A mathematics and suffrage pioneer's time at MassMutual

Allen Wastler

By Allen Wastler
Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Posted on Jun 2, 2020

In honoring the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement in America, MassMutual pays particular homage to Charlotte Cynthia Barnum.

Barnum was the first female employee hired by MassMutual. For the time, 1898, that was notable in and of itself. Women made up less than 20 percent of the nationwide workforce and most of that employment was piecework (typically in textiles), domestic service, or store employment.1

But Barnum was hired as an actuary, someone who analyzes statistics, calculates risks, and ultimately determines the premiums for insurance coverage. It was, and still is, one of the fundamental roles in the insurance business and at that time was dominated by men. MassMutual had to adjust its hiring policies to allow for the hiring of women (specifically, single women) in order to bring her on board.

At the time, Barnum’s resume was already impressive. In 1881, she received her undergraduate degree from Vassar College and spent time teaching mathematics and astronomy, including a stint at Smith College. She also did computing work for the Yale Observatory and Webster’s International Dictionary.

And in 1895,  she was one of the first three women to graduate with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. Her dissertation was on "Functions Having Lines or Surfaces of Discontinuity." She also became one of the first women members of the American Mathematical Society.

Originally, in 1890, she wanted to pursue her doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University, but the school didn’t accept women into its program, graduate or otherwise. She persisted and eventually won the support of a professor of mathematics and astronomy there, Simon Newcomb. He prevailed upon the administration to allow her to attend classes without enrollment and without charge. She did so for two years, then moved to New Haven in 1892, when Yale started admitting women as students.2

After receiving her Ph.D., Barnum went on to teach mathematics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. That’s when applied mathematics and, particularly, insurance, seemed to catch her interest. She joined the American Institute of Actuaries in early 1898 and, shortly thereafter, joined MassMutual.

Unfortunately, her time with the company was short — less than a year. She moved on to other insurance work and computing jobs at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, she became active in a number of charitable and social organizations, including the Women’s Joint Legislative Commission for Equal Rights. As part of those efforts, she wrote a number of articles on social legislation, including one suggesting that women working from home stop undermining those working in business settings.

“Women can do much towards raising their wages if those living at home will make it a point of honor to compete fairly with those entirely dependent upon themselves,” she wrote for the Women’s Trade Union League in 1911.

She eventually went back to teaching and, after a long career, died in 1934 at the age of 73 of meningitis.

Barnum left behind a long record of academic and professional achievement during a time when the odds and environment weren’t favorable or supportive of women in the classroom or workplace. And MassMutual is proud of its association with her, however brief. Later, in 1909, the company would hire its second woman, Angie Cooper, as a telephone operator. In the following months, 10 other women joined the MassMutual workforce.

But it was Charlotte Barnum who paved the way. And so we salute her work and her accomplishments.

Learn more from MassMutual …

Remembering Caleb Rice

Our Dr. Seuss connection

A long history of Living Mutual

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Journal of Economic History, “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 to 1920,” March 1980.

American Mathematical Society, “Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 Ph.D.s,” last modified March 2016.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.