Go Figure: Why the Female Arithmetic Whizzes Were Invisible
Tamara Plakins Thornton
When I researched the calculating prodigies of the early republic, individuals who performed complex arithmetical problems in their heads at lightning speed, I ran across a phenomenon that sadly did not surprise me: no girls. Well, not quite zero, but only a couple, and they received comparatively little attention. The arithmetical abilities of Thomas Fuller, an elderly enslaved Virginian, stirred transatlantic interest because of his race. Zerah Colburn, a white farm boy from Vermont, achieved celebrity in the U.S. and Europe in good part because of his poverty and ignorance. How could the mind of this illiterate and innumerate boy do it, with no arithmetic books, no knowledge of the figures of numerals, to fill it with the idea of number? Soon new poor-boy prodigies posed the same conundrum. If race and class raised eyebrows, you’d think gender would too, but female prodigies barely achieved notice, and when they did, their sex warranted no special commentary. Here we have a puzzle every historian relishes: a dog that didn’t bark.
The first such female prodigy was from London. Nobody was sure of her surname—Heywood? Williams?—and her first name was not reported. A contemporary account described her as an illiterate eleven-year-old, the daughter of a weaver, who “appeared at the Royal Exchange in the spring of 1819 and made some extraordinary calculations.” A second, somewhat later account had her plying her “wonderful faculty” at “low public-houses” in 1820 and 1821 to support her father, a Spitalfields weaver with a penchant for drink. Both concurred that she was remarkable, speedily solving problems like “how many minutes there are in forty-two years.” Only the first account was picked up in America—and just once—and neither made anything of the girl’s sex. She was simply a “child gifted with arithmetical precocity.”
In 1854 an eight-year-old girl from Ayrshire named Margaret Cleland exhibited the same astonishing talent. She calculated the number of seconds in nine hundred years in the time it took to walk ten yards “at an ordinary pace.” She mentally multiplied 123456789 by 987654321 “in less than half a minute” and about that time to compute the price of 113 yards of linen at 2s., 9¾d. a yard. In an article titled “A Prodigy,” a Glasgow newspaper article noted that Margaret’s father was a shoemaker—implicitly her class status made the accomplishment more startling—but paid no attention to her gender. Most of the multiple reprintings of the story in American newspapers and magazines used the original genderless title, sometimes modified to “A Prodigy in Ayrshire” or “Really Wonderful Child.” Here too, it didn’t seem to matter that the prodigy was a girl.
There was one American publication that took note of her sex, Godey’s Lady’s Book. “Hitherto children who have shown wonderful powers of computation have been, we believe, boys,” began its 1855 account of Margaret’s powers, “but a little girl in Scotland now claims this gift of initiative knowledge in a surpassing degree.” It did not suggest that Margaret’s gift was especially “wonderful” because girls were not good at math. I can’t imagine the Godey’s editor putting it this way, but for that magazine, as apparently for other contemporary commentators on arithmetical prodigies, gender did not appear to be a relevant category of analysis. Can that really be? C’mon, in the mid-1850s, Americans did not need to be schooled in the doctrine of separate spheres to see gender as relevant pretty much everywhere. We could just note that it wouldn’t be the first or last time that smart women were rendered invisible. (And doesn’t my article collaborate in that devilish work?!) But to understand how these particular invisibilities followed on the cultural logic of the era, we have to think harder. We have to look at math.
In the early republic, even as computation was conceptualized as the essence of intelligence, arithmetic as taught called for rote memorization, not thinking. That slippage between idea and reality came into play when arithmetical prodigies were something other than educated white males. In the 1780s and 90s, Fuller’s talent was chalked up to an unusually good memory, a humble attribute that white opponents of slavery could take as evidence of Black teachability—but not Black genius. In the 1810s, the same conclusion was drawn for Colburn and other socially marginal white prodigies. Race and class shaped the perception of these feats by discounting the talent they required. Perhaps by the antebellum era, the challenge to “common sense” gender ideology posed by a female prodigy was even more alarming. It called for going a step further, for ignoring the phenomenon altogether.
Meanwhile, the thinking about math skills was shifting. In the early republic, not arithmetic but geometry, that ultimate exercise in the male-coded faculty of logic, did the heavy lifting of sexing mathematics. Eventually though arithmetic got caught up in the work. By 1872, an article in the Connecticut Courant titled “Arithmetic for Girls” took it for granted that because “woman has been thought incapable of logical methods of procedure in daily life,” the “manipulation of numbers” has “always appeared unsuited to her.” By the Gilded Age, sexing mathematics took on even weightier significance. As the study of Latin and Greek yielded to the study of the natural and social sciences as the basis of male civic authority, women finally achieved something like equal access to the classics—and were told they lacked the ability for quantitative thinking.There was no room for the counter-evidence provided by female arithmetical prodigies.
The weaver’s daughter allegedly lost her talent, fell victim to “an unprincipled man,” and met an early death. Margaret Cleland followed her older sister into work as a cotton weaver. Perhaps she silently calculated the number of threads in a yard of the fabric she produced or computed the price her daily labors would fetch at the draper’s. For a while, a glimpse of her remained in a Scottish textbook, which footnoted a method of mentally squaring numbers as one “employed by Margaret Cleland of Darvel, Ayrshire, who has acquired some celebrity for her arithmetical powers.” Then she vanished.
 “Sunday’s and Tuesday’s Posts. London, June 29,” Jackson’s Oxford (England) Journal, July 3, 1819, 1, reprinted in “Extraordinary Powers of Mind, or Memory—Anecdotes of Eminent Persons, &c.,” Cabinet of Curiosities, Natural, Artificial, and Historical (2 vols., Hartford, CT, 1822), 2: 125–26 (“Royal Exchange”; “forty-two years”); “Infantine Arithmetician,” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Apr. 1, 1826, 1 (“low public-houses”; “arithmetical precocity”).
 “A Prodigy,” North British Daily Mail (Glasgow), May 27, 1854, 2, reprinted as, for example, “A Prodigy in Ayrshire,” Trenton State Gazette (NJ), July 6, 1854, 2, and “Really Wonderful Child,” Spiritual Telegraph 5 (Jan. 1855), 417–18 (“ordinary pace,” “half a minute”).
 “A Prodigy in Arithmetic,” Godey’s Lady’s Book 50 (Mar. 1855), 274.
 Lorraine Daston, “Enlightenment Calculations,” Critical Inquiry 21 (Autumn 1994), 184–86; Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (1982; 2nd ed., New York, 1999), 120–23.
 Cohen, Calculating People, 139–48; “Arithmetic for Girls,” Connecticut Courant (Hartford), Apr. 6, 1872, 4; Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750–1900 (Ithaca, NY, 2007), 203–205.
 “Infantine Arithmetician” (“unprincipled man”); 1851 Scotland Census, and 1861 Scotland Census, General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, accessed on Ancestry.com, Aug. 26, 2022; Henry G. C. Smith, Practical Arithmetic for Senior Classes, 4th ed. (Edinburgh, 1863), 157. If this is the Margaret Cleland buried in Darvel Old Cemetery in Ayrshire—and it seems very likely it is—she died in 1869, at the age of 22 or 23. UK and Ireland, Find-a-Grave Index, accessed on Ancestry.com, Aug, 26, 2022.
7 September 2022
About the Author
Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the University at Buffalo.