"Mathematics opens up a new, wonderful world"

Annette Vogt from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science on Sofia Kovalevskaya, the world's first female professor of mathematics

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the world’s first female professor of mathematics. She taught at Stockholm University, where she was awarded a Professorial Chair. Born in Russia, she entered into a marriage of convenience with Vladimir Kovalevsky at the age of 18. He was a follower of Russian nihilist thinkers, and supported their ideas of emancipation and education for women. As a married woman, Kovalevskaja was able to travel and study abroad.

In 1869, Heidelberg University accepted her application as its first female student. She studied mathematics with Leo Koenigsberger and, on his suggestion, moved to Berlin. Because women were not allowed to study there, she was able to convince Karl Weierstrass, one of the most renowned German mathematicians of the era, to tutor her privately. With his support, she was awarded a doctorate in absentia – meaning without an oral exam – from Göttingen University. The 24-year-old graduated summa cum laude. The topic of her dissertation was “The Theory of Partial Differential Equations”.

In 1881, she and her three-year-old daughter returned to Berlin to resume her work in mathematics. However, at that time it was almost impossible for a single women separated from her husband to find a job – especially as a mathematician. Following on her husband’s death,  she received support from her friends and Weierstrass. In 1882 Gösta she found a position as a private lecturer at the newly-founded university in Stockholm. She held her first lecture in the winter semester of 1883/1884, and in the course of the same year she became Professor without Chair.  

Since 2002, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has been awarding an annual research prize in her name. It is one of the most valuable scientific awards in Germany. With the prize money, scientists are able to work at a German higher education institution or research facility of their choice for five years and develop their own working groups, free from administrative restraints.

Ms Vogt, what is it about Sofia Kovalevskaya that particularly fascinates you?

To me, Sofia Kovalevskaya is a remarkable mathematician. Firstly, she established herself through her talents; secondly, she won over academic tutors (Leo Koenigsberger, and especially Karl Weierstrass) and friends (Gösta Mittag-Leffler) who supported and championed her; and thirdly, she was a courageous role model for others.

As she also had to care for her daughter Sonja as a single mother following her husband’s death, she was exceptional in many regards – as a female professor at Stockholm University, as a mathematician, as a self-confident personality with her own demands, wishes and beliefs.

I like this quotation of hers: “Mathematics opens up a new, wonderful world.”

Kovalevskaya’s great passion was mathematics: what inspired this?

Sofia Kovalevskaya was interested in mathematics from a young age, and was also taught the subject at home – which was quite unusual for the time. She had supporters, and built up a network for herself. Above all, however, she was inspired by her academic tutor in Berlin, Karl Weierstrass, the Academician and Professor at Berliner Universität. He too was ahead of his time, and was also something of an exception among the university professors, as he chose to teach her privately and support her. In a letter to Gösta Mittag-Leffler in 1886 – decades before women were officially allowed to study in Germany – he wrote: “She is not only tasked with demonstrating that a woman is capable of working in the most complex and abstract scientific fields, but through her acts can also prove to a world of nay-sayers that a woman professor can also serve with distinction at the lecterns of our universities.”

The first female professor of mathematics in Germany was appointed after 1945, which also serves to underline the exceptional nature of Sofia Kovalevskaya and her tutor Karl Weierstrass.

How did Sofja Kovalevskaja succeed in forging her own path, despite the restrictions placed upon women in science and in society in general in that era?

Sofia Kovalevskaya was very unconventional. Not only did she want to study – which at the time was considered “unwomanly” and was actually prohibited in many countries – she also wanted to study mathematics, a subject that was quite simply considered a male domain in the 19th century. She also wanted to be self-sufficient and independent – this too was unusual, and not only in 1880. The era’s image of women did not allow an independent career for “well-raised” daughters. They were supposed to marry, have a family, be charming and lovely and perhaps harbour artistic ambitions, but under no circumstances were they to be independent or have a career.

Sofia Kovalevskaya managed it, if you can put it like that, through her tenacity, her self-confidence and her work. These aspects gained her recognition among mathematicians. As she died young, she published only a few papers. She received her professorship after circumstances came together in her favour, and the support of Karl Weierstrass and Gösta Mittag-Leffler also contributed to her being awarded the Prix Bordin by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1888. This enhanced her reputation among her colleagues and in society in general.

Much has improved since, but in terms of career opportunities for women in science, the situation today remains less than perfect. What has changed in terms of women’s position in science?

Today, women have equal rights before the law, and this has been the case for decades. But in reality, there are still shortcomings – the fact that we have to discuss and write about this at all shows the disconnect between the situation de jure and de facto.

Objective obstacles, for example, include a lack of transparency in academic recruitment processes, unequal pay despite equal levels of qualification, or precarious and almost exclusively temporary positions for women in higher education. There are subtle exclusions – the “glass ceiling” – and the clichés and prejudices towards girls and women who study MINT subjects and want to work in science continue to exist.

As a result, it still requires guts, bravery, self-confidence and perseverance if a woman wants to become a renowned scientist and professor like Sofja Kovalevskaja. And they require supporters and friends, just like Karl Weierstrass and Gösta Mittag-Leffler.

STEM professions are still dominated by men. In your opinion, what needs to happen so that more girls are inspired by STEM subjects, and so that more women go on to careers in STEM fields?

Above all, young women and girls should be and should remain curious, courageous and self-confident, and should absolutely take an interest in STEM subjects.

That’s why, to my mind, teachers in schools bear a key responsibility: in schools, initial interest is either sparked or stopped. From the history of mathematics, we know that mathematicians, including Sofia Kovalevskaya, began to show an interest in mathematics very early on. That’s why what happens or fails to happen in schools is so important.

Kovalevskaya had firm and prominent supporters. How useful are mentoring programmes?

Mentoring at higher education institutions, universities and scientific research institutions like the Max Planck Society can be useful in order to advise, assist and support young women. But a precondition of mentoring programmes is that the young women in question genuinely want to “stick at it” – despite failures and setbacks, despite clichés and prejudices.

The Italian-French fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, a colleague and competitor of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, supposedly said: “be courageous, and enjoy it” – and this goes for science too, particularly for mathematics. Without curiosity, courage and enjoyment, it won’t work – and lead to careers like that of Sofia Kovalevskaya.

The interview was conducted by Beate Koch.

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