Defying a dreadful decree
Name: Elizaveta Fedorovna Litvinova
Fields: Mathematics and pedagogy
Claim to fame: Her modern methods emphasised the use of word problems in teaching mathematics
Elizaveta Litvinova‘s (1845-1919) career as an original mathematician was cut short by politics. She defi ed a Russian governmental decree demanding the return of women students to Russia so that she could obtain her doctorate in mathematics. On returning to Russia she found herself effectively blacklisted. Nevertheless, she taught for 35 years in a secondary school for girls and became one of the most respected pedagogues of her time.
Nihilism and science
Elizaveta Fedorovna Litvinova was one of three children born to a land-owning family near the industrial town of Tula, Russia. She was educated at a girls‘ high school, Marinskaia in St Petersburg. Although her parents did not expect her to continue her studies, some of the teachers at her school were proponents of higher education for women.
Elizaveta was drawn to the philosophy of nihilism, which was popular among segments of the Russian intelligentsia in the 1860s. The movement centred on the idea that values are social constructs and that natural sciences are a progressive force in society. It also strongly advocated the equality of women. Like many people, Elizaveta came to believe that Russian universities would soon be opening their doors to women.
Hoping to gain entry
Although Elizaveta learned more at Marinskaia than she would at a finishing school, standards were much lower than in boys‘ schools and she would have been ill-prepared for a university entrance exam. To catch up, she studied privately with the mathematician Strannoliubskii, who had tutored her friend Sophia Kovalevskaya. Elizaveta was active in the nihilist women‘s network and helped others prepare for university. The network had the support of many professors, and in 1870 she received a certificate of competency.
Eventually, it became clear that the government did not have any plans to allow women into universities. Many Russian women left for Europe, and a sizeable diaspora of female students grew up around the university in Zurich. Despite the objections of her parents Elizaveta intended to go to Zurich, but her husband (whom she married in 1866) would not agree to her leaving Russia; she needed his permission to obtain a passport.
Defying the decree
In 1872, after Elizaveta was widowed, she obtained a passport and left for Zurich. She enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute, but one year later Tsar Aleksandr II issued a decree calling all Russian women studying in Zurich to return to Russia. She decided to stay, believing that otherwise she might never complete her studies.
On returning to Russia, she realised that she had forfeited her right ever to work in mathematics in her homeland. She spent many years teaching the lower grades in a girls‘ school at an hourly rate, but was eventually allowed to teach the higher grades.
During the Russian Revolution, having retired from teaching she went to live with her sister in the country. She is assumed to have died in the famine of 1919, at the age of 74.
A career cut short
When Elizaveta joined her fellow Russian students in Zurich, she was the only woman in her classes at the Polytechnic Institute. She earned the respect of her teachers, who encouraged her to complete her studies despite political pressure. The Tsar‘s June 1873 decree stated that failure to return to Russia would result in exclusion from any higher education institutions in Russia (should they be opened to women), from any civil service post (should any be open to women) and from any official teaching position. Most of the women complied but Elizaveta and a few others took their chances, hoping that the decree held empty threats. Elizaveta completed her baccalaureate and went on to study function theory at Bern. She received a doctoral degree in mathematics, with highest honours, from the University of Bern in 1878. This was the first to be awarded to a woman based on a regular course of study.
When Elizaveta returned to Russia, she could neither hold an official teaching post nor work in mathematics. She was not permitted to take the exam for teaching at university level, and could not participate in the new Higher Women‘s Courses in St Petersburg. Her career as a mathematician was effectively over. She ended up teaching young children at a secondary school for girls.
Elizaveta‘s teaching job was demanding: she was paid an hourly rate and had no prospect of receiving vacation pay or pension. But she threw herself into her new role, becoming the first Russian woman allowed to teach mathematics for the higher grades and making substantial contributions to mathematical pedagogy in Russia. She published over 70 articles on the subject. Her philosophy and practical methods for teaching promoted alternative approaches to proofs and advocated the use of word problems.
To supplement her meagre earnings, Elizaveta wrote a series of biographies of mathematicians and philosophers. Her biography of Sofia Kovalevskaya provided unique insight into the experience of women scientists of the time. She was active in the European women‘s movement, contributed to the Bulletin de l‘union universelle des femmes and was one of four Russian delegates to the International Women‘s Congress in Brussels in 1897.
Elizaveta Litvinova‘s career as a promising researcher in mathematics was cut short, but she became one of the most respected pedagogues in Russia. Her modern, practical methods and philosophy of teaching mathematics urged the use of word problems and offered alternative ways to completing equations. She was an inspiration to her students, and many of them went on to pursue careers in science. In an era of heavy censorship, she managed to work information about social issues into her popular series of biographies.