Girls Don’t Need Math

Annette Funicello

Annette Funicello

What can you say to attract undergraduate college students to a course in science communication?

When I explain to new acquaintances that my work revolves around science communication, their eyes glaze over.

Boredom sets in.

So how can I persuade students?

My Indian relatives advise me to speak from the heart and tell a story when I’m attempting to convince folks that science is scintillating. That math is sexy.

But I haven’t always felt that way.

After getting poor grades in math in junior high school I declared to my mother that girls don’t need math.

She let out a hoot. It was the dumbest thing she ever heard.

I blame it on Disney.

The film Babes in Toyland (1961) features the song, I Can’t do the Sum (music by Victor Herbert with lyrics by Mel Leven).

In the song, Annette Funicello, perhaps the most famous star to rise from Disney’s Mouseketeers franchise of the 1960s, moans over the bills:

Add, subtract and multiply ‘til you’re overcome.
This is much too hard for us, I can’t do the sum

I saw the movie with my sisters at some Sunday matinee in my youth and have a vivid memory of Funicello’s brow furrowed at the prospect of multiplication.

We all wanted to be just like Annette: wholesome, buxom, sweet-tempered and coupled with dreamboats like Frankie Avalon.

And somehow I came away with the notion that girls don’t need math—Annette didn’t; why should I?

My mother set me straight. Without explanation, persuasion or argument, she simply said I needed to learn math. Period.

I wish someone had told Disney.

A clip of the song can be found at

Photo from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in film, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Girls Don’t Need Math

  1. Is that attitude still pervasive? If so, it’s definitely time to change it. I remember in high school in the early 60s being steered away from math and science, but I insisted and my dad backed me up. I am so glad I learned science – it’s fun!


  2. M Dorman says:

    Yes, that definitely sounds like our mother.


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