Full Steam Ahead, my latest novel, officially released this week. Hooray! It’s always an exciting and nerve-wracking time when a new book comes out. Exciting – because I love hearing from readers who have been looking forward to the book and finally have it in the hands. Nerve-wracking – because . . . well . . . will they like it?
So what does that have to do with women succeeding in a man’s world? As it turns out, my heroine, Nicole Renard, is an exceptionally intelligent woman. While back east at school, her teachers recognized her keen mind for mathematics and managed to get a copy of the test the young men over at Harvard took the previous year and administered it to Nicole. Her score would have placed her in the top 25% of the Harvard gentlemen, had she been allowed to sit for the official exam.
When Nicole answers Darius Thornton’s advertisement for a secretary, Darius assumes she’d be good for nothing more than penning pretty letters and answering social correspondence. A complete waste of his time. He needs a man with a grasp of mathematics and mechanical engineering, someone who can decipher schematics and logically deduce answers to scientific quandaries. Nicole dares him to test her, and she exceeds all of his expectations. Too desperate for competent help to care what gender that help might personify, he hires her, and our adventure begins.
As it happens, a few days ago, I was researching something for my current manuscript, and I stumbled upon a story that immediately caught my attention due to its similarity to the fictional scenario I had concocted in my imagination for Nicole. In 1890, a true heroine did the impossible. Philippa Fawcett received the top score in the Cambridge University mathematics tripos exam – the most prestigious mathematics exam in the world.
Women at this time were not allowed to study at universities nor to obtain degrees. All they could do was continue their education at women’s colleges and hope to perhaps teach at such a woman’s school one day. Not only were women considered weaker vessels, but Victorian physicians warned that women who strove to achieve academic honors put themselves at risk for madness or infertility. A woman’s brain just couldn’t stand up to the same level of strain as a man’s.
In the 1870’s, there were two women’s college associated with Cambridge – Newnham and Girton. Philippa attended Newnham. Eventually, female students were allowed to take the same exams as males, yet their results were tallied apart from the men’s and revealed at a separate ceremony. While a few women, such as Agnata Ramsay, achieved remarkable success on classical exams, the mathematics exams remained dominated by men.
Candidates for the tripos exams typically sat for 5 1/2 hours a day for eight days, then those who scored well enough to compete for the title of Wrangler, continued on for three more days. Can you imagine?
In June 1890, Philippa Fawcett’s score was revealed. She had scored 13% more points than the leading male candidate.
However, since she was ineligible for the title of Senior Wrangler, when her score was announced, it was announced as being “above the Senior Wrangler.”
No single achievement in academia’s history did more to prove the equality of women to men. Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that Philippa’s mother, Millicent, was huge proponent of the women’s suffrage movement in England. Thankfully, Philippa lived long enough to see that the seed she planted as a young woman had finally borne fruit. One month before her death at the age of 80, Cambridge University finally approved to allow women to earn degrees alongside men. The year was 1948.
To read more about Philippa Fawcett and her remarkable accomplishment, there is a fabulous article on the Smithsonian website. You can access it here.
- Who is a woman you admire for making a name for herself in a man’s world?