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critical reflections translations language games

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

June 30, 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 instead of the more winsome face of patriarchy—a face that is, in fact, only too familiar to anyone who has lived in a state of society. This is the third and final part of my translation of the talk.

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:

Note: Part I and Part II of my translation of Vergne’s talk, were previously published on this blog.

The talk translated, part III

“What am I doing here?”

It was once I began to make progress in mathematics, once I knew that I could complete my thesis that, bizarrely enough, I entered a period of extreme depression. I shall not analyze why was I so depressed. It was roughly a feeling of “what I am doing here?” I felt as if I had had a hard time: I had wanted to arrive somewhere, but then had found it empty. What I had searched for was an apology for being female; it was a search for proof of my existence, through the affective and intellectual recognition of the only sources thereof: men. Well, I did not find that recognition there—at least, not as I desired it. I had work relations that were completely alienating. I worked on theorems not out of interest in the theorems themselves, but so that someone would recognize me, love me. And, thanks to my theorems, I found myself situated in a certain rigid place within a one-dimensional universe where mathematical value was the total order relation1 … Nowadays, well, everything still is rather empty … the dissociation between my “personality” and my work … I continue to work in a very alienated manner—to please not myself, but rather those who bring recognition: men. But perhaps I no longer depend totally on their appreciation as I did before. I have a measured regard for myself.

The problems I face as a woman cannot disappear because, in effect, they exist. I think I continue to be isolated, being a woman. There is discrimination—overt or insidious, voluntary or involuntary—against all women. In informal communications, women are often excluded—take the case of the Bourbaki congress for example … Even when women “have succeeded,” they are never permitted that feeling of belonging to the profession, that feeling of professional solidarity. I do not say that this feeling is good or bad, simply that it does not play a role in the same fashion in case of women.

At meetings, in conferences, if you join their group, male mathematicians feel obliged to interrupt their mathematical conversation and engage in pleasantries. It is very tedious in general. If you are a single woman, it is onerous to varying degrees. If you are a married woman, they express a sudden and considerable interest—in your children rather than in your theorems. They never approach you to discuss an interesting mathematical result, because interesting results are only brought up with people who are themselves interesting and susceptible of offering something in exchange, and therefore certainly not with a woman—one may approach her to discuss life’s difficulties, or its numerous joys … I spent a year at Berkeley, receiving nothing but compliments on my abilities as a mathematician, coming from people who, as I was well aware, knew strictly nothing about my work. Nevertheless, they pretended that they considered it extremely interesting—though never to the point of wishing to discuss it, whether in private or public exchanges.

Well-known, white, male mathematicians

I still feel defensive about my value as a mathematician. And, once again, I think I am right to feel thus. At the slightest faux pas, the guillotine’s blade descends: “They told me she was good, but really, she isn’t as good as all that.” One has no credibility. One’s words to one’s students are never wreathed in its halo, as is the case with the words of well-known, white, male mathematicians. If students choose you as a thesis adviser, it is because they themselves are slightly self-deprecating. Of course, as I think I have made clear, it isn’t necessarily the most uninteresting of people who are self-deprecating … Nevertheless, thesis advising becomes more difficult. I once said to a mathematician that his demonstration was false, and I explained to him why it was so. He returned to me two days later saying, “Yes, my demonstration was perhaps false, because Dixmier told me that Michel Duflo had told him it was false.”

It is very difficult to create meaningful mathematical relations with other mathematicians beyond a very limited circle that knows you well. On the one hand, the others lack the motivation. On the other, there are always those paternalistic stereotypes, implying as they do that women are inferior, that are so difficult to get away from: if one says something stupid, it takes an inordinate amount of time to reinstate oneself. And one cannot always be brilliant, yet that is the rule of the game imposed on women if they wish to distance themselves from paternalistic stereotypes.

I have worked these past several years with a well-known mathematician named Hugo Rossi, a wonderful person. In real life, after a certain length of time, we had completely distanced ourselves from those stereotypes in relation to the work we were doing: we had a very equal relationship in practice. Yet, 90% of mathematicians who see our articles, whether published or yet to be so, will—without having read the articles, of course—have the following opinion: he was the one who did all the work. And of course, they will not say this to me, and will even invite me to conferences to expound on our joint work—because it is always surprising to see a woman speak of mathematics, always amusing, rather like watching a dog walk on its hind limbs … When I open my mouth to speak on such occasions, I feel their anxiety, and I too feel anxious (though not for the same reasons): they are nervous, then surprised, and finally relieved to see that I was nonetheless intelligent enough to understand what my collaborator had done.

In any case, if I write an article with some man, whether famous or not, it is he who, outside a very limited circle, would receive the main credit for the article, real life and what one says of it being of little consequence. Imagine what would happen if my collaborator made the extraordinary declaration: “She was the one who did it all.” Nobody would believe him. They would say he is too modest. On the other hand, if I were to say, “He was the one who did it all,” that would certainly not be considered modesty but rather a description—of sad reality.

How many times has one heard it said of a taciturn, shy, male mathematician, “oh, he is really very agreeable, he is really good, and so modest …”? By contrast, I have never heard of a modest female mathematician. If a female mathematician says nothing, it is because she really has nothing to say. One cannot assume for a second that she would have the temerity to hide what she thinks.

Now I, most of the time, during a seminar or a mathematical conversation, I do not say what I think, because I am afraid. And, in fact, I have interiorized completely this sexist stereotype, that this or that man certainly has ideas that are far more interesting than my own, and that it would be far better for me to listen to them. And thus in a mathematical conversation, I am not interesting. I am defensive. I never put myself forward. I speak, perhaps, of things that I know, but I would be too fearful to risk using my imagination before someone. My very fruitful collaboration with Hugo Rossi took place, in fact, through letters: faced with a letter, I could think. Face to face with someone, I am blocked.

A measured regard for oneself

In conclusion—what? One must learn to have a measured regard for oneself: reject sterile comparisons. Reject the interiorization of the idea that what the other—the male—says, what he does, his destiny in a word, is inherently more interesting. Reject the idea that one must sacrifice oneself to that destiny, whether materially or mentally. Avoid contempt for oneself and for the category to which one belongs. This is difficult when one belongs to a category that is generally despised—that of black mathematicians, Algerian mathematicians, women mathematicians, provincial mathematicians, from Brittany, from the impoverished suburbs. Yet, to put it briefly, they would form the majority if more researchers rejected the interiorization of elitist stereotypes.

  1. Translator’s note: Vergne makes an in-joke here, playing on the mathematical notions of rigidity and total order relations↩︎