Calculus and Gender Roles in Today's Society


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Gender roles have always been a part of our society, whether we like it or not. From the days of our nomadic ancestors who enforced gender roles with hunting and gathering, to today’s common discourse over wage gaps in relation to gender, there has always been a clear divide between genders, and mathematics is no exception. Throughout the history of mathematics, including calculus, women have always stood in the shadows casted by men despite their contributions and achievements. 

Even in today’s society, women are seen as having inferior intelligence in comparison to men, and they are often discouraged to pursue careers in science and mathematics and are degraded to the primitive ideas that women do not belong in the analytical world. However, there have been many highly influential women that have contributed greatly in mathematics and despite the prominent gender divide, these women have managed to push past these discriminations and rise to the top where they can receive the proper recognition they deserve. With this in mind, there are many respectable women who have contributed to mathematics and they are all intellectually beyond compare; however, on May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy Maria Gaetana Agnesi, one of the greatest female mathematicians, was born. Agnesi had success written in the stars for her, but alas, her greatness and triumph did not come without a struggle on her end.

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Although she came from a wealthy family, Agnesi the oldest of the twenty-one children in her family. Throughout her childhood, Agnesi was deemed as a prodigy child, for her rapidly developing brain allowed her to master multiple different languages, which included French, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, by the age of nine. Agnesi soon became an expert on mathematics and philosophy, which allowed her to compose a speach in Latin that advocated for the education of women. Her father, Pietro Agnesi, was impressed by her knowledge, and he often held seminars in his house, so that men of great intelligence could hear her speak on mathematical themes. During the sessions, recordings of her teachings were made, most notably in Propositiones Philosophicae, which was written by her father. 

Due to her timid nature, Agnesi was not particularly fond of the seminars her father made her participate in because she did not like to be the center of attention, but regardless she continued to share her knowledge to please her father. Tragically, her mother passed away, and Agnesi took on the role as her sibling’s caretaker and educator, and she retracted herself from having a social life. This however, did not stop Agnesi from becoming one of the most influential female mathematicians. Intellectual women were allowed to flourish and thrive due to the lasting ideas of the Renaissance, which allowed Agnesi to become well-respected and admired by many. Her most recognized developments were those she made in calculus; however, her contributions were not limited to only calculus. 

As a matter of fact, Agnesi is credited with the Witch of Agnesi curve, she was the first woman to ever finish and publish a mathematical textbook over integral and differentiable calculus, which was titled Analytical Institutions that she originally wrote to help tutor her brothers, and she was also the first appointed female mathematics professor at the Bologna Academy of Sciences, however she refused this position in order to pursue her true calling. 

After the death of her father, she retired from her mathematical career, and devoted herself to theology, religion, and helping the poor and needy through acts of charity. Her kind spirit combined with her incomparable intelligence allowed Agnesi to live a long eighty years, that which in themselves were full incredible developments to the mathematical community during the 18th century. Her work has inspired many generations of women in all subjects to pursue education as well, and without her inspiring story and devotion, women would not have had such a well-respected role model to follow in the treacherous path to knowledge.  

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