The Gender of Math

by Brenda Fine
Rightgrrl Contributor

September 23, 1998

As my email address indicates, I am an undergraduate student majoring in Pure Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. The male-to-female ratio in my department is high -- in one of my math courses, I am the only woman in a class of 27. People have said to me, "It must be hard being a woman in the male-dominated field of math. You must have encountered a lot of opposition." Well, they're right. I have encountered a lot of opposition. And it's all been from women.

I applied to university three years ago, and in the process, applied for scholarship. I deliberately avoided scholarships that boasted of allotting a fixed percentage of awards to women. When I won one that didn't, one woman excitedly exclaimed, "Congratulations! It's great that Waterloo finally had a girl to give a math scholarship to!" I was duly offended -- here I was, the top student in my high school, winner of provincial and national distinctions in math, and tutor at a math help centre, but the main reason that I got a scholarship, was because I'm female.

As I write this there are posters in the math building advertising a Women In Math night. Funny -- one of the reasons I decided to pursue math is because it deals with completely abstract -- and therefore genderless -- concepts. But thanks to these sorts of promotions, there are two types of people in the math faculty -- "aspiring mathematicians," and "aspiring female mathematicians." In three years, I guess I'll be Brenda Fine, B.Math, XX.

It occurred to me a few years ago that the feminist movement must hate me. The Rightgrrl feature "Feminism and the Individual" described the contempt that feminists have for women who achieve success without declaring their loyalty to the movement. If the mainstream feminists don't crush me first, I plan to be one of those women. The feminist movement tends to bring gender into domains where it doesn't belong -- as illustrated by "women in math/physics/engineering" promotions -- and deny gender where it does belong -- "In order to achieve equality, you can't be pregnant." Doesn't the feminist movement get confused by all of this?

Planned Parenthood seems to think that valuing the fetus devalues the mother. I wonder if the people who work there tell their kids, "Of course you can bully the little nerd in your class -- considering him to be worthy of respect is insulting to you!" Isn't it amazing what "equality" has come to mean?

I'm all for men and women being treated equally in the workplace. I have to be -- I've read enough accounts of mathematically talented women in the nineteenth century being denied entrance to universities on account of their genders to be able to take my opportunities for granted. But the feminist gendering of my major does not achieve this equality. Nor does denying my possible future (and legitimate!) desire to be a mother as a means of suppressing any potential obstacles to my academic success. My notion of equality is one in which I can retain dignity as a pregnant woman who writes gender nonspecific theorems and proofs -- not one in which I am a biological hermaphrodite whose mathematical proofs bear the only permitted expressions of misplaced femininity.

This article copyright © 1998 by Brenda Fine, and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.