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The Journal of Higher Education 73.2 (2002) 305-307

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Book Review

Women Becoming Mathematicians

Women Becoming Mathematicians, by Margaret Murray. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 304 pp. $29.95 ($16.95)

This engaging book explores the personal and professional development of women mathematicians during the 1940s and 1950s, when the number of mathematics PhDs awarded to women dropped to an all-time low. Murray reports the results of in-depth interviews with 36 women mathematicians who struggled against the postwar cultural norms that defined a woman's place as in the home.

The preface and first two chapters provide a historic framework, directing the reader's attention to one significant observation: Between 1910 and 1939, women earned roughly 14% of the mathematics PhDs awarded in this country; since 1980 women have earned over 17%. But during the intervening years that figure dropped to below 5%. During the 1940s and 1950s, in particular, women mathematicians became token minorities, caught between the cultural demands of the "housewives' generation" and their professional ambitions. In subsequent chapters, Murray examines the social, cultural, and personal backgrounds of 36 women mathematicians who earned their doctorates during those two decades. Her goal was to understand, through extensive interviews, how women succeeded in mathematics at a time when social and cultural forces were least supportive--when women mathematicians had to rely most heavily on their own resources to persevere in work they loved.

Chapter 3 explores the family backgrounds of the 36 case studies, introducing various women in the context of their childhood experiences. A conclusion that the reader will begin to formulate is that there were no consistent characteristics or patterns in the early lives of these successful women.

In Chapter 4 Murray notes that for adolescent boys, the pursuit of individual goals and dreams is normally not incompatible with cultural expectations. For teenage girls, however, adolescence is a time of crisis, when the inner drive to follow their own interests comes into direct conflict with the cultural expectations of marriage and motherhood. Murray explores some of the contradictory effects of high school on the women in the study as well as both the barriers and the encouragement they encountered in college.

Chapter 5 explores the graduate school experiences of the 36 women. Murray observes and attempts to explain some dramatic differences between the doctorates awarded in the 1950s compared with the 1940s.

Chapters 4 and 5 both identify many of the colleges and graduate schools [End Page 305] attended by the women in the study, as well as the obstacles they encountered at those institutions and the specific professors who provided encouragement. Readers are likely to have had personal connections with some of these institutions and may recognize the mathematicians named.

In Chapters 6 and 7, we see that the struggle does not end with the achievement of the PhD. One wonders how any woman of that era was able to realize her dreams under such adversity. Today's problems of juggling personal and family responsibilities seem trivial by comparison; yet, even under the darkest of employment conditions, there were lights of reason and compassion enabling most of these women to find satisfying work in mathematics.

In the last chapter Murray outlines five dimensions of personal and professional success based on the 36 interviews. She discusses the interviewees' tendency to attribute their success to factors outside of themselves, such as "luck" or "timing." After reading the book, we may conclude that the success of women mathematicians is not easily explained in terms of family history or environmental factors. The reader may be left with the discomforting thought that the mechanism of their success may always lie hidden in their innermost selves.

Readers will find that this book provides informative, and sometimes surprising, historical background to set the stage for the in-depth interviews. Murray also provides an excellent compilation of references and notes. Descriptions of the lives of the 36 women are dispassionate, yet the reader can connect on a personal level and empathize with the women's experiences. Unlike many authors who take either a "scientific" perspective...


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