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Reviewed by:
  • Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880–1914
  • Joan L. Richards (bio)
Femininity, Mathematics and Science, 1880–1914, by Claire G. Jones; pp. ix + 264. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, £55.00, $90.00.

From its title, Claire G. Jones's book might seem extraordinarily specific—particularly when one realizes that the further modifier "in England" could easily and accurately have been added. However, this apparent narrowness masks the real complexity of an [End Page 343] effort to consider the relationship among three huge conceptual fields—femininity, mathematics, and science—each of which changed prodigiously in the twenty-five years before the First World War. The result of Jones's efforts to bring these ideas together is a rich and often rewarding book.

Jones's basic strategy for dealing with the richness of her subject is to focus on two women—Grace Chisholm Young and Hertha Ayrton (née Sarah Phoebe Marks)—who in their lives negotiated the interfaces of femininity, mathematics, and science. Both began their careers as students at Girton College, Cambridge: Ayrton in 1876, Young in 1889. The feminist strategy of this new women's college was to encourage all of its students to attempt the Mathematical Tripos, because it was the most prestigious challenge at the university. Even as they did so, however, the unique prestige of the Mathematical Tripos was being undercut by the growth in popularity of the Natural Science Tripos. Jones sees a connection between these trends: "Women were accepted into the shrinking mathematical community (albeit up to a point) as pure mathematics became configured as a suitable pursuit for the new, elite, educated gentlewoman" (174). Ayrton's scores on this mathematical proving ground placed her in the third class in 1880; Young's placed her in the first class in 1892. Within a decade of finishing the Tripos each woman had married a man whose interests overlapped with her own. As their exam placements suggest, however, Young and Ayrton had different strengths which from their common beginnings grew into very different lives and outlooks.

Jones is at her best when reinterpreting the professional lives of her protagonists. Her portrait of Young is particularly striking. Historians of mathematics have long recognized the fruitful nature of Chisholm's marriage to William Young, which not only produced five children but a remarkable quantity of mathematical work. One of the Youngs' daughters described the dynamic behind the river of research papers that flowed from this marriage as an interplay between her father's creativity and her mother's "unique facility … of correctly interpreting the mind of others" (44). A more recent historian of mathematics took a similar tack when he characterized Young as William's assistant: a woman "perfectly capable of making original contributions of her own but [she] basically needed to see that the flood of ideas that was poured out to her could actually be refined into rigorous theorems and results" (qtd. in Jones 94).

Jones counters these characterizations of Young as an assistant to William's genius by considering the couple as the "Firm of W. H. Young & Co" (93). The product of this company was mathematical publications; its goal was obtaining for William a secure professorial position that would provide the necessary support for the burgeoning Young family. Within this firm, relations were dynamic and ever-changing—sometimes William wrote the papers, sometimes Young did, and often they worked together. It was not always easy for Young to accept that the vast majority of their output had to be credited to William. She could see, however, that it was important she cooperate to create the strongest case possible for him since he was the one who could hope for a job.

Ayrton was considerably less acquiescent than Young in the Victorian image of dependent womanhood. Her husband, William, was already a member of the Royal Society and a professor at Finsbury College when she married him, and their union was childless. This means that Ayrton was never faced with balancing the demands of motherhood against those of her professional life. Rather, her marriage provided her with [End Page 344] an entrée into the masculine world of the engineering laboratory...


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