Earlier this year, the award-winning/Radiolab-guesting/New York Times-bestselling mathematician Steve Strogatz messaged me to ask if I wanted a free T-shirt.
This is a bit like Steph Curry offering you a free pizza. Don’t ask why. Just say yes.
So I said yes, and within weeks, became the proud owner of this lovely garment.
If my baby’s beautiful grumpiness is making it hard to read, then here’s a cleaner shot.
The shirt lists eight celebrated female mathematicians. First names only. On the back is the hashtag #mathgals.
I was grateful for — and mystified by — the gift. For the first and no doubt last time in my life, strangers were expressing enthusiasm and curiosity about my wardrobe. Somehow my love of math, combined with my inability to choose my own clothes, had landed me in an elite sartorial club.
The shirt is the handiwork of math educator Chrissy Newell. I reached out with questions about this underground movement.
What inspired you start making these T-shirts?
Two summers ago, my then 9-year-old daughter and I were reading Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics by Dr. Talithia Williams. We learned so much about amazing women that I had never even heard of.
We decided that a shirt with some of their names on it would help us share their stories, and #MathGals was born!
Initially, it was just a project for us. But as soon as I shared a picture of my daughter wearing the shirt on Twitter, people wanted to know how they could get one. I love it when people stop in their tracks as they try to figure out who is on our shirt.
How do you pick which names to use?
The first version has women that my daughter chose, whose stories were particularly interesting or inspiring to her. We also kept diversity in mind, and wanted more than just the names of white women to be brought into the spotlight.
The second version features women who were “first” at something – Euphemia Haynes was the 1st black woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, Mary Ross was the 1st American Indian engineer, Mary Jackson was NASA’s 1st black female engineer, etc.
The third version has women who are currently making a difference in mathematics, including Katie Bouman, Eugenia Cheng, Talithia Williams, Vi Hart, Jo Boaler, Marilyn Burns and others.
There’s no way we could ever capture all of the amazing women whose names we want to share, but it’s fun to come up with new ways to highlight different #MathGals.
Why first names only? To me, it creates a different kind of spotlight – less like lionizing or canonizing, and more like a birthday party.
That was actually really important to us. Many of the #MathGals had to learn, research, and publish under male pseudonyms. (Sophie Germain was a pen pal of Gauss for two years before he knew her real identity!) For some, it was illegal to study mathematics, or they weren’t allowed to earn advanced degrees or teach at the university level. We wanted to honor these women with their first names right up front.
There are three different ways that the list of names might end. Can you explain?
We started with the original: just names.
Then a teacher request that we add “& me.” I thought it really brought home the message that it’s not just career mathematicians that are #MathGals – we all are!
After that, a male teacher from an all-girls school asked about putting “& you” so he could wear it to inspire his students. Again, we thought it was a great idea. We always welcome new ideas and suggestions!
How have sales been so far?
We have sold over 1,000 shirts! We have teachers, students, administrators, mathematicians and other supporters (my mom) wearing them proudly.
My friend Sameer Shah was instrumental in reaching out to some amazing authors and mathematicians like Eugenia Cheng, Steven Strogatz, and you. Jo Boaler even has one with her name on it!
I’d love to get one to Talithia Williams with her name on it since her book started it all, but I haven’t been able to get in contact with her.
Using Twitter and word of mouth, my daughter and I love to gift t-shirts to teachers and students who show a passion for learning more about #MathGals. Coming soon, we’re going to offer mini-grants for teachers to help them bring #MathGals into the spotlight at their schools.
What sort of reactions have you gotten?
The math community has been ecstatic and has made the movement their own. The general public is shy about asking, but I know they’re looking. I started putting the #MathGals hashtag on the back of shirts so that people who were afraid to ask could research for themselves.
I’ve had people ask hilarious questions. “Are you in a bridal party?” “Are those the names of hurricanes?”
I love being able to tell them they are all famous female mathematicians. I usually get a response like, “That’s awesome!” or “How cool!”
It’s interesting how the reactions are different than when I say I’m a math teacher.
I don’t want to give surname spoilers, but could you provide us a list of the mathematicians’ full names?
Version 1: Original (a.k.a., O.G.)
- Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician and subject of Hidden Figures
- Maryam Mirzakhani, 2014 Fields medalist
- Hypatia, mathematician of antiquity
- Sophie Germain, who did foundational work on Fermat’s Last Theorem
- Ada Lovelace, often called “the world’s first computer programmer”
- Emmy Noether, founding figure in abstract algebra
- Sofia Kovalevskaya, influential researcher in analysis
- Julia Robinson, researcher in computational complexity
Version 2: Women who were “first”
- Euphemia Haynes, first African-American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics
- Melanie Wood, first American woman to make the International Mathematical Olympiad team
- Jeanette Scissum, first African-American mathematician to join NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
- Mary Ross, first recorded Native American female engineer
- Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer, subject of Hidden Figures
- Gladys West, who helped pioneer GPS technology
- Enriqueta Gonzalez Bay y de la Vega, first woman to earn a degree in mathematics in Mexico
- Hypatia, first recorded female mathematician in history
- Sofia Kovalevskaya, first female PhD in mathematics
Version 3: Women making a difference in mathematics today
- Katie Bouman, Caltech professor studying computational imaging
- Eugenia Cheng, category theorist and author of How to Bake Pi, Beyond Infinity, and The Art of Logic
- Karen Uhlenbeck, winner of the 2019 Abel Prize for “her pioneering achievements”
- Talithia Williams, Harvey Mudd professor and author of Power in Numbers
- Vi Hart, mathemusician and YouTube star
- Jo Boaler, Stanford professor and creator of YouCubed
- Marilyn Burns, educator and author of About Teaching Mathematics and The I Hate Mathematics! Book
- Megan Franke, UCLA professor and member of the National Academy of Education
- Tahani Amer, NASA employee and advocate for Muslim women in science
My thanks to Chrissy for answering my questions! You can buy your #mathgals garb here.