I seem to be turning all phases of my life into mystery series. My husband is worried that he'll be featured (or fictitiously murdered) soon.
My newest protagonist, Professor Sophie St. Germain Knowles, teaches math at a small New England college, eerily similar to my own alma mater and former place of employment. When she's not helping the local police solve murders, she creates puzzles and brainteasers for magazines and hangs out with her medevac pilot boyfriend and an offbeat beading friend, Ariana.
The setting is contemporary, but Sophie has a two hundred year history, you might say. I named her after the great Sophie St. Germain (1776-1831), who made breakthrough contributions to mathematics in the form of number theory and the theory of elasticity.
Fifty years before Ann Parker's Inez Stannert became a businesswoman and took her place among the saloon owners and poker players in Leadville, Colorado, Sophie St. Germain was trying to make her own way in a man's world.
Women were not admitted to the schools and studies Sophie craved, so she created a new identity. Just as Inez sometimes resorts to wearing men's clothing to better accomplish her mission, Sophie used a man's name on her technical papers and letters. As Monsieur LeBlanc, Sophie corresponded with the great male mathematicians of the time, including Lagrange, Legendre, and Gauss.
Some continued to admire her work even after learning that M. LeBlanc was a woman; others were not so enlightened.
In spite of her widely known achievements, Sophie St. Germain's death certificate lists her not as mathematician or scientist, but as a rentier (property holder).
Maybe that was high praise for a woman 180 years ago.
There's no indication that "the ridicule attached to a female scientist" (Sophie St. Germain's own words) has completely passed, as we know from the failure of the ERA and the data on gender and salary.
What's a girl to do?
Many years ago I read a mystery series that featured a female English professor at a major university. I loved it. I reread one of the books as I prepared to write my new series.
Much to my surprise, the book that I'd remembered so fondly was merely a blatant protest against the sexist workings of the university faculty, thinly disguised as a mystery. The protagonist stands up at meeting after meeting and rants about her treatment and the discriminatory practices at the university. Her monologues go on for three or four pages at a time, without interruption, throughout the "novel."
I put the book down and could hardly believe I'd once loved it. But it was a different era. That very successful, groundbreaking series would never fly today.
Now it seems best to try to bring about awareness of women's place in the world in a way that's not heavy-handed.
Professor Sophie Knowles is my most recent attempt to portray a normal, likeable woman who also happens to be a mathematician, as Inez is a likeable woman and also a strong and clever businessperson.
In fact, Sophie is such fun, she's offering a math-related prize to three readers of The Silver Rush Mysteries blog. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight July 10, with SILVERMATH in the subject line, and be entered into the drawing.
Thanks for letting me visit, Ann! It's an honor to hang out with the award-winning Inez!