During a month that celebrates the impact of women on our world and the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, I couldn’t help but consider the theme of Janice Kaplan’s recently published book, The Genius of Women. The former Parade editor-in-chief, who appeared in Columbus on February 24th, explores why the accomplishments of so many women have been overlooked.
Even in this time of rethinking women’s roles, we define genius almost exclusively through male achievement. When asked to name a genius, most people mention Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. So, Janice Kaplan decided to find out why.
Why, she asks, has the extraordinary work of so many women been brushed aside?
She notes that men have historically determined who gets recognized for groundbreaking accomplishments, and who doesn’t. As a result, there is a long list of extraordinary women who have been punished or ignored in history. Women like Hypatia, the first known female mathematician and philosopher who died at the hands of a Christian mob in fifth-century Alexandria. Or the neglected 17th-century Dutch artist Clara Peeters whose paintings skyrocketed in value after a 2016 exhibition. Kaplan tells how physicist Lise Meitner played a pivotal role in the discovery of nuclear fission, only to see the 1944 Nobel Prize go solely to her male collaborator. There are also dozens of modern-day female trailblazers profiled in The Genius of Women, in fields from music to robotics. But the reality is that, even today, the idea of “women as genius” is not something cultivated in our society. The biases and barriers that have derailed women in history still continue today.
So, what is a genius exactly? According to Kaplan’s definition, geniuses tend to have some combination of innate intelligence, passion, and a dedication to hard work. When I began to think of genius in those terms, quite a few women I know fit that bill. But I never considered them as such. I wonder if, even as a female myself, society’s skewed stance toward women has unconsciously left me, and other women, holding a bias against the idea of women geniuses. During her Columbus visit, Kaplan pointed out that we still haven’t had a woman president and asked the audience (of mostly women) how many countries had women leaders. One person raised her hand and said five. Another guessed twelve. The number, actually, is sixty. Sixty countries have been led by women.
Today, women are lucky because we see many women “geniuses” around us—women who become role models for those who might follow in their footsteps. Gramercy Books recently hosted Kathy Sullivan, the first woman astronaut to walk in space. She authored a memoir, Handprints on Hubble, about her work on the team that launched, rescued, repaired, and maintained the Hubble Space Telescope and the impact it had on this important NASA program. So, we now know how much a woman can achieve in the astronautical field. The more we see accomplished women in books, movies, on TV, and in our communities, we see what high performing and successful women look like. And we might consider them geniuses.
What is equally important is being able to see that a woman can be many things. Kaplan pointed out in her book this idea of containing multitudes, of a woman being many things. A woman can be a professional AND a wife and mother. She can be at the highest level of her field AND be fashionable for example, if fashion is important to her. Fitting within a narrow label is restrictive and doesn’t let any person grow.
One observation made in the book related to the fact that genius really is the intersection of extraordinary ability AND celebrity—not celebrity in the Hollywood way, rather just being recognized for one’s exceptional talent. A lot of women have done, and do, great work but if they aren’t noticed, or they don’t speak out, we never learn of their ability or contribution. So, like the Hamilton musical, how achievement is seen in the moment has to do with who tells your story, or if your story gets told at all.
Women are not often good at telling their own story, many being brought up to be softer spoken and self-effacing in a society where they have less power. They have struggled to have their voices heard in the board room or the executive suite, in their professional disciplines or in the political sphere. Yet, when a larger contingency of women join that board or company, that discipline or the political arena, they bring a new and open perspective and approach.
As in science, without diversity, you go extinct.
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, will be out this September. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.