Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Rumours/Problems/Barriers

Sofia deserves a great deal of credit for the manner in which she, challenged a male dominated society, 94 and did not allow herself to be deterred by the many and varied obstacles which she was faced with. As has already been shown the barriers to her education were numerous and included the opinion of an unfortunately large number that the education of women would cause them to develop an aggressive and competitive disposition not suited to their traditional role as homemakers. The famous playwrite and misogynist, August Strindberg, wrote following Sofia's appointment in Stockholm that,

A female professor is a pernicious and unpleasant phenomenon -- even, one might say, a monstrosity.95

As we have seen, her determination not to be dismissed purely due to her sex was what lead to her being tutored by one of the great mathematical minds of all time in the first place. A vocal group of people seemed unable to accept the friendship between the two at face value and did all that they could to undermine it publicly. The rumours which circulated about the nature of the relationship between the two were hurtful to both, but in particular to Weierstrass. It was speculated that he must have lowered his standards in order to assist Sofia in her quest for a doctorate. Felix Klein was particularly outspoken on this subject and felt that she only deserved credit for, drawing Weierstrass out of his shell through their correspondence.96 He also said on this subject that, Her works are done in the style of Weierstrass and so one doesn't know how much of her own ideas are in them. 97 Sofia herself unintentionally contributed to this view of herself by the manner in which she went to extraordinary lengths to credit Weierstrass even when she had developed solutions that he had only made vague references to previously. It is certainly true that,

She always referred to him as the originator of her ideas, and quoted him extensively.98

She knew that he was hurt quite deeply by the fact that some students did not cite his work as they should, and perhaps overcompensated for this in her own work. The people who felt this way about Sofia's work never did bother to explain how she had been able to produce great work in areas that had never been of particular interest to Weierstrass. He certainly suggested subjects to her which he felt she should work on as well as the methods which may be of use in dealing with the problems which she was working on, but even he was surprised by just how significant many of her results were.

Another problem which had to be faced by Sofia was the fact that the tsarist government of Russia would attempt to slander those women who went to Europe for educational purposes. Weierstrass himself was wary of Sofia at first for this very reason, fearing that she may be of dubious character. She was by no means a revolutionary activist, but she was certainly conscious of her position as a role model, and motivated by political considerations. She felt guilty that she was not as militant in fighting for the rights of women as her sister Anuita for example, yet through her mathematical achievements she undoubtedly did more to further their common cause.

For years Sofia had to face the fact that no position suitable to her talents was available to her. Having finally found such a position in Stockholm she was then faced with a problem which many women have had to deal with since which is, the need to be constantly proving their devotion to the profession.99 She was also to be paid less than her male counterparts for doing the same job. Her hard work and success was not enough to convince everyone that the ability to think in an abstract manner is not a characteristic possessed only by men. The people who thought in this way simply saw Sofia as some kind of exception to the rule. This still takes nothing away from the amazing achievement that Sofia was,

an extremely gifted but in some ways ordinary woman who fought against the prejudices of her time and sometimes won.100

To do what no woman had previously done on so many occasions throughout her life, while the whole time, a doubting society looked on, half-expecting her to fail,101 shows what a strong character she really had.

Weierstrass felt that by doing nothing to hide her socialist sympathies Sofia really left herself open to charges of being a radical. Mittag-Leffler had been unable to get Sofia a position in Helsinki not because of her sex, but because they felt that as a Russian nihilist she would bring revolutionary ideas with her. Nihilists simply thought of themselves as trying to reform society, but the public at large viewed them as violent anarchists. The political sympathies displayed in her novels along with her strongly held views on the emancipation of women meant that she was treated with suspicion in both Russia and Western Europe. Her doubtful marital status whilst Vladimir also served to fuel rumours about her respectability. It was only after his death that she was accorded the real freedom which came with being a widow.

Sofia's achievements divided opinion throughout Europe, and saw her receiving many unpleasant letters from anonymous sources. This fact did not discourage her from trying to help others, even if doing so placed her own safety in danger. The manner in which she allowed others to borrow her passport in order to escape from Russia was one such practice. It has been said by Roger Cooke that Sofia's career,

cut an amazingly wide swath through the economic and social structure of her times. It is as if a pioneer went into an uncharted wilderness and built there a complete city with skyscrapers.102



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Leigh Ellison May 2002