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critical reflections translations language games

A portrait of the mathematician as a young woman, Part I

May 10, 2021


This is my translation of a talk by the mathematician Michèle Vergne. In it, Vergne reflects on her youth and how she became a mathematician in a sexist world. There are no stories of violence or male brutality to be had here; Vergne writes of the winsome face of patriarchy. This is a face only too familiar to those who have marked their growth years in books, from Austen to Zola, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Anna Karenina. Indeed, this face is familiar to anyone who has lived in a state of society.

Born in 1943, Vergne studied and worked in France and the United States, becoming a professor at MIT, at the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles, and a director of research at CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research). Her field of mathematical research is representation theory.

The talk was originally presented in 1975 at a seminar on “Mathematics, Mathematicians and Society” in the Math department of what is today the University of Paris-Saclay at Orsay.

My thanks to Michèle Vergne for permission to publish this translation on my blog. The original talk, published as an article in French, may be found on her website:

This is the first part of my translation of Vergne’s talk.

The talk translated

Unlike many men, we have no general ideas about the psychological difficulties ‘of women.’ I shall therefore speak here of myself, unseemly as that may be.

It is unseemly because, within mathematical milieux, there reigns a myth as per which people are recognized based on their true value, their own worth, independent of all social facts. Everyone interiorizes this myth: if a person does not succeed, if she has difficulties, it is because she is no good. If she is isolated, it is because she is shy. If she changed her behavior then, certainly, external circumstances would change, and others would judge her differently. If she is a failure, it is her fault. If she is unhappy, it is her fault. And, of course, the other face of the interiorization of such failure is that of the interiorization of success: if a person has succeeded, it is because he is intelligent, it is because he was destined to succeed, and he would have succeeded no matter what the circumstances1.

We live in a world in which people declare that they are very well. All in all, it is better not to speak overly of one’s difficulties, because those who have ‘succeeded’ would consider suchlike to be failures: if you were truly any good, you would manage alright. However, this notion—as per which those who are deemed to be any good are those who manage alright—involves rather a tautological formulation.

I would like to speak particularly of the difficulties I faced as a woman. I shall try to show how minimal and unpredictable the chances were of my ‘managing alright’ as a woman mathematician.

When I was an adolescent, what positive images of myself as a woman did society offer me? None. I was not made in the customary mold of the ‘adorable thing,’ capable of pleasing with ease: I was thin, I had straight hair, I had no confidence in my body, I danced badly. Yes, I was good in class, but obviously that yielded precious little with regard to the only success that counted: that of pleasing a guy. Just a few more centimeters around the bust could have promised far greater happiness than all my awards for scholarly excellence.

One always protects oneself from failure by valorizing oneself along another dimension. For a boy, this dimension would quite naturally have been that of scholarly success. In my case too, I felt valorized with respect to my friends. Yet this did not give me any sense of being: I could not feel that I was a being of value unless I met a man—an exceptional one, naturally—who recognized such value in me.

The myth of the Muse

So, I waited. I spent my adolescence waiting—waiting for the ideal man who, surely, existed for me somewhere in the world, who would see me and would recognize me, it would have been too sad otherwise. And I dreamt. Of what did I dream? Well, of course, I dreamt of the only positive image that one saw of women in history, in literature, in art, in the politics that I studied at school. I think I shall call this the myth of the Muse: a woman is magnificent, she is extraordinary—because she is the catalyst of a man’s creativity. She helps him, she sustains him when he despairs, she reveals him to himself in all his glory. Unremarked, she revels in his glory. When all is said and done, she will not miss out on this glory, having been the inspiration, the collaborator, the faithful and loving companion through all hardship. And he will thank her, whether publicly or not is of scant importance. For simply to read that recognition in the secret heart of her beloved is already an ineffable joy.

For me, what I call the myth of the Muse, includes all the activities of women, from forever to this day: all of them sacrificed their destinies for the destiny of another, for the latter’s destiny was deemed to be of greater inherent interest.

Just as a devoted, not immoderately ambitious secretary helps her boss, so also does the wife of a mathematician help her husband: she hastens to bring him an aspirin pill when a theorem is too difficult to prove. She helps him avoid the lesser worries of daily life. She is the housewife who cooks while her husband contemplates The World in Le Monde. And in all these activities there is a sure and dangerous seduction, one that I have experienced and experience still. It is the seduction of the desire to be someone’s source of happiness. The housewife who comforts, the mistress who inspires, the student filled with loving admiration, these are all the same woman, devoting her life from the beginning of time, to the betterment of mankind.

Thus it was that at nineteen years, when I entered the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles (an elite French institute of higher education for girls), I met the one whose muse I could hope to be. And I was lucky too: he was a movie assistant, and he wrote. I could therefore aspire to that pinnacle of the female condition; I could dream of inspiring great love in a poet.

This myth of the Muse is not merely alienating and devalorizing in itself. The search, whether romantic or cynical, for valorization via a man whom one possesses, distances women from each other: we form conniving friendships, but never have any valorizing interchanges. The search for a man implicates us entirely and is a solitary activity. Once a girl thinks she has found the ideal man via whom she will be able to valorize herself, all other girls become her enemies. If she loses him, she loses herself entirely. And in the interim, nothing matters. Nothing permits us to have true relationships with social reality and with ourselves.

My guy was fascinating. He was Spanish, something of a Trotskyist and lived in Madrid. I dabbled in politics and rubbed shoulders with girls who were muses to political activists, and that too was wonderful and exceptional, an exalted destiny. (This was a long time before 1968.) In short, I thought I lived in a truly fascinating world, although I did not participate in it except via another.

Thus it was that I spent my three years at the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles, looking down on my fellow students who, I thought, had certainly not found themselves eulogists as valorizing as my own. My life as a student at the École normale supérieure paled in comparison with a life spent at the side of a Spanish activist, who was certainly going to succumb very soon to a bullet. It was dull even in comparison with a more peaceful life by the side of a movie assistant who was going to become famous thanks to my devoted support.

Reality, however, did not go quite so well. Between crises, while frantically awaiting letters, I worked. But I was incapable of forming real relationships with myself or with others. At the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles, there was no solidarity, no valorizing intellectual exchange between the girls. Apart from the odd discussion of coursework details, we never spoke of mathematics. What would have been the good of that anyway? If one had anything interesting to say, one needed to reserve it for the man, for he alone could bestow recognition. And since I did not know any such men who studied mathematics, and since I was wholly faithful and loving, thinking only of Madrid, I spoke to no one. At one point, I wanted to leave and move to Madrid. I found out about a French high school there that might take me on as a teacher. I wished to marry my man. My friends encouraged me in this. And, as soon as possible, I wanted to have children with him–that unique, exceptional being who, during that period, was my sole source of valorization. However, much to my dismay, these wonderful plans did not materialize. That beautiful, tragic love story ended in ruins, as did I at the time. For if I could not hold onto that fascinating specimen, it was because I myself was vapid. I then began a period of self-deprecation, which was just as false as the preceding period.

To be continued in A portrait of the mathematician as a young woman, Part II.

  1. Translator’s note: Vergne uses first person forms throughout this paragraph. The “I” who has interiorized the myth in relation to failure is a feminine “I” (si je suis isolée; si je suis ratée), while the “I” who has interiorized it in relation to success is masculine (si j’ai réussi; je suis intelligent). In the English, I chose to use third person forms, so as to convey the gender differences that Vergne iterates. ↩︎