The Quiet Revolution of the “Math Gals” T-Shirt

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.

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Me (dressed like a million bucks) with my daughter (dressed like a cartoon prisoner – not her fault).

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.

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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.

OG Math Gals and Megan - Women's T-Shirt

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.

Math Gals 1sts with #MathGals hashtag

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.

Math Gals 2019 w/ #MathGals hashtag

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!

Math Gals 1sts &Me with #MathGals hashtag

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!

Women in Math (& You!)

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.

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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.)

Version 2: Women who were “first”

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 PiBeyond 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.

6 thoughts on “The Quiet Revolution of the “Math Gals” T-Shirt

  1. Your link is a t.co link, which resolves to a bit.ly address. My work organization blocks all bit.ly addresses because they are sometimes used for malware. Can you provide the regular URL please?

    1. Yeah, this is something I’ve noticed, especially in politics: “Hillary,” “Nancy,” “Condi,” etc. These names are used with varying degrees of dismissiveness (e.g., “Hillary” is sometimes used by supporters of Clinton’s, but “Nancy” is almost always used with disdain).

      (Occurs to me, though, that one contributing factor may be that women’s names tend to be more varied and distinctive then men’s names. I notice that male politicians with unusual first names are likelier to get first-name treatment, e.g., Beto and Bernie, while women with common first names are likelier to get last-name treatment, e.g., Warren and Klobuchar.)

      Anyway, I tend to prefer surnames when I’m writing about people (“Wiles,” “Mirzakhani”). On the other hand, I got a thoughtful email from someone who read my first book, saying that in the context of my jokey, casual style, they found the surnames weirdly and distractingly formal. They encouraged me to use first names instead (“Andrew,” “Maryam”).

      Anyway, all of which is to say that (1) the choice of names is complicated, (2) the “women by first name” pattern is a worrying one, (3) IMO it still works as a celebratory choice for these shirts, but (4) your mileage may vary!

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