In celebration of Women’s History Month, this post features four women who paved the way for women in mathematics throughout history: Hypatia of Alexandria (top left), Wang Zhenyi (top right), Marjorie Lee Browne (bottom left), and Maryam Mirzakhana (bottom right). This post is part of a series focusing on women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
There are many, many other women who made important contributions to STEM throughout history; check out the bottom of this post for some suggested sources if you want to learn more.
Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 350-418)
Image source: Jules Maurice Gaspard
Hypatia of Alexandria was not the first female mathematician, but she is the first whose life was well documented. The daughter of mathematician Theon of Alexandria and born sometime between 350-370 AD, Hypatia taught philosophy and astronomy to students from across the Mediterranean at a Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, Egypt which was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was a Pagan, but most of her students were Christian. It is unknown if Hypatia developed any of her own independent works, but it was customary at the time for scholars to work to preserve classical mathematical works and to make them accessible to their students. She was killed in March 418 by a mob of Christians and was largely considered a “martyr of philosophy” in the aftermath of her murder.
Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797)
Astronomer and mathematician
Image source: Matteo Farinella
Wang Zhenyi was a Chinese scientist and poet who broke feudal customs by working to educate herself despite being a woman. In her early life, she was inspired by her grandfather’s books on a number of subjects, including astronomy. Throughout her life Zhenyi wrote numerous articles on astronomy, mathematics, and poetry. One or her accomplishments was simplifying the subjects of multiplication and division, making them easier to teach and to study. She died at the age of 29, but her legacy has inspired generations of women in mathematics. Wang Zhenyi’s views on equality are best stated in her own words:
“It’s made to believe,
Women are the same as Men;
Are you not convinced,
Daughters can also be heroic?”
Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979)
Image source: Fair use
Marjorie Lee Browne was born in Tennessee and was gifted in school from a young age. She was able to attend graduate school in mathematics at the University of Michigan, which was one of the few institutions that allowed African American students to apply, and upon completing her dissertation in 1949 became one of the first African American women to receive a PhD in math; her work focused on linear and matrix algebra. Browne joined the faculty of North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University (NCCU)) and taught for 30 years. She was instrumental in bringing one of the first computers to an academic setting (at NCCU), after writing a $60,000 grant to IBM.. In addition, Browne mentored many students, established summer programs for teachers, and set up a full scholarship for math students at NCCU. While it was difficult to break racial barriers, Browne won many awards and fellowships throughout her career.
Maryam Mirzakhana (1977-2017)
Image source: Courtesy Stanford News Service
Maryam Mirzakhana is the most contemporary female figure in STEM included in this series. Pairing her with Hypatia of Alexandria, the most historical figure on the list, was very intentional. While there is documented evidence that women have been contributing to the development of mathematics for thousands of years, recognition for this contribution has lagged behind even other areas of STEM. In 1936 the Fields Medal was established as what could be called the mathematics version of the Nobel Prize, awarded to the top 2-4 mathematicians every 4 years. In the 85 years this award has existed, Maryam Mirzakhana remains the only woman to have ever been awarded the Fields Medal.
Maryam Mirzakhana was an Iranian mathematician and professor of math at Stanford University. She received the Fields Medal in 2014 for her work on the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces, She passed away in 2017 at the age of 40 due to cancer, and her legacy was so profound that Iranian newspapers broke taboo and published hotos of her with her head uncovered. She has been remembered by plaques, awards, and many other honors, including the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize for outstanding women in mathematics.