Oh mother, it doesn't add up

15th March 1996 at 00:00
Jenny Houssart wants hard facts, not flowers, when it comes to acknowledging the role of women at school and home

Some years ago I sent my mother the only mathematical Mother's Day card I have ever managed to find. The front was covered in calculations about the cost, in time and money, of bringing up a child. Inside it said "Oh! You knew that already?" I had less luck with this year's search for a card and had to settle for something flowery in a pink envelope. It's what mothers are supposed to like. Somehow, even now, the popular image of a mother doesn't overlap with that of a mathematician.

There was a lovely incident at my son's school medical where the doctor side-stepped my specific questions about the graph she was keeping of his height. She replied, speaking slowly and in a rather loud voice, that it was a graph and it went up. She then said (in a normal voice) to the nurse, who was smart enough to understand: "He's still on the second centile."

I refuse to believe that maths and motherhood are incompatible and I have recently searched through historical books about mathematicians to find some mothers. Unfortunately most such books contain few mentions of women.

The balance is partially redressed by Lynn M Osen's Women in Mathematics. It was here, among great mathematicians and some wonderful characters, that I managed to find three mothers. Sonya Kovalevsky's mathematical work was recognised when she was awarded the Bodin prize. The struggle she had to support herself and her daughter after her husband's death is less well known. Mary Somerville is known for a string of mathematical and scientific publications - she was a mother too, and an excerpt from her personal writings describes the difficulties of meeting all the claims on her time.

Emilie de Breteuil is perhaps remembered more for her liaison with Voltaire than for her mathematics, but it is interesting to speculate how the two may have influenced each other's writing. Tragically, Emilie died soon after giving birth to a daughter.

Other books on famous mathematicians proved less helpful. Men of Mathematics by E T Bell wasn't a promising title, but I tried it anyway. I thought I might be lucky reading a chapter which dealt with several members of the same family. This was not the case. The mathematical Bernoullis turned out not only not to be mothers - they didn't even seem to have mothers. The family tree depicted in the book spans three generations but includes only men.

This led me away from thinking about mothers as mathematicians and on to the mothers of mathematicians. Surely nature or nurture must be influential in the formation of youthful mathematicians? Scouring the book again I found many mothers barely mentioned or named, but given little prominence.

There were exceptions, the most famous being the mothers of Gauss and Galois who were both credited with being positive influences on their sons. Weierstrass's mother died while he was a child and though his father re-married, we are told: "The step-mother was a typical German housewife; her influence on the intellectual development of her step-children was probably nil." I have to confess I know nothing about the woman in question, but step-mothers have had a bad press since Cinderella, and this one seems unfairly written off.

Discounting the influence of anyone involved with the bringing up of a child seems unwise. Certainly schools take a positive view, both of the contribution that parents and carers can make, and of their right to be kept informed. In recent years at least, this is likely to include information about maths.

Liaising with parents about mathematics is not an entirely new idea. The oldest book I possess along these lines is a 1968 Nuffield publication entitled Your Child and Mathematics. The book deals mainly with explaining school maths to parents, but there is also some discussion of mathematical opportunities outside school, for example, measuring material or weighing flour. The book is addressed to parents, relatives and adult friends. Mums aren't mentioned, but dad is there, hanging wallpaper using a plumbline.

If that book didn't make W H Cockroft's name and fortune his day was yet to come. The Cockroft report specified that schools should make active efforts to enlist parental support. In recent years there have been large-scale projects to this end such as Impact. It is much more common now to hear of schools holding maths weeks, evenings and assemblies. At one school, parents were asked to provide their children with mathematical fancy dress, making a change from the usual request for tea towels for shepherds.

Such ideas are clearly a good thing in their own right, but should be built on for another reason. Parents are likely to get information about maths in primary schools from the television and other media, which in many ways encourage a negative impression of primary maths teaching. This is all the more reason for parents of both sexes to actually see the true picture for themselves. Schools can and should challenge the standard (misleading) images of both school standards and of mothers. There is no need for them to fall in with the approach of manufacturers of Mother's Day cards.

Jenny Houssart is a lecturer in mathematics education at Nene College, Northamptonshire

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