

I can't recall what I said back, probably something naive and stupid. I can't even recall whether or nt I won the debate.

Anyway, this all came back to me as I researched my story Furies Cross the Mersey about the suffrage movement in Montreal, Canada. This herstory is something we did not learn about at school, or perhaps I would have had more ammunition for the debate.

I did a lot of research for the book and found a lot of interesting newspaper clippings describing the ongoing 1910 era debate about whether women were 'smart' enough to vote.

As it happens, from February 1 to February 15, 1913, the Montreal Council of Women (and some of their member groups, specifically the Women's Club of Montreal) held a suffrage exhibit.

This was exactly the time that Mrs. Pankhurst's militants in England were revving up their campaign of civil disobedience - and making huge headlines in Montreal.

So the suffrage exhibit was of the calm, maternal variety, with valentines and jonquils and sweet suffragette chocolates. And a tea room with little girls in crinolines serving.

They also sold reading materials of interest to women, with a literature bureau featuring books and pamphlets not only about suffrage, on all kinds of topics of interest to women.

It was a big money-maker...

A 1910 era magazine feature in Montreal.

The exhibit also featured a number of talks and debates. One of the people slated to give a talk was Carrie Derick, McGill Botany Professor and Past President of the Montreal Council of Women.

Right at this time she was fighting for her career prize, the Chair of Botany at McGill.  She had only recently heard that the job wasn't going to be given to her; that there'd be a competition open to anyone in the world.

As it happens Derick cancelled her talk. (In my book I am making this talk about Suffrage and Biology.

A few days later, her friend and ally, Dean Walton of the McGill Law School debated Suffrage with a certain R.L. Calder, a lawyer... And in 1913 R.L. Calder used the same argument as the kid at my high school in the 1960's to say women weren't made for politics: No women had ever blazed a trail in mathematics, etc.  Of course, if I am correct, a few years ago the President of Harvard, Mr. Summers, is it, got into trouble for saying the same thing a while ago.

And many people today use the 'math' excuse to explain why more women aren't in the lucrative tech or stock market fields.

(Actually, a science-trained stock market analyst I met told me  recently that people in that industry don't need much higher math at all. Hmm..)