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Trailblazers: Inspiring Women Mathematicians Who Changed the World

Women are rad, have always been, and will continue to be! Women find their way into every field no matter the obstacles they face. Like with mathematics. Whether ancient Greece or modern Iran, women mathematicians have made their mark, always.

Throughout history, there is proof that women have broken barriers, achieved what society thought they could not, and set trails ablaze. While their stories are often relegated to the footnotes or hidden, their achievements are a testament to women everywhere.

As a woman who grew up loving math and logic and science in general (though biology was and remains my favorite), I am always looking up to these inspiring women trailblazers. Whether they are women mathematicians, scientists, athletes, politicians, artists, or .. you get the gist, whatever they are, they inspire me! So today (March 8th – on Women’s Day), I am sharing a few of these historical

Trailblazers: Inspiring Women Mathematicians

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Jules Maurice Gaspard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First up, Hypatia of Alexandria. In an era when women were denied formal education, Hypatia dared to defy convention, becoming one of the foremost mathematicians and philosophers of her time. She lived in Alexandria from about 350–370 to 415 C.E. (source).

Check out these books to learn more about this early STEM trailblazer! I loved both these children’s books below.

  • Hypatia: Explorer of Geometry (STEM Super-heroines) by Brittany Goris and Jessica Christianson (Children’s Biographies | 5 – 9 years, and up)
  • Hypatia by Sophia Zoraki and Stamatis Papadakis, edited by Elisavet Arkolaki with art by Nikos Yanopulos. Translation by Millie Slavidou and a Foreword from Nikos Pagonis (Children’s Biographies | 5 – 9 years, and up)

Émilie du Châtelet

Fast forward to the Age of Enlightenment (the 18th century), and we find ourselves looking at Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749). She was a French mathematician and physicist, best known for her translation and commentary on Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Check out the book Seduced by Logic : Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution by Robyn Arianrhod to learn more about her (and Mary Somerville as well, another mathematician).

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Just a decade or so later, and across the border, in Italy, was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, known as ‘The Witch of Agnesi!’ Not really a witch people wanted to burn at the stake but a moniker earned by Agnesi due to her mastery of math.

Maria Agnesi (1718 – 1799) was an Italian mathematician and philosopher, considered to be the first woman in the Western world to have achieved a reputation in mathematics. She is known for her work on differential calculus and for writing one of the first textbooks on calculus.

Do read Massimo Mazzotti’s brilliant biography of Agnesi titled The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God 

Wang Zhenyi

Taking a trip east and traveling in time a few decades away, we encounter Wang Zhenyi (1768–1797). She was a Qing dynasty astronomer, mathematician and poet — and one of the greatest scientists in Chinese history. She was born into a family of intellectuals, and both her grandfather and father defied societal norms to tutor her in various subjects that women were excluded from in those days, including astronomy, mathematics, geography, and more. Her grandmother inculcated her love of poetry.

Read more about Zhenyi here.

Sophie Germain

Heading back to Europe, we find Sophie Germain (1776–1831). She was a French mathematician who made significant contributions to number theory (primarily, the theory of primes!) and elasticity theory. Her pioneering work laid the groundwork for future advancements in mathematics and inspired generations of women mathematicians around the world.

Nothing Stopped Sophie : The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Barbara McClintock (4 – 8 years, and up)


Ada Lovelace

Next up, in England, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), a mathematician and writer, often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She truly deserved her nickname “The Enchantress of Numbers,” as her insights into Babbage’s Engine laid the foundation for modern computing and opened new vistas of mathematical possibility.

You can find a wealth of information in these children’s biographies of Ada, as well as these written for older readers. Some of my favorites include the Rebel Girls chapter book on Ada, the Little People Big Dreams book, as well as the one below:

Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson (6 – 9 years, and up)

Beautiful – in both art and narrative!

Emmy Noether

And then, traveling to Germany, we find Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935). Her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics shaping the very fabric of modern science. Noether’s theorem, a cornerstone of modern physics, stands as a testament to her intellect and ingenuity.

Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of by Helaine Becker with illustrations by Kari Rust (6 – 9 years, and up)

My review of the book is here.

Check out this etheree I wrote about her in this post.

Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke (1883–1959) was a pioneering electrical engineer and the first female professional electrical engineer in the United States. Her background in mathematics helped her achieve fame in her field. One example of this was her use of hyperbolic functions for calculating the maximum power that a line could carry without instability. This was groundbreaking at the time, and her paper helped provide a model for large power systems.

Introduce young readers to this powerhouse of a trailblazer through Jan Lower’s The Brilliant Calculator: How Mathematician Edith Clarke Helped Electrify America. With illustrations by Susan Reagan, this book is a delightful detailed biography of Clarke.

Lillian R. Lieber

Lillian Rosanoff Lieber (1886–1986), a Russian-American mathematician and author, collaborated frequently with her illustrator husband, Hugh Gray Lieber, to create engaging works that combined mathematical concepts with artistic expression.

Her books, written in free verse, illustrated by her husband, explained concepts like non-Euclidean geometry, lattice theory, and Einstein’s theory of relativity in an approachable way. She used the acronym T.C. MITS in many of her books (even in the titles). It was an acronym for “The Celebrated Man In The Street,” and was the vehicle through which she brought mathematical and physics concepts to the general public. 

I am now looking at her books and they are sure interesting reads. Here are my first picks:

Mary Golda Ross

Mary Golda Ross (1908–2008), a Cherokee mathematician, was the first Native American female engineer at Lockheed. As a student, Ross excelled in math and science and later earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from what is now Northeastern State University.

She played a pivotal role in aerospace design and the secretive Skunk Works project. Dedicated to advancing women and Native Americans in STEM, her legacy lives on, honored on the 2019 Native American $1 Coin.

Interesting aside (for me): Ross was a Bay Area resident (lived in Los Altos, California) after her retirement from Lockheed in 1973 until her death.

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell with illustrations by Natasha Donovan (7 – 11 years, and up)

Discover the story of how a math-loving girl blazed a trail for herself and others in this book.

Katherine Johnson

Creola Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was a pioneering American mathematician whose precise orbital calculations were instrumental in the success of early NASA crewed spaceflights. Many of us know of her from the Hidden Figures book/movie.

Over her 33-year tenure at NASA, she earned renown for her mastery of complex manual calculations and was a trailblazer in advocating for computer-based computation. Notably, Johnson broke barriers as one of the first African-American women to serve as a NASA scientist, leaving an indelible mark on space exploration history.

There is a whole plethora of books about Katherine Johnson, and I have read many of them over the years. I loved each one of them, and listing just one below:

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker with illustrations by Dow Phumiruk (3 – 6 years, and up)

My review of this book is here.

Shakuntala Devi

Then in India, there was Shakuntala Devi (1929–2013). She got the moniker “Human Computer” for her extraordinary mental calculation abilities that astounded audiences from a tender age. Even as a child of three, Devi’s prodigious memory and knack for solving card tricks captured attention, captivating crowds alongside her trapeze artist father.

Over the years, she effortlessly computed vast numbers in her mind, a skill that would later transcend circus performances to earn admiration from both machines and mathematicians worldwide. She authored many books to teach her mathematical tips and techniques. A couple below:

Maryam Mirzakhani

From the crowds of India to the bustling streets of Iran, where we find Maryam Mirzakhani (1977 – 2017), the first woman to win the Fields Medal for her groundbreaking work in hyperbolic geometry and dynamics. Her legacy serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for future generations of mathematicians. Her research spanned various topics, including Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, and symplectic geometry.

Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid with illustrations by Aaliya Jaleel (4 – 8 years, and up)

Maryam’s math magic shines through the pages of this book.

You can check out more books about her here.

Q. E. D.

These are but a few of the countless women mathematicians whose contributions have shaped the course of mathematical inquiry. Their stories remind us that intellect knows no gender, and that the pursuit of knowledge is a universal endeavor that transcends the boundaries of time and space.

I have knowingly and unknowingly left out many other brilliant women from this list (including Sofia Kovalevskaya, Dorothy Vaughn, Raye Montague, and so many more mathematicians). But they are part of this astounding legacy and as we celebrate the achievements of women mathematicians past and present, let us not forget the countless unsung heroines whose names may never grace the pages of history books. Let us work towards finding them and shouting out their achievements from rooftops everywhere!

It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul. – Sofia Kovalevskaya

Related Reads

And Now, the End of This Post

Dear reader, which of these women inspires you the most? And which book would you pick up first? Do share your favorite, most inspiring women in STEM and books about them with me.

image shows the hair of a girl bending over some school work doing math. pin title says Trailblazers: Inspiring Women Mathematicians Who Changed the World

10 thoughts on “Trailblazers: Inspiring Women Mathematicians Who Changed the World

  1. What an inspiring tribute to Hypatia of Alexandria! It’s truly remarkable how she defied societal norms and made significant contributions to mathematics and philosophy during a time when women were often marginalized.

  2. A great round-up of inspirational women! I am proud of the fact that my daughter is an engineer. Women have all the skills which men have – when they are allowed to use them!

  3. It’s truly incredible how these pioneering female mathematicians reshaped the world with their groundbreaking contributions. Their determination and brilliance have left an indelible mark on the field, inspiring generations of mathematicians and women to come!

  4. What a remarkable journey through the lives of these pioneering women in mathematics! Reading about Hypatia’s courage and determination in an era that was far from welcoming to women’s intellectual pursuits is truly inspiring.

  5. What an inspiring and comprehensive tribute to women mathematicians! Your enthusiasm for celebrating these trailblazing women shines through every word. I appreciate how you’ve highlighted the diverse backgrounds and achievements of these remarkable individuals, spanning different cultures and time periods. It’s evident that you’ve put a lot of care and research into showcasing their contributions to mathematics and beyond.

    Your inclusion of recommended books provides a fantastic resource for readers eager to learn more about these extraordinary women. I’m particularly drawn to the way you’ve curated selections for various age groups, ensuring that everyone, from young children to adults, can find inspiration in these stories. It’s wonderful to see such a thoughtful approach to sharing these narratives.

    The way you emphasize the importance of recognizing both the well-known figures and the lesser-known heroines is particularly resonant. It’s a powerful reminder that behind every celebrated name, there are countless others whose achievements deserve acknowledgment. Your call to continue seeking out and amplifying these stories is both inspiring and necessary.

    Overall, your passion for honoring the legacy of women in STEM is palpable, and your dedication to uplifting their stories is commendable. Thank you for sharing such an enriching and empowering collection of narratives.

  6. These are inspiring authors, that are women. My son love math, I will have to asked him if he heard of these inspiring women. thanks for sharing them with us.

  7. wow.. did not know about many of them.. Shakuntla Devi for sure since she is from India.. but these women are such an inspiration..

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