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I was somewhat apprehensive when asked to review this book for a couple of reasons. First, I have never before reviewed a book, but every reviewer has to start somewhere. Second, I was unsure whether I would have the general background knowledge needed to do justice to this review, but the book turns out to be a very good general audience book, so only a small amount of background is needed. And last, what if the book was not interesting to me? This was not a problem. The book drew me in as soon as I looked at the Table of Contents with chapter titles such as "Rugged Individualism and the Mathematical Marlboro Man" , "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?", "Is Mathematics a Young Man's Game?", "Women and Gender Politics", "Double Jeopardy: Gender and Race", and "The quest for Certain and Eternal Knowledge." Also, the women interviewed have achieved success in mathematics, and I wondered what they had to say. I couldn't wait to start reading.
The book is divided into six chapters, each exploring a "myth" about women and mathematics. Each of the first five chapters include a profile (interview) of one or two women mathematicians. The interviews are for me what brought the book alive. Eleven women were interviewed for the book, but only nine profiles are included: Joan Birman, Lenore Blum, Fan Chung, Fern Hunt, Vivienne Malone-Myers, Marian Pour-El, Judy Roitman, Mary Ellen Rudin and Karen Uhlenbeck. There are not many quotes, if any, from the two women (Marcia Groszek and Linda Keen) who were interviewed do not have profiles in the book. I am not familiar with all of these women, but I truly enjoyed each profile. I thought my favorite would be about Joan Birman since she, like me, received her PhD at age 41. But the most compelling one for me was Vivienne Malone-Myers. I'm sure each reader will have a favorite, too.
The book is very readable. Each chapter could be read alone without difficulty. I found the book a joy to read, even when I did not agree with the premise of the author. It would be a great book to give to young women to encourage them to pursue a career in mathematics. I believe it is accessible to most students, perhaps even at the high school level. More than that, I believe men in mathematics should read this book too. It contains valuable insights into how some women perceive the mathematical community, and both men and women can gain by discussing the myths presented in the book. I would certainly encourage women undergraduate students to read this book.
Henrion states that her original task was "to convey the stories of women in mathematics." But as she progressed in the work, her focus became twofold: "(1) to describe central components of the ideology of the mathematics community, and (2) to look at the impact of this ideology on women." I believe she does an admirable job with her original task. The interviews and comments really bring to life the nine women profiled. The ideology is addressed in the layout of the book--discussing myths and how these myths might affect how women perceive mathematics and the mathematics community. The myths addressed are: (1) Mathematicians work in complete isolation, (2) Women and mathematics don't mix, (3) Mathematicians do their best work in their youth, (4) Mathematics and politics don't mix, (5) Only white males do mathematics, (6) Mathematics is a realm of complete objectivity, and (7) Mathematics is non-human. Each of the chapters begins with an essay on one of these myths. They are interesting and easy to read, but I found I did not agree with her analysis in all cases. I also found that my experiences did not always agree with hers or those of the women interviewed. That is as it should be. I would be very interested in how men feel about this book and the opinions in it.
I had three areas of concern as I read the book. First, at least once in the book, the experience of one woman was held as the standard for women in the entire country. Specifically, Karen Uhlenbeck, commenting on the hiring practices at the University of Texas at Austin, says essentially that the "good ole boy" network is how hiring decisions are made there, since there is not enough time to read 750 applications for each job opening. Whether this is a true statement or not, my concern is that we are led to believe this is the norm for the entire country without any other supporting evidence.
Second, all the women who were profiled were born before 1950. Surely there are successful women mathematicians born after 1950, and these women might have a different perspective on the issues discussed in the book. At the very least, their experiences are likely to be very different.
Last, some of the quotes are repeated, and this gives a sense of "deja vu" as you read parts of the book. This might not be noticeable if each chapter is taken separately, but I found it slightly annoying reading through the book.
Although, this is not a concern, I found the sixth chapter which dealt with the sixth and seventh myths above to be the least focused one. It was a philosophical discussion of "Platonism vs Formalism" with no reference to women until the end. There were no profiles of women in the last chapter, making the link between the philosophical issues and women's experience less clear. The other chapters seemed to draw a focus from the women whose profiles accompanied the discussion.
In general, this would be a good book to use to introduce students to women in mathematics. I would especially recommend it to women undergraduate and graduate students and men and women in the general mathematical community. Since it has no mathematics in it, it could easily be read by the general public and might stimulate some discussion that would increase the representation of women in the higher levels of the mathematics community.
Women in Mathematics: the Addition of Difference was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book for 1998. |
Mary Shepherd is Assistant Professor at SUNY College at Potsdam in Potsdam