Proof depicts sexism in the field of mathematics, exploring its effects on two characters: the main character, Catherine; and the real-life mathematician Sophie Germain, an 18th century woman whose life story Catherine relates during the play. Sophie Germain’s gender locked her out of educational opportunities, so she advanced her career by writing to a famous mathematician under a man’s name and developing her work through their correspondence. She couldn’t reveal her gender until she had already proven her abilities, because otherwise she would not have been taken seriously. And while Catherine has the opportunity to go to college for math, sexism still stands in her way. This is clearest when her father’s former student, Hal, condescends to her about her abilities and then outright dismisses the possibility that Catherine wrote the groundbreaking proof she claims to have written. For both Catherine and Sophie Germain, getting credit for their innovative work hinges on whether men will believe in their abilities. In this way, the play demonstrates how the discrimination that women face not only limits their opportunities, but also threatens their chance at gaining recognition for their achievements.
The stereotype that women are not as intelligent as men often leads to women being excluded from opportunities. This stereotyping has been a problem for centuries, as Catherine reveals when she tells Hal about Sophie Germain. Germain wanted to be formally educated in math, but no school would accept her—historically, math wasn’t seen as an appropriate subject for women, who were assumed to be less smart than men. Of course, Germain bucked this stereotype: she taught herself advanced mathematics and went on to make several important contributions to the field. Catherine likely sees herself in Germain. While Catherine was able to study math in school (she took a couple courses at Northwestern), she still encounters the stereotype that she is less intelligent than men, as her interactions with Hal reveal. To start, Hal assumes the role of going through Robert’s old notebooks. When Catherine suggests that she go through Robert’s notebooks herself, Hal immediately tells her that she “do[es]n’t have the math” and that she “wouldn’t know the good stuff from the junk.” Hal doesn’t know Catherine much at all, so his “evaluation” of her abilities is based on what he does know—her gender. In acting as a gatekeeper to Robert’s notebooks, Hal is doing what the patriarchal society did to Sophie Germain: he’s excluding Catherine from professional opportunities.
For both Sophie Germain and Catherine, the gender-based discrimination that locks them out of opportunities also threatens their chance of being recognized for their achievements. Because 18th century French universities refused to accept Germain, she sought education elsewhere: she used a man’s name to correspond with another mathematician named Gauss. By masquerading as a man, Germain was able to hone her skills and develop her theories, but she couldn’t reveal her true identity until after she’d proved her genius. In other words, her massive contributions to the field almost weren’t recognized as her own, since she initially had to use a man’s name. Likewise, Catherine’s contribution to math (her brilliant proof) is initially attributed to a man: her own father. When Catherine shows her proof to Hal, he doesn’t believe that she could have written it, telling her that, as a mathematician, “[he] know[s] how hard it would be to come up with something like [the proof].” The only person he can imagine who could have written it is Robert, a man. When Catherine tries to make Hal see that she is capable of this level of math, he flatly tells her that “[she] could not have done this work.” Luckily, Hal changes his mind when he reviews the proof with his colleagues, but Catherine’s week of despair after Hal refused to believe her sketches an alternate reality: the math community could have credited Robert with the proof, and Catherine would have had no way to prove them wrong. This might have cost her a chance at having a career.
In order to get the credit for their work, the women of Proof have to rely on men to believe in their capabilities. Gauss ultimately supported Sophie Germain when he learned her identity; he thought that “she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents, and superior genius” to have persisted through sexism. Hal also eventually believes in Catherine’s genius, but only after he vigorously checks the validity of her claim. This shows an extraordinary barrier to success for women in math: not only does sexism block professional opportunities, but it also can prevent women from getting credit for their accomplishments—all because of cultural assumptions that women aren’t very good at math. Both Catherine and Sophie Germain were able to overcome discrimination, but—perversely—only with the help of men.
Sexism Quotes in Proof
HAL: […] When your dad was younger than both of us, he made major contributions to three fields: game theory, algebraic geometry, and nonlinear operator theory. Most of us never get our heads around one. He basically invented the mathematical techniques for studying rational behavior, and he gave the astrophysicists plenty to work over too. Okay?
CATHERINE: Don’t lecture me.
CATHERINE: […] Later a mutual friend told [Gauss] the brilliant young man was a woman.
He wrote to her: “A taste for the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare, but when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarize herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without a doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents, and superior genius.”
(Now self-conscious) I memorized it…
HAL: I’ll tell them we’ve found something, something potentially major, we’re not sure about the authorship; I’ll sit done with them. We’ll go through the thing carefully […] and figure out exactly what we’ve got. It would only take a couple of days, probably, and then we’d have a lot more information. […]
CATHERINE: You can’t take it …] You don’t waste any time, do you? No hesitation. You can’t wait to show them your brilliant discovery.
HAL: I’m trying to determine what this is.
CATHERINE: I’m telling you what it is.
HAL: You don’t know!
CATHERINE: I wrote it.
HAL: I’m a mathematician […] I know how hard it would be to come up with something like this. I mean it’s impossible. You’d have to be…you’d have to be your dad, basically. Your dad at the peak of his powers.
CATHERINE: I’m a mathematician too.
HAL: Not like your dad.
CATHERINE: Oh, he’s the only one who could have done this?
HAL: The only one I know.