Ellen Amanda Hayes
Mathematician Ellen Amanda Hayes was considered a radical in her time, but had this to say about that label: “Radical ideas directed toward the promotion of free thought, free speech, free opportunity, free lives, grow and spread….You and I are called to the trailblazer’s work of today. There will be those–perhaps many–who will see our blazes and follow us. We won’t know who they are, probably; but that is unimportant. They will be using the path we make.” And she should be considered a bit of a radical and very much a trailblazer.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1878, she was offered a teaching position at the recently opened Wellesley College. Appointed full professor and head of the mathematics department in 1888 she had somewhat of an antagonistic relationship with others in the department as they didn’t see the value in applied mathematics that Hayes did.
In an effort to help women understand how they could use mathematics in whatever career path they selected she carefully included examples of how the mathematics from the classroom could be used to solve real world problems. This was going against the other professors in their belief that math was a purely logical exercise with no practical application.
To help resolve this tension, Wellesley would create a new department of applied mathematics where Hayes would be the head and sole member with her title being changed to professor of applied mathematics and astronomy. Known for wearing utilitarian clothing instead of the fashions of the time, she was regarded as having very high educational standards but was also a favorite among students.
While she was blazing trails for the use of math in everyday life she was also fighting for women to be able to vote and for the rights of laborers. One of her last projects was an adult education program for female factory workers where they could learn logical reasoning, mathematics, science, and literature so they could learn to make better decisions in their lives using critical thinking skills.
Written by Angela Goad