Women in Math: the First Doctorate, the First University Chair

Sonya Kovalevskaya (one of several versions of her name) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics, from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1874. The doctorate was awarded for papers on partial differential equations, the dynamics of Saturn’s rings, and elliptic integrals. The doctorate was also awarded in absentia and in an exceptional fashion because women were not, at the time, allowed to take classes at university. When she was a girl, Dr. Kovalevskaya’s bedroom was wallpapered with pages from math texts. She engaged in a marriage of convenience to circumvent the Russian law requiring a father or husband’s permission to study abroad. The article Occupy Math has linked above enumerates the triumphs and the sordid details. This woman was one of those people that can only be stopped by death, nothing less. She was a natural in the purest sense and Occupy Math wonders how much more she might have achieved if she had been permitted full participation in the academic community and if she had avoided death from the flu at 41.

While there is a long road yet to equality for women in mathematics, the adversity overcome by Dr. Kovalevskaya shows that a very long part of that road is behind us.

The mother of the author of Frankenstein Mary Wollstonecraft had the following to say in her monograph In Defense of The Rights of Women: “Women should be rationally educated in order to give them the opportunity to contribute to society.” She had a lot of other things to say, much of it excellent, which is why Occupy Math linked the book. The sad thing is, the belief that women are mentally inferior, including the belief that they are incapable of mathematics, persists in the current day.

In the eighteenth century, it was believed by many scholars and writers that women were incapable of rational thought.

Occupy Math is sure that there is actually a lot of evidence for this view – but that holding it requires you to ignore the mountain of evidence that men are just as incapable of rational thought. Having had a young gentleman threaten to murder me for taking a parking place he had his eye on is but one of a thousand available examples. Occupy Math has debated young-earth creationists, flat earthers, and supply side economists. He is sure that rational thought is a rare and valuable thing that should be nurtured, which makes trying to stamp it out in women by denying its existence a horrible thing.

Occupy Math found out about Dr. Kovalevskaya because his wife was translating an article on her life from French to English. I was delighted at the way she earned her doctorate – that she had colleagues who clearly saw that she was worth bending the rules for in the direction of justice is wonderful, except that they had to do it at all. Occupy Math’s delight arises, however, from the parallel to an incident in one of my favorite books, Doorways in the Sand by the incomparable Roger Zelazny. The main character is in school with a generous stipend from his uncle’s estate as long as he is seeking a degree. He stays in school, changing majors, for years – with the administration trying to force him to graduate. In the end, a clever adviser takes several of his term papers, puts a ribbon around them, convenes a committee, and awards him a doctorate. This forces him out of school and on with his life, where he meets doodlehums and is offered a peanut-butter sandwich by a kangaroo. Until I read Dr. Kovalevskaya’s story, I thought this way of getting a degree was pure science-fiction. She found a doorway in the sand.

Dr. Kovalevskaya had other firsts. Due in part to the intervention
of the Swedish mathematician Mittag-Leffler, who said “as a scholar, she distinguishes herself by an extraordinary speed of understanding”, she became the first woman to hold a chair at a research university, the University of Stockholm, in 1889. After her appointment, the playwright Strindberg opined, “A female professor is a pernicious and unpleasant phenomenon. One might even say a monstrosity!” As often happens, her worth was more visible after her death. Tsarist Russia made her get married in order to escape the country to go to school. Communist Russia used her as a symbol of their progressiveness by honoring her with a stamp. Forty kopecks!

Occupy Math has visited the issue of women in mathematics before.

Last august, Occupy Math blogged on Stop being stupid and keeping women out of math. Another blog noted that Florence Nightingale saved more lives with her math than her nursing. Occupy Math was happy to report that a woman of the statistical persuasion asked Can Statistics Help Us Find Stolen Elections? and produced an affirmative answer.

In Occupy Math’s opinion, it is a bit embarrassing to find out about as admirable a colleague as Sonya Kovalevskaya because my wife was translating an article about her. I should have known. Do you know of a great woman mathematician, statistician, or computer scientist, like Emmy Noether who discovered Notherian Rings or Ada Lovelace who worked with Babbage on the analytical engine and was honored by having the computer language Ada named after her? If so tweet or comment and Occupy Math will get around to it.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


3 thoughts on “Women in Math: the First Doctorate, the First University Chair

  1. I have great respect for Kovalevskaya, but how about mentioning another first woman mathematician of note, Hypatia, born c. 355 ce—died March 415, Alexandria (“She was, in her time, the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made.” See https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hypatia).

    Regarding doctorates in mathematics or related sciences and teaching positions, how about:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elena_Cornaro_Piscopia – who received a degree in philosophy and “became a mathematics lecturer at the University of Padua in 1678.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Bassi – the second woman to receive a doctorate and the first to hold a university chair in a scientific field (at the University of Bologna, founded in 1088): “she was awarded a doctorate of Philosophy on May 12, 1732 … On October 29, 1732, the University of Bologna granted Bassi’s professorship in philosophy at the University of Bologna thus also making her a member of the Academy of the Sciences … in 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences with her husband as a teaching assistant.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Gaetana_Agnesi – “In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna, though she never served. She was the second woman ever to be granted professorship at a university, Laura Bassi being the first.”


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