next up previous
Next: Where We’re Going Up: 2.The Second Decade Previous: 1. How It Was


2. The Second Decade (1981-1991): A coming of age

The second decade in the life of the AWM can be characterized variously as a period of maturing, of coming of age, of increased self-assurance, of establishing and strengthening institutional mechanisms, of gaining acceptance by the mathematics community. It was a time when AWM grew up. Indeed, these are the themes and phrases that kept recurring in my conversations and correspondence with the AWM Presidents of the 1980s.

Bhama Srinivasan (1981-1983): Noether Symposium, Speakers Bureau, Research vs. Education?

On one of those gorgeous Berkeley afternoons last fall, Bhama Srinivasan and I met at a picnic sponsored by the women graduate students in the Berkeley Math Department. Bhama had been visiting as part of the algebra year at MSRI. Being the two senior mathematicians at the picnic, it was natural to chat with the students about the usual issues that come up about women and mathematics. Much to our surprise, they knew very little about the AWM! We talked about the upcoming Twentieth Anniversary and reminisced about AWM’s Tenth (also held in San Francisco at the beginning of Bhama’s term). I’m not sure we made any new recruits, but the students did arrange to keep meeting weekly. And so the process renews itself.

During Bhama’s presidency, AWM sponsored its first major mathematical conference, the Noether Symposium at Bryn Mawr College. Bhama credits Rhonda Hughes with the idea. The Symposium, in honor of Emmy Noether’s 100th birthday, was held in March 1982, appropriately at the institution where Noether held her last position. There were nine scientific lectures as well as a panel discussion. The event “was not only scientifically successful but a specially moving occasion,” Bhama remembers. Three of the women who had studied with Noether at Bryn Mawr spoke at the Symposium. They painted a picture of a mathematically charged, particularly precious time, dominated by Noether and fully integrated with women:

“Meeting Emmy Noether was one of the great things in my life,” said Olga Taussky-Todd who, in 1934, had come from a research post in Gottingen to study with Noether at Bryn Mawr. “She was a teacher and she had a great urge to make people see her methods and to understand them. At Bryn Mawr it was particularly easy for me to profit … from her school. There was her thesis student Ruth [Stauffer McKee]. There was Marie Weiss who worked on a problem explicitly suggested to her, namely units in cyclic fields, using ideas of Latimer. For this we had to thank Grace [Shover Quinn].”


Bhama Srinivasan

“We not only studied together, attended Miss Noether’s and Mrs. Wheeler’s lectures also,” recalled Grace S. Quinn, “but we really played together, walking down Gulph Road with Miss Noether in the lead discussing mathematics intensely all the while unmindful of the traffic …”

Ruth McKee recalled how it was to be in Noether’s classes.

“The strange phenomena was that from our point of view, she was one of us,
almost as if she too were thinking about the theorems for the first time. There
was a lot of competition and Miss Noether urged us on, challenging us to get
our nails dirty, to really dig into the underlying relationships, to consider
problems from all possible angles. It was this way of shifting perspective that
finally hit home … suddenly the light dawned and Miss Noether’s methods were
the only way to attack modern algebra …”18

The Symposium proceedings, Emmy Noether in Bryn Mawr, (edited by Bhama and Judith Sally) were published by Springer-Verlag in 1983.19 Yet another first for the AWM!

As we drove from the picnic, Bhama and I talked more about the AWM. She reminded me of the tensions that had begun to surface during the early 1980s: Were we an organization of research mathematicians or did we represent the interests of all women in mathematics, particularly in education? Now that we were not as preoccupied with political issues as in the early years, it seemed we were having an identity crisis! Bhama recalls, “I was concerned about how to balance our various (and sometimes conflicting) constituencies and interests. So I set up a number of new committees [including the Committee on Mathematics Education, chaired first by Evelyn Silvia and now by Sally Lipsey, and the Maternity Committee, presently chaired by Anita Solow] to address these issues and involve many more women in the workings of the AWM.

Also during this period, the AWM Speakers Bureau– funded initially by grants from Polaroid, then Sloan, and directed by Judy Wason–became fully functional.20 The Speakers Bureau provides lists of speakers and topics appropriate for high schools and colleges. This highly successful AWM activity has proved to be one of the best ways to improve the visibility of women in mathematics.

Linda Rothschild (1983-1985): A period of transition, The White House, A mathematical mentor

Linda Rothschild speaks of her presidency as “a period of transition: AWM was becoming established as a ‘serious’ and ‘respectable’ mathematics organization at that time (for better or for worse!) … Even the White House recognized AWM as a serious organization by inviting its President to a luncheon for women’s professional group leaders in honor of Women’s Business Day.”

Keeping with AWM tradition, Linda organized a panel (at the January 1983 Meetings in Denver) addressing issues of “Mathematics and Computers” well before this topic became fashionable in the larger mathematics community.21 She also took care to balance research/education concerns by organizing panels on grantsmanship (“Getting them and keeping them,” Albany, August 1983)22 and, with Kay Gilliland of EQUALS, on how teachers of mathematics can encourage girls in their classes (Eugene, August 1984).

But “of the various panels I put together for the national meetings,” Linda writes, “perhaps the most applauded was the one honoring Lipman Bers on his seventieth birthday [at the Louisville Meetings in January 1984] for his contribution to nurturing the success of so many female graduate students.” Echoing the sentiments felt by many of us, she adds, “If only there had been ten others like him, think how many more women mathematicians there might be!”23

Linda Rothschild

Linda Rothschild

Linda described the session in the March-April 1984 AWM Newsletter: “The lecture hall was filled with people who wanted to find out the secret of the `Bers’ mystique. We learned first hand that the statistics are truly remarkable. Professor Bers had had 40 Ph.D. students of whom 16 were women. The panelists, Tilla Milnor, Irwin Kra, Jane Gilman, Jozef Dodzuik and Linda Keen (moderator), all former Bers students, told fascinating stories about their experiences in graduate school …”

What was it that made Bers such a good advisor of women students? Linda Keen provides some insights. “He gave us all, and probably the women needed it more, a confidence in our own abilities. He took it for granted that we would expect to have families and that we would continue anyway.”

Linda Keen (1985-1987): Kovalevsky Symposium, Robinson Memorial, ICM-86

Linda Keen recalls highlights of her stint as AWM President. “The first highlight was the Sonya Kovalevsky celebration run by the AWM at Radcliffe together with the Mary Bunting Institute [in October 1985]. This was a two part affair. The first was a program for high school seniors, held on the
campus–organized by Bemice Auslander and Pamela Coxon with help from the whole Boston group. There were talks about mathematics as well as talks about careers. The students had lunch together and had a chance to talk informally to a number of women mathematicians.” This event was to become the model for the many Sonya Kovalevsky High School Days sponsored since by the AWM.24

From left to right: Lenore Blum, Carol Wook, Judy Green, Linda Keen.

From left to right: Lenore Blum, Carol Wook, Judy Green, Linda Keen.

“The second part of the affair,” Linda continues, “was more `my baby.’ It was a serious mathematical conference on the theme of mathematics that had grown out of Kovalevsky’s work. There were about ten speakers, more than half women.” Three special sessions (organized by Jane Cronin Scanlon, Lesley Sibner, and Jean Taylor) in conjunction with the Kovalevsky Symposium were held at the AMS meeting in Amherst two days earlier. The Legacy of Sonya Kovalevskaya, a collection of papers25 presented at both events and edited by Linda, was published in 1987 (AMS, Contemporary Mathematics, volume 64).26

“Then there was the Julia Robinson Memorial session sponsored jointly by the AWM, the AMS, and the MAA [New Orleans, January 1986]. It was really a super affair with great talks.” Constance Reid, Julia’s sister and biographer of mathematicians, spoke about Julia’s life.27 Lisl Gaal gave a brief description of Julia’s thesis, and Martin Davis a retrospective of her mathematics. Lisl quoted Julia: “When I am dead I hope I shall not be remembered by anecdotes, but for my work.”

Julia Robinson was a great mathematician. Her work was instrumental in the solution of Hilbert’s tenth problem. She was the embodiment of firsts for contemporary women in mathematics: the first woman President of the AMS, the first woman mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman mathematician to receive a MacArthur award. Julia was not an active AWM member, but supportive in private ways. As she became more involved in public life, her support increased. As Vice-President of the AMS, she intervened when the Council would not consider a motion to move a meeting from a non-ERA state because the motion was not already on the agenda. Julia pointed out this was an emergency situation. The motion passed and the meeting was moved. Linda recalls that when Julia was AMS President “she really made sure women were placed on important committees–and was very supportive to me, both as Council member and as President of the AWM.” Julia Robinson was a “role model” for many of us long before we understood what that expression meant. She will continue to be a source of inspiration for a very long time.

A final highlight of Linda’s term was the ICM-86 in Berkeley. “Our program at that meeting was a real success as you know,” Linda writes. “There were nine panelists from ten countries and five continents.28 “The forming of the European Women in Mathematics was a long range after effect … .”

“There was also the sturm and drang about the number of women invited to the ICM.” At the AWM panel, Linda read a resolution she had earlier presented to the ICM Executive Committee concerning the selection of women (and those in other groups) as Congress speakers. This resolution was endorsed by the 400 attendees at our meeting.29 “This brought us to the attention of the international community and as you saw [at the ICM-90 in Kyoto] many are now more sensitive to the issue.”

Gender, Mathematics and Science.

In the mid-1980s, there was a flurry of work by a group of feminist theorists on gender and science. In commentary fairly critical of this work, Ann Hibner Koblitz succinctly summarized the main ideas behind the theory. “Put in its most general guise, the new ‘gender theory’ says that centuries of male domination of science have affected its content–what questions are asked and what answers are found–and that ‘science’ and ‘objectivity’ have become inextricably linked to concepts and ideologies of masculinity.” She then lists eight criticisms of which I will mention only two, namely that gender theorists “seem unaware of the increasing numbers of women who have had satisfying lives as scientists” and “employ cartoon-character stereotypes of science, scientists, men, and women.” (See “A Historian Looks at Gender and Science,” AWM Newsletter, July-August 1986.)

A letter from Mary Beth Ruskai in the May-June 1986 Newsletter expressed concerns felt by many of us “that a few very vocal and visible sociologists are succeeding in promulgating opinions that are detrimental to the advancement of women in science.”

Ruskai discusses a rash of articles in the popular press where arguments presented by gender theorists invoke a number of stereotypical misconceptions. For example, she points out that “instead of being concerned that women with an aptitude for computing, science, and mathematics were going into other fields” some advocates of the theory see this as a virtue–women are not interested in science because it does not deal with subtleties. Ruskai is critical of the dichotomous distinction between “artistic” and “technical,” the cures for math/physics anxiety devoid of proper math preparation, the recurrent idea “that women are more intuitive than men, where intuition and logic are perceived as opposites.” She calls for AWM to take a stand. Ruskai’s letter generated more response than anything else that had ever appeared in the AWM Newsletter— a number of responses are contained in the November- December 1986 issue. Here, for example, Marriane Nichols expresses an alternate point of view. Namely, she argues, if we understand “the biases that do exist in math and science today,” then we can “see how they limit what we can know and understand. From there one perhaps can begin to expand and enrich these fields.”30

Rhonda Hughes (1987-1989): Acceptance by the Establishment, AMS Centennial, Travel Grants, Schafer Prize

“By the time I became AWM President,” writes Rhonda Hughes, “the organization had clearly gained the acceptance of the mathematics establishment (whether we wanted it or not). I could tell, because all sorts of people began to talk to me who had never done so before. (This sort of thing should not, however, go to one’s head. As soon as my term ended, some of these same people started calling me `Jill’…).”

While very much a participant in establishment activities, AWM was still mindful of its unique perspective and role in the mathematics community during Rhonda’s term. The AWM “Response to the David Report” (San Antonio, January 1987) focused on initiatives for women and minorities.31 Panelist Fern Hunt emphasized the need to increase the diversity of people doing mathematical research, not only from a political or social point of view, but to promote the “diversity of ideas–one of the prerequisites for progress in mathematics.” So to the famous (or infamous) line from the film Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects!” she would add, “And round up the unusual ones too!” Louise Raphael discussed NSF initiatives for women and minorities and also shared a key factor which helped her reenter mathematical research. “Namely, it is essential to find collaborators who share the same mathematical interest.” Other panelists were John Polking and Parry Simon; Lida Barrett moderated.

AWM’s presence was very much in evidence at the AMS Centennial Celebration, held in Providence in August 1988.32 The AWM panel, “Centennial Reflections on Women in American Mathematics,” focused on a century of contributions and experiences of women mathematicians. Judy Green and Jeanne LaDuke discussed their findings on the substantial presence of female Ph.D.s in American mathematics before World War II–and the dramatic decline after the war–as well as more recent history. Mabel Barnes, Olga Taussky-Todd, and Vivienne Mayes-Malone reflected on their own experiences, giving us a rare and personal accounting of this history as well as a unique glimpse into their own lives.

Mabel Barnes (Emerita Professor at Occidental College and mother of algebraist Lynne Barnes Small) told of her experiences in the early 1930s at the newly established Institute for Advanced Study: “Even in remote Nebraska I heard about a place called the Institute for Advanced Study opening up in Princeton. I applied for admission and was accepted … Soon after I arrived, the Director of the School of Mathematics took me aside and warned me that Princeton was not accustomed to women in its halls of learning and I should make myself as inconspicuous as possible. However, otherwise I found a very friendly atmosphere and spent a valuable and enjoyable year there. Had I not gone East, I would not have met Olga Taussky as early as I fortunately did.”

Olga Taussky-Todd cited the time in 1958 when she was invited to give a one-hour lecture at an AMS meeting, the first woman since Emmy Noether in 1934. “At such an occasion the chairman usually says a few kind words by way of introduction. I trained myself to say `thank you for your kind words.’ ” she recalled. “However, he only mentioned my name and Caltech and I almost thanked him for his `kind words.’ ” The fact that she studied and worked in several countries allowed Olga to observe a number of facts about “the behavior” and “treatment” of women over the years. “Now we live with Women’s Lib and it has not only changed the opportunities for women, but also their behavior towards each other. Women are now `friends’ of women colleagues … ”

Vivienne Malone-Mayes, the only black math professor at Baylor, spoke of being a black woman graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1950s. This was a time when blacks could not be T.A.s nor join their classmates for discussion at segregated cafes. “I can personally vouch that my personal isolation … was absolute and complete … At times I felt that I might as well have been taking a correspondence course,” Vivienne recalled. “The history of black women in mathematics (based upon the parameter of Ph.D.s) … is only recent history in comparison with the centennial of years since the first white female Ph.D.” she pointed out. The first white woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in the U.S. was Winifred Edgerton Merrill (Columbia University, 1886). The first black women to be awarded math Ph.D.s were Marjorie Lee Browne (at Michigan under G.Y. Rainich) and Evelyn Boyd Granville (at Yale under Einar Hille), both in 1949. “It should be noted,” Vivienne added, “that many of the dissertation advisors received criticism for sponsoring these black female doctoral candidates. Their courage must be acknowledged as an important factor in the careers of these mathematicians . . . ”33

Reflecting on her presidency, Rhonda points to growing pains as well as significant achievements. “In my time, we still seemed plagued by the research-education tension in our membership. This appears to be less of a problem now, with the wide range of programs and activities we’ve taken on.” On the positive side she concludes, “I am most pleased with the establishment of the Travel Grant program, and the Schafer Prize. Seeing all those bright undergraduate women receiving awards in Columbus [Joint Meetings, August 1990] symbolized for me the whole point of AWM. And once they become mathematicians, the Travel Grant program might further help their professional development.”

Louise Hay Award.

It seems most fitting here to make special mention of the Hay award, established by the AWM to recognize contributions to mathematics education, but especially to talk about Louise, who was very much part of the foundation and fabric of the AWM. Indeed, she was slated to have become AWM President in 1991.

Louise Hay died on October 28, 1989 at the age of 54. She had been a faculty member and Head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago for many years and had a profound effect on women students there like Rhonda Hughes. At the AWM meeting in Louisville, January 1990, Rhonda delivered a deeply moving testimonial. As Rhonda spoke, I thought of the time I first met Louise. It was the year I started to work on my thesis and Louise was visiting MIT on an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. I remember being startled to see a woman’s name on a math faculty door, but even more startled to see Louise. Since I had never seen a woman mathematician before, I had imagined her to fit the common stereotype of the time–and certainly that was not what I saw! As Rhonda, I too was impressed by “her unusual combination of youth, vivacity, and mathematical reputation.” She was a living role model.


Louise Hay

Louise Hay

Louise was intimately connected with the origins and growth of the AWM, particularly in the Chicago area. In “Fond Remembrances of Louise Hay” (AWM Newsletter, January-February 1990), Rhonda recalls Louise’s support and encouragement from the beginning: “Inspired by AWM’s founding, Nancy Johnson (Louise’s Ph.D. student) and I organized the women graduate students and faculty in the department for the general purpose of raising our own consciousness, and that of the men around us. We had a huge crowd at our first meeting (those were heady days!), and one woman who had been on the faculty for many years expressed the hope that we wouldn’t make waves. `And what’s wrong with making waves?’ Louise retorted … ”

Over the years, Louise supported all facets of AWM activities. “I last saw Louise in Atlanta in January 1988, when I invited her to speak in the AWM panel discussion `Is the Climate for Women in Mathematics Changing?’ ” Rhonda remembers. “She always seemed to say things you wouldn’t hear others say. I can’t imagine anyone but Louise paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, `Women will not achieve equality until they have earned the right to be hacks … not everyone is a genius.’ ”34

Jill Mesirov (1989-1991): Looking outward, the Twentieth Anniversary

In her President’s Report in the AWM Newsletter (January- February 1991), Jill Mesirov presents an impressive list of AWM activities during the past two years: panels, Sonya Kovalevsky High School Days, graduate student outreach, Schafer Prize and Hay Award, Resource Center development, Twentieth Anniversary celebration, Noether Lectures, outreach to other societies, Speakers Bureau, Travel Grant program. This multifaceted array of activities represents a truly remarkable testimony to Jill’s presidency as well as to the cumulative work and accomplishments of the AWM during the past twenty years. We seem to have resolved our identity crisis by doing it all!

“I think of the past two years as a time when the AWM began to look outward to the rest of the mathematical sciences community,” Jill writes in one of our many email conversations. “Our major success in this was the beginning of an ongoing presence at SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics] National Meetings … My goal in these efforts was to broaden our representation, influence, and activities beyond the AMS and MAA. And I think this is happening.”

“I also think of the last two years as a kind of `coming of age’ ” she continues. “We have really expanded the scope of our activities … I think that our relationship with NSF has become quite strong and vital over the past couple of years. They really view us as giving lots of value for the money they invest in our programs and are very keen these days to fund programs to encourage women and minorities in the sciences.35 Exxon has also been an important partner for us, giving us yearly grants towards our operating expenses as well as to support the complete revision of the Resource Center.36 Tricia [Cross, AWM Executive Director] has really been vital in building up this relationship.”

But, as is characteristic of all superachievers, Jill sees projects yet undone, some very close to home. “One area that I wasn’t able to make progress on (directly or indirectly),” she points out “is the two career family and children issue. One can’t do everything I guess. It’s funny because in many ways this is something that is really important to me because it really has an impact on my life everyday.”

Nevertheless, Jill’s enthusiasm is hardly dampened. “It’s been a crazy two years, exhilarating, overwhelming, frustrating, rewarding. Believe it or not, I really enjoyed it!”

How things are … (An assessment)

Did the AWM make a difference? “My God yes” responds Judy Roitman. It was not uncommon for major women mathematicians to be unemployed; young women were routinely discouraged; the few who persevered were usually treated badly; and role models were few and far between.”

One need only look at the program for this Joint Meeting (See Notices, December 1990) to sense the very real involvement of women in the mathematical world today–a stark contrast to Atlantic City twenty years ago! As Carol Wood puts it, “women are everywhere dense.” Invited speakers include: Christel Rotthaus (AMS/AWM/MAA), Rebecca Herb (AMS/MAA), Maria Klawe (AMS) and Jill Mesirov (MAA). Dusa McDuff is the first recipient of the AMS Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize, established by Joan Birman in memory of her sister to recognize an outstanding contribution to mathematics research by a woman.37

In the professional organizations and institutions, we are no longer on the outside but rather play key roles within the internal power structure. Witness Deborah Haimo taking over the presidency of the MAA from Lida Banett as Marcia Sward, MAA Executive Director, looks on!38 In the AMS, women are Vice-Presidents, Trustees, Council members, and chairs of important committees; Julia Robinson was AMS President (1983-1984). Cathleen Morawetz has been Director of the Courant Institute, Judith Sunley is Director of Division of Mathematical Sciences at the NSF. Women mathematicians have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, received MacArthur “genius” awards, Sloan Fellowships, Guggenheims, Presidential Young Investigator awards, and routinely, NSF fellowships and research grants. At ICM-90 in Kyoto last summer, six women gave 45 minute invited talks39 and Karen Uhlenbeck gave the first of fifteen plenary addresses. Of the five U.S. delegates40 to the International Mathematical Union General Assembly, three were women–all AWM members.

During the past twenty years, the percentage of U.S. women receiving Ph.D.s in mathematics has increased dramatically, from about 6% to over 20% per year. (See the Annual AMS-MAA Survey, Notices, November 1990.) But curiously, although there was a significant jump in the number of new female Ph.D.s in mathematics during the early 1970s, we find since then that the number has stayed amazingly steady (except for a peak of 102 in 1980-1981), averaging at eighty-six per year. What has happened is the number of U.S. male Ph.D.s in mathematics during this period has dropped by more than half (from 658 in 1974- 1975 to 312 in 1989-1990). While a number of far-reaching conclusions and speculations may be drawn, suffice it to say that, relatively speaking, women have gained ground in this domain.

How much of the changes are due to the AWM and how much to the times in general? “This is a false question,” Judy Roitman contends. “The AWM is the expression in the mathematical community of the broader feminist movement … But without the AWM or some similar group (and I think it was an act of brilliance to form it outside of the existing mathematical organizations rather than a caucus within …) the changes for women would have been fuzzier and less specific, driven by affirmative action necessities (which are pretty minimal) and vague changes in public perception, and not directed by our own understanding of what has to be done.”

next up previous
Next:Where We’re Going Up:2. The Second Decade Previous:1. How It Was

“A Brief History of the Association for Women in Mathematics: The Presidents’ Perspectives,” by Lenore Blum.
Notices of the AMS 38(7), reprinted in AWM Newsletters 21(6) and 22(1)
Copyright ©1991, 2018 American Mathematical Society. Reprinted with permission.
Brought to you by the Association for Women in Mathematics.