How to Be a Calculating Woman

Euclid drawing a theorem construction.

When I was fourteen, I discovered a great affinity for plane geometry, developed largely by Euclid, the Father of Geometry, who gave birth to his theorems and axioms around 300 B.C. I was adjusting to the ravages of puberty at the time, and therefore struggling with my personal geometry. This included a growth spurt right before I entered the 9th grade, during which I grew in height by 5″ within four months, and after which I resembled nothing so much as a stick figure made of several pipe-cleaners. Abandoning any hope of looking voluptuous, I settled instead for my math teacher’s quiet approbation, and frankly enjoyed being one of the few members of our class who was fascinated by the constructions she drew on the blackboard, not unlike what Euclid himself seems to be doing in this painting.

A few years later, our class took an extensive aptitude test that included several categories of skill, like verbal and mechanical, along with other more arcane abilities. I ended up scoring 100 in a category called ‘spatial relations,’ which is one of those tests where you have to determine what a 2D figure would look like were it glued together to make a 3D figure. And vice versa. This is a skill that comes in handy for future architects, engineers and physical therapists (who may as well call ourselves biomechanical engineers), although at the time, I had little intention of pursuing any of those professions. The first two vocations were mentioned to me somewhat half-heartedly by our (male) high school guidance counselor, but the last one was never brought up at all. Had it been, I may have trundled down the road that led to my eventual career a decade or so earlier than I did. But this was all taking place around 1970, and the guidance counselor didn’t really know what to do with me. Girl architects and engineers were not exactly thick on the ground back then.

An Exploratory Childhood

I can’t really take any credit for my inherent aptitudes. I may as well admit now that my parents were both geniuses. They both had IQ’s well into the triple digits. My mother had the highest IQ in her class. My father was double-promoted twice, and graduated from high school at age fifteen. Not that it did either of them much good career-wise. They were both children in the Depression of 1929, and came from large, poor families, and thus college was far beyond their ken. My mother went to work for the Phone Company. My dad joined the Army during World War II and was trained in electronics. When he was honorably discharged, he also went to work for the Phone Company, where he eventually met my mom. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aside from the genetic inheritence, there were a lot of advantages to having frustrated geniuses as parents. For one thing, they were both rather eccentric, mostly in a good way. My mother sewed clothes and slipcovers, wrote extremely clever poetry, admired Emily Dickinson and Eleanor Roosevelt, and joined the Abigail Adams Historical Society, conveniently located down the street from us at Abigail Adams’ birthplace. My father filled our basement with the flotsam and jetsam of his many interests, most of them electronic or chemical in nature. The latter included a photographic darkroom. The former encompassed his considerable audiophilia and enough electronic thing-um-a-bobs to fill a small warehouse. When I was about ten, my father bought a telescope, subsequent to our Sunday excursions to the Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science. Bless them both. They never did things by halves.

Following their passionate example, I learned that ‘play’ did not merely indicate a good game of kick ball. It meant that I was, for instance, allowed to learn to cook and bake at a young age, with only enough guidance not to harm myself or burn the house down. It meant I was allowed to take apart the spare sewing machine, my grandmother’s old Singer, and figure out how to put it back together so I could make doll clothes. It meant I could sing and bang away on the old spinet piano before supper, when I was learning to read music at school, and my mother did not holler at me to cease my infernal racket. It meant I could make a big mess, as long as I eventually tidied up after myself. It meant I could make mistakes. It meant I had a lot of fun and learned things I didn’t even know I was learning.

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

These and other activities did in fact lead inexorably to 9th grade plane geometry. When you are learning to bake from scratch, you have to follow recipes. If you muck up the fractions and measurements, you end up with burnt, inedible cookies. Then there was the Barbie Dream House I got for my ninth birthday. The house itself and its furniture were made of corrugated cardboard and ‘required some assembly.’ My parents left me to slog through this without assistance. Not only did I manage to fold and insert tab A into slot B over and over, I decided to unfold all the cardboard furniture, trace it on posterboard, draw my own designs, and redecorate. Very instructive, and much more interesting than pretending that Barbie was in a lather about what to wear on her next date with Ken.

Then my dad gave me a science kit for Christmas. Among other things, it included a rudimentary microscope (also with ‘some assembly required’) and a crystal growing kit. The chemicals included (chiefly potassium alum) resulted in some very pleasing clear and purple colored geometric shapes, dangling at the end of a string over the saturated solution at the bottom of a glass jar. My dad being my dad, I was allowed to try the same thing with one of his color photography developing chemicals, an interesting substance called potassium ferricyanide, which resulted in a beautiful, ruby-red shape called a rhombohedron, a kind of slanted cube. Somehow or other, I managed to turn all this into some kind of extra-credit science project for school, and got an A.

Perhaps the following Christmas, I got a make-your-own kaleidoscope, plus an origami kit. Wow!!! I highly recommend both, for adults and children. They both provided an almost painless way to be creative and learn a great deal about angles, shapes, spacial relations, and light refraction. Science, math AND art! What could be better? Meanwhile, having outgrown dolls by then, I decided to sew clothes for myself. It turned out to be fortunate that my Catholic grammar school education did not include ‘home economics,’ because I turned to a do-it-yourself book from the local library, and learned more, with a bit of guidance from my mother, mostly in the form of the odd box of pins and dressmaker’s chalk. It still mystifies me that so many women who sew, knit, embroider and engage in other myriad craft-making projects consider themselves hopeless at math or geometry, when their hobbies so obviously include the application of calculations, and the magical transformation of 2D materials into 3D results. Take heed, crafty sisters. You know a lot more than you think.

Woman Teaching Geometry

Calculating Women

Small wonder really, that I developed an affinity for plane geometry. During International Women’s Month, I find myself pondering how far we women have come, yet how far we have to go. Remarkably enough, when I was in the 9th grade back in 1968, girls were not ‘allowed’ to take mechanical drawing. This incomprehensible piece of sexism endured despite the fact that girls who demonstrated a passable math aptitude were certainly expected to take math and science classes in my college-prep Catholic high school. Not to mention the fact that mechanical drawing was taught by a nun. And that a few years later, I was, albeit reluctantly, encouraged to consider studying architecture or engineering, two fields that manifestly required one to learn mechanical drawing. At the end of the 9th grade, I discovered that my math teacher, my physical science teacher, and the mechanical drawing teacher, nuns all, apparently launched a protest about this archaic and sexist exclusion, using myself and a few other geeky girl classmates as examples of why it should be abolished. By the time I entered the 10th grade, 9th grade girls were at last able to study mechanical drawing. I missed out on the class, but I managed to go on to study biology, chemistry, physics, algebra and trigonometry, all taught by women. Nothing like striking a blow for feminism, and I didn’t even have to burn my bra.

Today, we still need more women in what is called STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Women and other minorities continue to be underrepresented in these fields, and make less money than their white, male counterparts. Today, as it happens, Ann Hoang has posted links to several articles about this, at the website Even the White House has provided a special page about Women in STEM, with lots of news and fact sheets. Further helpful info can be found here: STEM Education for Girls. I could write several posts about the ramifications of the current political and economic climate, but suffice it to say that when women’s reproductive health continues to be under attack, when research into metastatic cancer is still woefully underfunded, and when access to affordable healthcare is still threatened by further cuts to so-called ‘entitlement’ programs, we need more women in science, technology, research, and medicine to get out there and kick some calculating butt.

If you want to raise children, and especially girls, who, like me, end up with a graduate degree in science, I think my parents set a fine example. They let me help them make, take apart, and fix stuff. I was bored sometimes, like when my dad used to make me help him tinker with the car. But as an adult, I learned how to use power tools and can even set up my computer without the aid of a thirteen-year-old.

Although I’m sure it was trying at times, my parents were not afraid to let me make a mess. They let me make my own mistakes and figure out where I’d gone wrong. They knew instinctively that exploration is the best kind of play. They read to me, they played games with me, they took me to the library, to concerts and plays, and to museums of every stripe. I didn’t always relish looking at Art with a capital A, but later, I discovered I’d developed an appreciation I didn’t know I had. They also let me make music and art. Research has shown that learning music enhances a child’s understanding of math. And art! I still have fond memories of spending hours with my Crayola 64-pack crayons and a stack of scrap paper. Nowadays, kids can make art and videos out of all kinds of media, including digital. When I was at first baffled by learning to use Adobe Illustrator, I was astonished to figure out that it operated by using vectors and angles. There’s a lot of math in art. And there’s a lot of creativity in science. Look at da Vinci! Perhaps most importantly, my parents knew how to facilitate, not dictate. They’d help me a little, then get out of my way.

It struck me as I was writing this that I should dedicate it to the memory of two of my favorite math geeks, Rachel Cheetham Moro and Susan Niebur.

So, rock on, girl geeks! And make your mark on the future.

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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 04:03 pm, filed under Attitude, Making A Difference, My Work Life, Play and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “How to Be a Calculating Woman”

  1. You’re awesome. This would make a great movie! Your childhood sounds fascinating and the movie could culminate in the changing of the policies in the school. Too bad I’m not a famous film director.

    In this International Women’s Month, a shout out to my female oncologists, Dr O in medical oncology, and Dr Z in radiation oncology. Kudos to those advanced degrees!

    Love you! -shelli

  2. Thanks, Shel! Never thought of it as a movie, but there were a lot of adventures back then that would be fun and funny on film, for sure. I was a very shy, gawky feminist back then, but I can tell you that the smartest students in my class were all girls. πŸ™‚

  3. Great post!!! Your parents sound so fun and fascinating! I relate to so much of what you experienced as a child (except I never considered myself good in math and my school grades certainly reflected that!). I could cook anything as a kid, and I took apart and put back together all manner of things. My father was a master mechanic and had a very inventive and mathematical mind (when I became an adult, I was the one my girlfriends called to do anything involving a toolbox β€” if a guy wasn’t around, that is) and I picked up a lot from him without even realizing it. It’s funny, I never equated math skills (which, again, I didn’t realize I had b/c I never did well in math in school) with my ability to figure things out visually or mechanically. And even studied art and photography in college and still never thought I was good in math. Go figure.

    Thank you for helping me connect all the dots. I feel smarter already!!

  4. Renn, even as I was always good at math, I used to sit there & think how few of my math teachers were really good teachers, because most of them only played to the few, not the many, as it were. I used to wish fervently that they would do a much better job of bringing math to life by using examples from everyday stuff that we all do to show how we use math even when we don’t realize it. For a while, it made me want to be a math teacher. It’s very much possible to make math fun and to make it come alive. A lot of math is really magical in a fun way. Ditto physics, chemistry, etc., etc. I remember that at the beginning of my year of undergrad physics, taken when I was in my thirties as a prereq to get into grad school, the professor actually told us all that probably only a third of us would ‘survive’ by the end of the semester & go on to the 2nd semester!!! Oy…

  5. Wow, Kathi, I’ve always marveled at your brain power – this helps explain things a bit. Your parents were amazing. They set a fine example indeed.

    Have you read “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls? I love that book. I’m not saying your parents were like hers, but it does sound like they were unique. That’s meant to be a compliment!

    I’m not a math or science geek, not even close – but I sure admire those who are! xoxo

  6. Oh! No, Nancy, I’ve not read ‘The Glass Castle,’ but I’m going to look for it! There was a lot of pain to endure in my childhood, too, but due only to human flaws & frailties, never due to a lack of love. In another time, both my parents would have been respected as ‘renaissance’ people. πŸ™‚ In our largely blue-collar neighborhood, they were definitely outliers. I sometimes used to wish that they were more ‘ordinary,’ but I cherished everything they gave me of their spirit and passions, and felt very lucky for that.

  7. Kathi,

    I LOVE this post. Thank you for letting us into your family and your childhood. The Barbie house et al probably needed a makeover. You simply amaze me because you are great at science, math, and art — oh and a writing whiz. I agree that women are underrepresented in the maths and sciences. One of my good friends is a math and science person and can write well, too. I admire the well-rounded, renaissance person you are, and your parents totally rock!

  8. Thanks, Beth! I really admire the women my age — or any age — who braved a largely unwelcoming environment to break into science and engineering and other male dominated fields back then. As much as I liked math and science, I did not feel equal then to the thought of going to some school like MIT and being outnumbered 500 to one. I’m glad I waited. So much changed in just ten years after I got out of high school. And has continued to change. And we still have a lot of work to do to overcome the discrimination that still exists for women in STEM.

  9. This is a fascinating post, Kati. I didn’t grow up with rules on what I could/couldn’t study – but you pointing out the continued debate over women’s issues, including the sad situation with mets cancer, is just one of the reason there’s more work to be done. Power to the geek girls, and incredible women across the board – who are so good at so many different things.

  10. Catherine, I think women are often very good at making connections between disparate issues. And we need more of them.

  11. This post is fantastic, Kathi. I also excelled in the aptitude “spatial relations” in high school in the late sixties. But none of those vocations you mentioned became my future career. I ended up getting a masters degree in chemistry and a JD, combining these to become a patent attorney. My middle son inherited that spatial relations skill, as he designs graphics and creates realistic animation. I recently finished Steven Jobs’ biography and realize his childhood was much like yours, inspiring him to combine the arts with technology. Our parents have much more influence on us than we think and can give incredible power to us geek girls if they see our potential! xox

  12. Jan, I still laugh about the ‘analytical reasoning’ portion of the GRE’s and other standardized tests, which was allegedly supposed to test for the skills that future lawyers might need. It was full of problems like: “If you are having six people for dinner, and Bob hates Susan, Ruth won’t sit next to Bob, Susan doesn’t get along with George, etc., etc., how would you seat them amicably at a round table?” I remember sitting there thinking I wouldn’t bother inviting any of them for dinner!! πŸ™‚

  13. dear kathi,

    this post spoke to me on so many levels – it’s just wonderful. but i had a chuckle at my own expense when i came acros the term “spatial relations”; i have tons of shoes, all kept in their original boxes. no matter how many times over many years, when it’s time to return a pair back to it’s designated shoe house, i have never, not once, unless i actually talk myself through the frustrating process, been able to postion those damn shoes with the soles facing the sides of the box, and the toe of one shoe being placed adjacent to the heel end of the other so they fit into the box. it’s like i have to see it done wrong before i can get it right!

    how wonderful that your very rich legacy of learning with such multi-talented parents has given you the impetus to write a post that celebrates
    “…calculating woman.”. and i love that you also write about how desperately we need more of them. i can’t wait to check out the STEM sites you have provided the links to.

    on another note, the best teachers are the ones who approach their students with the joy of SHARING their passion. if that element is missing, it becomes rote. students who need to experience learning with more than one dimension – with visuals, verbalizing, hands-on with touch, being coordinated or combined with listening often fall short of being able to realize their full capabilities. and teachers who don’t get that sometimes not only fail to recognize that also are often downright distainful of their pupils, and kids feel that – added to their anxieties and feelings of frustration, of being left behind. i think that’s what happened to me. i think i should have had an ipad!

    happily, my mother was an extremely creative person, very patient and loving, and encouraged every sort of exploration and experimentation with music, art, nature, writing, cooking, science and sewing (argh! i ended up making my own clothing patterns when i could not visualize how the inside-out elements would look when turned to the right side).

    but now i am obsessed with scientific research, can estimate volumes and distances very accurately by sight, always know what time it is without looking at a clock, and am a painter. what’s up with THAT??!!

    love, XOXO,


  14. Hah, Karen! You absorbed more math than you realized! And I have trouble arranging shoes in boxes myself, especially if they have heels. I was very lucky to grow up in a home where I learned by doing, and by applying math to everyday activities. And having fun while I was doing it. That’s the secret, really. Math especially is baffling unless a teacher can help students see how it relates to everyday life, to things they already know. A challenge, yes, but far from impossible. I have a lot of sympathy for teachers, though. So many of them face classes that are too large, shrinking funds for materials, and students who are dealing with poverty and dysfunctional families. Kids who learn at home, like I did, have a distinct advantage at school, no question.

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