Women Teaching and Learning Mathematics in the United States

Women have long played an important role in American mathematics education, especially at the elementary level. A rich variety of objects - most collected for what they show about general practices in American math teaching – suggest how girls have learned and women have taught the subject. These materials include textbooks, apparatus for teaching basic number concepts to young children, more sophisticated instruments (including geometric models) for the high school, and a few objects used at the college level.

The objects shown here come from the collections of the National Museum of American History. Almost all of them were used by girls and women whose names we know. A few such objects are not yet on the public database. The NMAH collections also include important objects like blackboards and examples of the teaching abacus whose association with specific women, if any, has been lost with time.

Other Smithsonian units contain objects of interest. For example, up until 1850, when arithmetic was often taught in association with handwriting, students compiled “cypher books” or “cipher books” in which they carefully copied out worked arithmetic problems. The cipher book of Elizabeth Harding, created in 1823, is in the rare book collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Students – including girls – also prepared notes on their classes. The copy books of Hannah Amelia Lyons, compiled in Philadelphia in the 1830s, are in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.