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Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia Kovalevskaya: The Russian woman who broke barriers


Sofia Kovalevskaya is regarded as the first major Russian female mathematician, breaking gender barriers during her time.

Despite her high intelligence, Sofia faced obstacles and challenges throughout her life because of her gender– from needing permission from her father to study and travel, to not being allowed to enroll in universities.

But she was also a secret lesbian, having “a romantic friendship” with a female colleague.

Sofia Kovalevskaya: A love for numbers

Sofia was born in 1850, the middle child to well-educated parents belonging to the Russian nobility. As her privilege of birth, she was educated by tutors and governesses.

But even at a young age, she had already developed a love for mathematics thanks to the fact that the walls of her nursery were papered with lecture notes on differential and integral analysis.

In her autobiography, she said: “The meaning of these concepts I naturally could not yet grasp, but they acted on my imagination, instilling in me a reverence for mathematics as an exalted and mysterious science which opens up to its initiates a new world of wonders, inaccessible to ordinary mortals.”

Her devotion to mathematics became so intense that her father put a stop to her mathematics lessons. That didn’t stop her as she read Algebra books at night while the household slept.

Sofia Kovalevskaya: Aiming higher and higher

As her father wouldn’t allow her to leave home to study at a university and women in Russia at that time weren’t allowed to live separately from their families, Sofia was forced to marry Vladimir Kovalevski, a young palaeontologist, at the age of 18.

Unfortunately, her relationship with her husband throughout her life was full of quarrels and misunderstandings. But she still worked to realize her dream even as other people helped her, realizing how smart she was.

She went to Heidelberg in 1869 to study mathematics and the natural sciences, but was only allowed to attend classes unofficially as women weren’t allowed to matriculate.

She moved to Berlin in 1871 to study at the university but again, they refused to let her attend the courses. In 1874, she completed three papers and she was granted her doctorate, summa cum laude, from Göttingen University.

Sofia Kovalevskaya: Her accomplishments

Though she couldn’t a teaching position because she was a woman, there was a time she was unemployed and didn’t do any research. During that, she gave birth to a daughter in 1878.

Fortunately, she returned to her studies in 1880. She separated from her husband in 1881 and two years later, Vladimir killed himself. To avoid feelings of guilt, she committed herself to her work.

Through the help of a friend, GöstaMittag-Leffler, she got a position as private docent in Stockholm University. In 1884, she began to lecture there in early 1884 was was appointed to a 5-year extraordinary professorship of that same year.

In 1889, she was the first woman to hold a chair at a European university since Laura Bassi and Maria Gaetana Agnesi .

Sofia became the editor of the journal Acta Mathematica and took part in international conferences. She won the Prix Bordin in 1886 for one of her papers, which included the grand prize of 5,000 francs.

In 1889, she won a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences and then was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. More importantly, they changed the rules at the Imperial Academy to allow the election of a woman.

Sofia Kovalevskaya: The secret lesbian

Though a lot has been said about Sofia’s exploits in mathematics, not much is known about her being a secret lesbian.

After the death of her her husband, she managed to get a teaching position at Stockholm University thanks to Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler.

However, she had met Gösta through his sister, author Anne Charlotte Leffler. The two had met each other while students in Berlin.

Sofia helped Anne publish a book Kampen för lyckan (“The Struggle for Happiness”) in 1888.

More important, Anne supposedly had an intimate “romantic friendship” with Sofia until the latter’s death at the age of 41 due to influenza complicated by pneumonia.

The rest of Sofia’s story as a woman who loved other women, unfortunately, is lost in history.

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