Ellen Hayes – activist, educator, mathematician, astronomer, and critical thinker

By Jaime Seltzer

“Radical ideas directed toward the promotion of free thought, free speech, free opportunity, free lives, grow and spread….You and I are called to the trailblazer’s work of today. There will be those – perhaps many – who will see our blazes and follow us. We won’t know who they are, probably; but that is unimportant. They will be using the path we make.” – Ellen Hayes

Ellen Amanda Hayes was born in 1851 in Granville, Ohio. Granville’s settlers were from Granville, Massachusetts, and Granby Connecticut, so it was something like a New England town plucked up and set down in central Ohio. Ellen’s grandfather was one of the original settlers and a trustee of the Granville Female Academy, where his daughter – Ellen’s mother – taught. Ellen grew up in a remarkable household for the times, in which her mother, father, and entire extended family believed not just that girls should be educated, but believed it so firmly and so unquestioningly that Ellen must have been secure in her family’s support from a very young age.

Ellen wanted to attend college but set about to earn the money to go on her own, by teaching at a country school for five years. She was accepted to Oberlin College, a unique teaching school that had accepted both men and women from its founding, and earned her degree in 1878.

It was said of Hayes that in the ‘80s (the 1880s!) she wore short skirts; in the ‘90s, she was a suffragette; and at the turn of the century, she was fighting for labor rights. In every case, she was decades ahead of her time.

For a brief while, Ellen became the principal of the Women’s Department at Adrian College in Michigan, but she moved when Wellesley College, a ladies’ college in Massachusetts, accepted her application to teach mathematics in 1879. Wellesley was also a rather unique institution: it was the only college for women that had science labs of any kind, and had only opened a few years before. It was while she was employed at Wellesley that she determined the orbital path of Tirza, an asteroid that had been recently discovered.

She also began to write textbooks for her students on mathematics and critical thinking. Ellen’s focus was on teaching her students how to think for themselves, and she infamously gave half of the students in one of her elementary mathematics courses a ‘D’. Despite and perhaps because of her incredibly high standards, she was a favorite of many of her students.

Ellen disagreed on principle that women would never need to know higher math for any career open to them; therefore, she peppered her lectures with examples of how the math taught in her classes could be used to solve real-world problems. Some of the other mathematics teachers at Wellesley were theoretical purists who considered math to be a logical exercise rather for practical use. It was partially for this reason that Ellen became more and more irritated with her fellow mathematics professors at Wellesley. Eventually, this difference of opinion forced a split that was settled in a surprisingly harmonious way: the Department of Applied Mathematics was established in 1897, and Ellen was set at its head. At the turn of the century, Ellen’s work on comets expanded her role at the college so that she became the head of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy.

Ellen Hayes

Ellen’s politics were her passion. She had grown up believing in equality between men and women, and was an outspoken atheist in a time when voicing such ideas aloud was very uncommon. She was in favor of unionization (unions did not exist at the time in the same form they do today). In 1912, she addressed 2,000 factory workers who were on strike – and in an age without microphones or amplifiers, that was some feat!

That same year, she ran for the Massachusetts Secretary of State, the first woman to be a candidate for office in Massachusetts. She won nearly 14,000 votes, winning more votes than any other socialist candidate in the country, despite the fact that when she ran, no woman could legally vote!

She was even arrested at a protest at age seventy-six, long before the 1960s when that sort of thing was fashionable. It was said of Hayes that in the ‘80s (the 1880s!) she wore short skirts; in the ‘90s, she was a suffragette; and at the turn of the century, she was fighting for labor rights. In every case, she was decades ahead of her time.

One of Ellen Hayes’s last projects was an adult education program for female factory workers called the Vineyard Shore School, where they learned logical reasoning, mathematics, science and literature. She taught a classroom full of young women with no education how to make better decisions about their lives through the use of critical thinking skills. Ellen Hayes was a fierce and fiery activist until she passed away at the age of 78.

Crease, M. R. S. (1998). Ellen Hayes. In Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900 (pp. 187-188). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Lisska, A. (2004). Ellen Hayes: Granville Author, Political Radical, Wellesley College Mathematician. THE HISTORICAL TIMES QUARTERLY OF THE GRANVILLE, OHIO, HISTORICAL SOCIETY, XVIII(1), 187-188. Retrieved from http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1475044/18795981/1339882216490/HistTimes200401.pdf
O’Connor, J. J., & Robertson, E. F. (2002, April). Ellen Amanda Hayes. In School of Mathematics and Statistics: University of St. Andrew’s. Retrieved from http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Hayes.html
Riddle, L. (2015, February 13). Ellen Amanda Hayes. In Biographies of Women Mathematicians: Agnes Scott College. Retrieved from http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/hayes.htm

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