Math is a (Wo) man's Subject
BY M. ELAINE HARVEY
I would like you to consider this article as a wine-taster would taste wine. - Approach with an open mind and no preconceived opinion, sniff the bouquet and enjoy the fragrance. Risk taking a sip and swirl it around in your mouth. If you favour the old flavours, don't dismiss this one on a whim; give it a second chance by checking it out another day.
Western society in general has been patriarchal since the time of recorded history. Men have held the powerful positions, and it is men's history that has been recorded. Analyze the amount of air time given to men and to women on radio and television. Analyze the amount of space given each sex in the newspaper, and you will see we still live in a male-dominated society.
Until recently in the western world, women have been excluded from formal education. Many subjects, including mathematics, have been considered out of their realm. Frequently when a woman asks a man how to do something, he does it for her and she never has the experience of trying for herself under the direction of someone who understands the process.
We are very sex-conscious. We tend to label objects, ideas, and practices as either male or female. We have Mother Earth, Father Time, male logic, female intuition, male and female hose connections. Many feminists would avoid the duality of male/female and prefer to consider human qualities, accepting female/male as two poles in a continuum. In fact, this is a key message of feminism. Patriarchy sees black and white. Feminism sees shades of grey. Patriarchy sees right and wrong. Feminism sees degrees of rightness.
Classifying is one of the means by which men's ideas have dominated the western world; classification is a male-created thing. It is men who have classified plants and animals, who have identified and classified learning disabilities, and who have identified and classified the academic disciplines. It was also men who divided mathematics into various branches: algebra, calculus, trigonometry, statistics, geometry, etc.
It was perhaps these divisions, and their hard sounding names, that prompted one woman to write the following comment:
On the eighth day, God created mathematics. He took stainless steel, and he rolled it out thin, and he made it into a fence, forty cubits high, and infinite cubits long. And on this fence, in fair capitals, he did print rules, theorems, axioms and pointed reminders. "Invert and multiply." "The square on the hypotenuse is three decibels louder than one hand clapping." "Always do what's in the parentheses first." And when he was finished, he said "On one side of this fence will reside those who are good at math. And on the other will remain those who are bad at math, and woe unto them, for they shall weep and gnash their teeth."
Math does make me think of a stainless steel wall-hard, cold, smooth, offering no handhold, all it does is glint back at me. Edge up to it, put your nose against it, it doesn't take your shape, it doesn't have any smell, all it does is make your nose cold. I like the shine of it-it does look smart, in an icy way. But I resent its cold impenetrability, its supercilious glare. (1)