Jessy Randall: Mathematics for Ladies

Mathematics for Ladies
Poems on Women in Science
by Jessy Randall

Goldsmiths Press, 2022

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor, Escape Into Life

While I first read and responded to this book last August, in a Sealey-Challenge response in my personal blog, I saved our EIL review until now, March, for Women’s History Month, because it is about historical women who rock in math and science! Mathematics for Ladies, by Jessy Randall, is such a delight—compact histories of important, often overlooked, women who excelled in math and science all the way up to now. Humor, pith, fact, attitude, and imagination all combine here, and send us off, inspired, to do further research on our own. Some of these poems are third-person accounts, but many are persona poems, where the “I” tells her own story or gives her own interpretation of things. The many voices find unity in the voice of the poet, and, somehow, in each other—their shared experience, often of injustice; these are voices I believe. Here is Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974):

     I know what’s wrong with men.
     They don’t sit still. They don’t
     write anything down. They think
     they know instead of knowing.

Earlier in the poem, she’s talking about birds. About their songs. The chorus of birds in stanza two might also be the chorus of women in Mathematics for Ladies:

     If you listen to the songs they sing,
     you’ll learn their language.
     You’ll get their frequency.
     They sing two thousand times a day.

Page after quick, flickering page, I get the frequency of the “ladies” depicted here. I learn their language. The Notes in the back tell us the phrase “mathematics for ladies” was dismissive, referring to “descriptive mathematics,” rather than applied mathematics, what men did. Ironically, these dismissed women were often ahead of their time, as pure math or abstract math is all the rage now. (And, of course, we know about the important applied math of the Hidden Figures of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to the American space program!) Many poems in the book show how women were actively prevented from pursuing their talents and their studies. Yet they persisted.

Marie Germain (1776-1831)

What is the mathematical formula
for frozen ink? Can math warm
my ink so I can write? What math
will stop my parents from stopping me,
at thirteen? They have subtracted
my blankets, the fire in my grate,
all light but stubs of candles I’ve hidden.

After this chilling deprivation, the poem goes on to reveal her success!

But, ultimately, even if they die of radium poisoning, the obstacles do not defeat these women. They get the work done. They speak, through Jessy Randall, with confidence, pride, rage, vulnerability, and knowledge. They know their worth. As Mary Treat (1830-1923) says:

     When I found the lily
     I knew it was something.
     I schooled Darwin on bugs.
     I’m steady. I’m plain. I write
     like a woman and invite readers in.

That’s what this book does: writes like a woman and invites readers in!

Mathematics for Ladies at Goldsmiths Press

Mathematics for Ladies at MIT Press

Jessy Randall’s Women in STEM Project

Jessy Randall: Women in Math and Science at EIL

Jessy Randall (3 more women of history!) at EIL

Kathleen Kirk’s earlier response to Mathematics for Ladies


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