May 16th in (Feminist) History

maria_gaetana_agnesiOn this day in 1718 was the birth of Maria Gaetana Agnesi; the first woman to write a mathematics handbook, and the first woman made a Mathematics Professor at a University (though it’s unclear whether she ever taught a class). Born to a wealthy family in Milan, with a number of siblings, she was recognized as a child prodigy at a young age. By age five she could speak Italian and French, and by age eleven she could also speak Hebrew, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and German, and was referred to as the “Seven-Tongued Orator”. At only nine years old, she wrote an hour-long speech about the right of women to be educated, and delivered it to a group of the time’s most distinguished intellectuals.

Her father began to gather a group of learned men in his home and from the age of fifteen Maria, who had moved on to also studying geometry and ballistics, would be put on display before the men, answering complex philosophical questions. Her father eventually published Propositiones Philosophicae in 1738, as a record of her last performance before the group, where she defended 190 theses. Maria, however, was very shy and hated these meetings, even asking for them to stop so she could become a nun, but her father refused. Regardless, she never married, and devoted much of her life to mathematics, and to the care of her younger siblings– she had 21.

Disappointed by the math texts available to her siblings to study from, Maria began her own, which was eventually published in 1748, under the name Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth). Her textbook is apparently the earliest surviving math text written by a woman, and was translated into French and English. It is known for including her study on a mathematical curve originally studied by Fermet and Grandi, who named it “versoria” in Latin (a nautical term), and “versiera” in Italian (which means “she-devil” or “witch”). After Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s work on it, it became known as the “Witch of Agnesi”.

For writing her textbook, she was honored by both Empress Maria Theresa, and Pope Benedict XIV, as well as being elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences– which included a faculty post, making her the first woman Math Professor. She is also well known for being a humanitarian, working in Milan with ill and homeless people until her death in 1799.

Also on this day…

• In 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV. (I made a post about her before, but I want to highly recommend a book about her and Yolande of Aragon that I just read: The Maid and the Queen.)
• In 2005, The National Assembly of Kuwait passed a law allowing women to vote and run for office.

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