Feminism in the Math Classroom: A View Through the Lens of Hegemony

aaclh's picture

In class on November 6, 2008, Professor Anne Dalke gave a sketch of an argument based on work by Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci that goes something like: people want to be 'hailed and recruited' so they submit to others' domination. She gave as an example, the classroom. Students at Bryn Mawr College pay upwards of $35,000 a year to attend Bryn Mawr and in doing so allow professors and the administration control over them (ie submit to domination). In return, students feel recognized as subjects, in particular, as scholars (ie feel 'hailed and recruited' by those in power). As a feminist math major who has worked for gaining more recognition of females in classrooms, this made me wonder if this fight for recognition was truly a worthy goal. This paper will offer a (second) look at some work people have done for feminism, keeping in mind the argument offered above.

In the article Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving, the authors attempt to answer the question “Are there girls that are gifted in math?” They start by explaining that most people think there are not many such girls based on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) I score differential between males and females (most tested are in the last two years in high school). Then they explain why this test is an inadequate measure, mainly because it does not differentiate between 'profoundly and moderately gifted children' and because it does not test people who lack 'one or more of the socio-economically privileged environmental factors.' (Adreescu et al, 1248) In the attempt to answer this question, the authors looked at data from the past twenty years of the 'top-scoring participants in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, International Mathematical Competition (IMO), and USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO).' (Adreescu et al, 1249) These are three really difficult examinations that involve rigorous proof-writing (ie critical thinking) instead of multiple choice answers. The authors conclude that 'the data presented here [in the article] neither prove nor disprove whether the frequency of occurrence of people with profound intrinsic aptitude for mathematics differs between women and men. What they do indicate, however, is that this scarcity is due, in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country, and ethnic group. First and foremost, some countries identify and nurture females with very high ability in mathematics at a much higher frequency than do others.” (Adreescu, 1256) Finally, they offer five suggestions to 'improve how [a country] identifies and nurtures children of both genders with aptitude for mathematics.' (Adreescu et al, 1258)

The article A Hothouse for Female Scientists examines the differences between 'small liberal arts colleges' and 'elite research universities' that might explain the discrepancy between not only a smaller gap in percentage of female and male math and science (under)graduates, but also that of higher percentage of the student body graduating in math and science in the smaller colleges. The author, Robin Wilson, suggests that the deciding differences are more faculty attention paid to undergraduates, more female professors, and a 'better' classroom atmosphere in the smaller colleges.

In Karen Barad's article A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics, Barad looks at the culture physicist Richard Feynman symbolizes to physics and asks how “this culture [is] perpetuated in the classroom and what does it mean for students?” (44) To answer this question she presents a different approach to teaching quantum physics; an approach that relies much more heavily on 'Neils Bohr's philosophy of physics' and much less on the culture Feynman represents than most currently used quantum physics courses. This approach emphasizes the effect an observer has on the observed. In fact, Barad makes a distinction between 'reproducible' results and 'observer-independent' results, two ideas often held to be identical. Further, Barad's approach returns to physics discourse 'meaning, interpretation and critical reflection' (64). Her main argument seems to be that it is vital to students 'to understand what the theory means, what the implications are, what a socially responsible position is in the face of the power that science holds in our society.' (66)

What is interesting about these three articles in light of the argument based Althusser's and Gramsci's work are the implicit assumptions that all the arguments are based on. In the first article there are numerous references to the need to hail and recruit girls. For example, 'we conclude that girls with exceptional mathematical talent exist; their identification and nurturing should be substantially improved so this pool of exceptional talent is not wasted.' [emphasis mine] (Andreescu et al , 1249) To rephrase this through the lens, this article encourages the authority figures to more actively hail and recruit girls with high math ability. This assumes that having more girls with high math ability working on math is desirable to the authority and that hailing and recruiting girls will help achieve this goal. As for the latter, the authors claim that the data they examined does show that hailing and recruiting girls does lead more girls with high math ability to do math. The former, however, is almost left out of the article, except for a few statements near the end that make this suggestion more explicit. For example, 'there will be a far greater cost to the future of the USA economy and our standard of living if we [US taxpayers] fail to nurture and develop the talents of the vast majority of our mathematically gifted children, boys as well as girls [if we do not put forth the money to fund their proposals].' (1259)

The second article is much like the first, in terms of the lens of the original argument. It quotes a physics professor Barbara L. Whitten 'the largeness, the impersonality, the pointless difficulty, the general meanness, the sense that we [science people] don't need you [girls]” to support the argument that classroom atmosphere is important to the differences found between colleges. Again, this echos the idea that hailing and recruiting works. The more one hails and recruits some group of the people, the more people in that group will respond. Also implicit in this article is the assumption that a goal of United States' society is to have equal numbers of graduates of men and women in the sciences. The article phrases the whole thing as a problem-answer rather than an examination of difference. For example, the statement 'the numbers show that liberal-arts colleges may hold some of the answers' (A12) implies that it is a problem that there are not a many (percentage wise) women at the bigger school.

Unfortunately, it is not quite so easy to pick out the implicit assumptions in Barad's article. However, she does make a few references that seems to suggest that a more diverse group of physicists is desirable. For example, she says 'the contrast between the 1950s Sputnik success and the 1980s Challenger disaster serves as an interesting metaphor for what can happen when pedagogy becomes inflexible in the face of rapidly changing demographics.' (44) Further, she states outright, 'The analysis I present in this chapter relies on a feminist reading of Niels Bohr's philosophy of physics.' (45) She mostly argues that it is not enough to simply do physics, one must also understand and think about the social ramifications of doing physics. For example, she says 'Feminist science scholars have been dismissed for making similar arguments on behalf of diversity and differences. This quotation implores us to ask: What are the consequences for physics research of training young scientists in a culture that values fun and irresponsibility over meaning and understanding?' (65) The quotation she refers to is one Feynman makes about the desirability of having multiple viewpoints in physics instead of just one methodology. In asking the question in this way, Barad implies that the consequences are not desirable to the society.

What is important to draw from these articles, in terms of the particular lens, is that they all assume a desirability of having the range of people in a certain scientific context be representative of the range of people in society in general and that hailing and recruiting is one method to help achieve this goal. Given that the tone of the argument presented in class was a negative one, it is curious that one set of people would find hailing and recruiting a detestable process and another set of people would find it so desirable as to advocate it in an article. From the little presented about Gramsci in class, however, this could make sense in context. Antonio Gramsci wrote from a prison cell. He was imprisoned for revolt. His theory was that revolt did not work because people desire to submit to authority so that they can feel 'hailed and recruited'. So he would not admire any increase in hailing and recruiting because all it would do would increase people reassurance in authority. Indeed, we see this most explicitly played out in Adreescu et al' s article that says hailing and recruiting girls with high math ability is 'vital to the future of the USA economy.' So, at least in this article, it is clear that the difference in liking or not liking the method is due to a more fundamental goal of maintaining or not maintaining authority. In the other two articles it is not as clear what their goal is in diversifying math and science populations. There is more a permeating sense of 'goodness' or 'usefulness'. So the only real insight the argument from class can shed on feminism in the classroom is to illuminate the implicit underlying goals of the work.

This really underlines the importance of social location. Gramsci was in a prison cell for trying to undermine a system and professors are in a classroom trying to maintain a system. So while Gramsci might offer insight on seeing a professor's social location, he can not shed much light on the goal of trying to include more women in the math and science classrooms.

Works Cited:

Andreescu, Titu, Joseph A. Gallian, Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz. “Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving.” Notices of the American Mathematical Society. 55 (2008) 1248-1260.

Barad, Karen. “A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics.” Teaching the Majority: Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Ed. Sue Rosser. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995. 43-75.

Dalke, Anne. “Notes Toward Day 18 of Critical Feminist Studies: Expanding the Frontiers of the Politics of Reading.” Serendip's Exchange 1994-2008. 13 Nov. 2008


Wilson, Robin. “A Hothouse for Female Scientists.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 5, 2000.


skumar's picture

Math major with a feminist twist


I am just not sure what you mean when you say you are a "feminist math major...who has worked for gaining more recognition of females in the classroom." What is the difference between a female math major (who does not identity as a feminist) differ from a feminist math major? How do you, as you say, "work towards gaining more recognition in the classroom"?

Anne Dalke's picture


What I like about this project, aaclh, is your willingness to extend and test a concept we were exploring in the classroom, into another context, one in which you are deeply engaged. I see you working your way through three articles about how to encourage female math majors to arrive @ the recognition that "hailing and recruiting" is a worthwhile goal if you are trying to maintain a system--in which case you need to slot people into it, and increasing the likely candidates is a positive thing. But if you are trying to undermine the system, or alter it, such practices would be much more questionable.

In class this week we'll be reading and discussing the work of Peggy McIntosh, who will be nudging you to go on thinking in these directions. Her assertion is that "putting women's bodies into high places" does little for people, and nothing for women, in the aggregate, because it does not lead to social change.

You begin your essay by asking "if the fight for recogntion is truly a worthy goal"; you end it by saying it depends what your attitude towards the system is. But you don't disclose what yours is. Want to?
Anonymous's picture

Feminism is facist

You just don't stop until you have more authority. Being "a feminist math major who has worked for gaining more recognition of females in classrooms". The marks matter, and quit complaining if you can't get them.

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