By Joy Rankin
After excelling at math throughout elementary school, my eighth grade Honors Algebra teacher - a woman - proclaimed that girls were not capable of the abstraction required by mathematics from that point on. My story was not – and is not – uncommon. Girls and young women are still discouraged from math at all levels, and I’ve been increasingly curious about where this pernicious idea came from, how people have tried to address it, and why it persists.
This semester, I’m teaching a senior seminar in Histories of Computing and Gender, in part so that I can begin to answer my own questions. One thread of this gendered story points clearly to Victorian England, and to the University of Cambridge. Cambridge and mathematics were inseparable in the scholarly and popular imagination during the nineteenth century, in ways that were acutely gendered.
I remind my students that gender is not a synonym for women, and that studying gender is not a history of “men versus women.” Rather, gender is about how social relationships are structured based on perceived differences between the sexes. I emphasize relationships and perception: gender is about what happens between and among individuals, families, groups, institutions, and even nations. And thinking historically about gender means asking how the boundary lines between sexes were staked out, described, and challenged at particular moments in time. Finally, gender is about signifying power.
The Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge during the nineteenth century exemplified gender at work. The Tripos was a grueling university examination, lasting hours each day over the course of several days. As scholars including Andrew Warwick and Claire Jones point out, the Tripos was not an exam taken only by young men interested in mathematics. It was viewed as essential preparation for life for any middle- or upper-class British boy. The men preparing for it endured hours of rigorous coaching and drilling in memorization, quick problem solving, and different analytical approaches. When they weren’t mentally preparing for the exam, they participated in vigorous physical exercise and competitive team sport to strengthen their bodies and their minds.
Indeed, in his book Masters of Theory, Warwick argues that over the course of the nineteenth century, the associations among Cambridge mathematics, athleticism, and quintessential British masculinity grew to be intertwined. Symbolically, the Tripos was not just an exam - it was a demonstration of manliness. Performing well on the exam assured a young man leadership in Victorian society. To be an upstanding, admired man in England, no matter the occupation, he had to perform well on the Tripos.
The gendered relationship between the exam and the nation was underscored by the public announcement of how each man performed on the exam, in order from best to worst (the “order of merit”) and by the publication of those results in national newspapers, which started with the Times in 1825. The men who scored well on the exam were known as “Wranglers.” The highest-scoring man was the “Senior Wrangler,” the second highest was the “Second Wrangler,” and so on. The Mathematics Tripos represented the power of elite, educated, white, Anglican masculinity in Victorian England. Then women started taking the Tripos. And the relationship between mathematics and gender changed.
Emily Davies, the principal founder of Girton College, the first women’s college at Cambridge, was understandably zealous about promoting higher education for women. Thus, she insisted that all of her women students prepare for and take the Tripos. No matter their academic interest or even if they aspired to marriage, Davies pushed all students to the Maths Tripos. The exam represented the culmination of young British intellectual achievement, so for Davies and her students, it became a powerful symbol of potential. Davies reasoned that if her women students performed well on the examination, the nation would recognize that women had a place in colleges and beyond – alongside their male peers.
Yet, for the Girton women, preparing for the Tripos held a different set of challenges compared with the men. As Jones points out in her excellent book Femininity, Mathematics, and Science, 1880-1914, the women entered college generally far less prepared than the men because girls’ schools at the time rarely offered the requisite mathematics courses. Similarly, the male coaches (or tutors) for the Tripos rarely wanted to accept female students. Here, the dynamics of gender were displayed again. The identity of a coach was intertwined with the performance of his students: the better they performed, the more exulted and better paid he was. Most coaches were reluctant to tutor the women because the coaches feared that the women’s presumably poor results would diminish their social status, which had become intricately tied to their masculinity. When women were coached, they received tutoring for much shorter periods of time than the men, and in a “more gentle style” (Jones, 24). When women started taking the Tripos on a formal basis in 1882, they were unofficially ranked alongside the men but did not receive degrees.
Despite all of these obstacles and limitations, women began performing quite well on the Tripos. In 1890 Philippa Fawcett, a student at Newnham, the other Cambridge women’s college at the time, placed at the top of the order of merit with the highest score on the Tripos that year. Fawcett’s score was not officially recognized, while the man with the highest score, though lower than hers, was the “senior wrangler.” Philippa’s outstanding achievement was celebrated – and sometimes mocked – in the national and international press. In a patronizing statement thinly veiled as a compliment, the Telegraph reported, “This result…removes from our minds one of those lingering doubts which have sometimes interfered with the full and frank admission of feminine superiority” (quoted in Jones, 17).
When women began succeeding on the Tripos, British society devalued the exam. The Tripos lost its symbolic importance as the apex of young masculine virtuosity. As women began earning high places (unofficially) in the order of merit, success on the examination was increasingly viewed as “indicative of hard work and dull minds” (Jones, 29). Men who still performed well on the examination downplayed their efforts in preparation, while men who performed poorly were excused for their “mathematical creativity and a marked potential for research” (Jones, 29). When women did well on the Tripos, the result was not that women were considered equals to the men in intellect and reputation; rather, the exam shed its closely-knit gendered associations of masculinity and prestige. When women achieved success on the Tripos, the Tripos lost its symbolic power.
The women who successfully wrangled with the Tripos demonstrated that they could, in fact, do mathematics – just as well as any man, if not better. But to contemporaries, the women’s success “indicated that the Tripos has been ‘dumbed-down’” (Jones, 30). Rather than becoming a symbol of success for young British men and women, the Tripos lost its place in the pantheon of British manliness and power. These unofficial lady wranglers had cleared major hurdles, and then society declared that the race no longer mattered.
Claire G. Jones, Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880-1914 (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91.5 (1986): 1053-1075.
Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)