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Your Fight Is For Posterity: Q&A On “The Genius Of Women”

Author Janice Kaplan has a new book on why brilliant women still live in the shadows, and what we can do to change it.

February 19, 2020

Katie Tandy
Fists Up
Is this the face of a genius? “Vanitas” by Clara Peeters, circa. 1610.

Editor’s note: Here at PULP we believe inclusion should be de rigeur; in this interview the use of “male” and “female” refers to cisborn men and women, reflecting the language of the book.

isogyny is a slippery beast, a shape-shifter. Sometimes it lumbers, bellowing its hate and brandishing its boot-heel, all ogre and misshapen teeth. Sometimes it slithers and slinks, clad in polished heels and smiles, its tongue slender and silver and stunning, spinning lies as swiftly as a child’s pinwheel.

And then again, sometimes it’s your own face staring back at you.

My conversation with author Janice Kaplan explored all three — as does her book.

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The Genius of Women: From Overlooked To Changing The World reads like an enviable travelogue, braiding together personal narrative, historical anecdotes, behavioral science, and dozens of far-flung interviews with genius women — astrophysicist Jo Dunkley, director Tina Landau, neuroscientist Lise Eliot — all wrapped up in big socio-cultural questions on gender, implicit bias, and the subjectivity of brilliance and worth.

“Who we consider a genius changes in who tells their story and when their story gets told.

Kaplan told me she began this book when a friend of hers — Michael Berland, noted pollster and strategist — published a study in 2015 on American attitudes towards genius which revealed everyone, basically (93% of men and 87% of women), believed geniuses to be men.

“How did we get to the point of ignoring, undermining, and overlooking the extraordinary talents of women?” Kaplan asks. Indeed.

Colloquial in tone yet rigorously researched, Kaplan wends her way through the annals of time and back again. She toggles between tales of maddening subjugation and systemic silencing (Watson and Crick openly stealing Rosalind Franklin’s DNA structure discovery or Nobel Prize-winning physicist Donna Strickland not having a Wikipedia page) to stories of tumult and triumph, (the celebrated black hole research of Meg Urry , the 2016 show of Flemish still-life painter Clara Peeters at the Prado) nearly all of which are so impressive each could command their own biopic.

The irony and strange meta-ness of this impressive tome is that it falls prey to some of the very pressures it pushes back against. “Why don’t we know how good we are?” Kaplan writes. “Why don’t we recognize our strengths and potential genius? Because the patriarchy lives inside us.”

Intersectionality is a fundamental piece of the feminist puzzle and gender discourse and in truth, this book doesn’t dig into the admittedly messier politics of those women (or womxn) who occupy multiple marginalizations — class, disability, race, sexuality, gender presentation — and that lack kept snagging me, however fascinating many of Kaplan’s dialogues were.

When I asked her about that absence, about how other vulnerable communities fair in comparison to well-educated, straight white women, she paused and said,It’s a fair question. I hope that book gets written, but I’m not the person to write it. We’ve seen a lot of books recently from people writing about topics and fields outside their own. The other marginalizations are wildly important and play into this topic, but it’s a big topic and a separate one from what I was able to write about.”

I imagine versions of my question will dog Kaplan and her book and perhaps well they should. At the same time, as a woman, a graduate of Yale, a researcher, editor, producer, author of fifteen books, and someone who wended her way through an industry historically caustic towards women — sports journalism — that these accolades will never be sufficient. Kaplan will be subjected to the very same side-eye and hypercriticism she outlays in Genius Women. She will have to “answer” for her book in myriad ways that a man never would.

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It’s pretty amazing when you think about it — men ban half the population from the mainstream and then call them “outsiders.”

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Interestingly enough, Kaplan says that she never felt hemmed in by her gender, which belies an inner strength, outside support, or something more ineffable in between. Genius Women goes to great lengths extolling the importance of nurture and hard work where genius lies; things that change the world are not wrought in passivity or divine chance, but old fashioned elbow grease and tenacity.

Bootstrapping is, of course, an idealistic conceit rooted in privilege and a proximity to whiteness. The women who comprise Kaplan’s book overcame tremendous odds, but the forces that shaped their ability to do so are largely left in the shadows.

“I found in so many of the women that I interviewed that there was a certain kind of blinders to bias,” she says.

“Let’s start from the understanding that there are structural issues in this country that need to be changed — that’s a given. But I was struck by how many of the women had such a focus on the work they wanted to do and the things they wanted to achieve that they went on a very straight line. It was only when they got to the top and they could make change did they look back and think, ‘that was crazy!’”

The myth of genius is a dangerous one that rests its laurels on being “born that way”, but genius Kaplan says, is cultivated. She is nuanced in her examination of the system that rewards that kind of single-mindedness. Kaplan also recognizes that being celebrated in your field shouldn’t be predicated on your ability to stomach prejudice or self-silencing.

“Jo Dunkley [the astrophysicist] told me, “it never occurred to me that I was the only woman in my physics class. And I said, well shouldn’t all women be able to do this then?! And she said, ‘no! you shouldn’t need my personality in order to succeed!’”

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I found myself steeped in a kind of yellow-grey envy fog from time to time as Kaplan jaunted from what seemed like a two-year blur of sparkling luncheons, events, talks, parties, and meetings; her access to powerful and brilliant people seemed boundless and I wanted her to self-examine. Just how did you get here? What might have greased my proverbial path?

When an author chooses to place themselves in the very narrative they’re weaving — and this was an excellent opportunity to do so — they are, in turn, offering an analysis of their presentation of self. Just how and where does Kaplan “fit” among these women? Just how and where do I fit among these women?

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I realized that much of my discomfort was in no small part because Kaplan was, in many ways, unrelentingly self-possessed; she wasn’t apologizing for her success or minimizing her intelligence. And because patriarchy does indeed live inside us, I wanted some self proffered caveats on Kaplan’s behalf. And that is the darkness.

“We live in a world of a thousand nudges,” said Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist at the MIT Media Lab.

The outrightly sexist and bigoted is easy to spot and condemn, while the more subtle swipes at humanhood and genius are perhaps more insidious and treacherous.

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We take social constructs as fact and then try to work backwards and explain them with neuroscience.

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We like to think that there are things on this earth that are objectively good, right, wrong, beautiful, but the truth is everything is subjective — including something that seems particularly boundaried and defineable, like “genius” — and women suffer at the hand of that false truism.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kaplan about her book and it was a fascinating and fraught conversation, one I could have had for many hours — ideally fireside and flanked with some good whiskey. She talked to me about her process as a writer, her joy in talking to extraordinarily smart and inspiring people, and of course, what the hell we can do about shifting our society’s perception on gender and genius.

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One of my favorite aspects of this book is the conversation around the very concept of what a genius is, how it can be fostered (or not) and how it became so gendered.
I think I’ve also always labored under the belief that “true genius” was inherent, that some things “just can’t be learned,” but this book helped me unpack that a bit…what was your journey like in your relationship to the word/concept of genius “before/after” writing this book?

The people I’ve interviewed or many of them have done something original and changed a field, made an impact that will be felt. One of the problems in the past is with our concept of extraordinary talent — when women don’t get attention, they can’t have that impact. I thought it was important that women could see themselves as experts and geniuses and see themselves in those terms. If that’s not in your realm of possibility it’s not going to happen.

The tricky part is, everyone keeps asking me of course, ‘well are you a genius?’ And I say, ‘Am I genius? Oh no no no! I don’t put myself in that category with these women, but none of these women put themselves into that category either.

Related to this are the brilliant, but often manipulative/coercive ways women bypass systemic misogyny to have their genius recognized or even get to participate at all in their chosen field/industry…it’s so fraught and tangled!

Can you talk a bit about that tension?

In the chapter on beauty, people were pretty ardent on both sides of the equation. ‘I shouldn’t be penalized for nice clothes or high heels.’ But I can’t help but think we are penalized for that. When you put on high heels you are, quite literally, hobbling yourself. On this book tour I am not wearing high heels and I am very excited! I am wearing flat boots — the point of this book is to resist stereotypes. We spend time worrying about things that will never help us succeed at anything. I asked my husband this year if we could put a sign on our door this Halloween that said, “no princesses allowed”. I see all these young girls and they’re wearing “girl power” t-shirts with tutus, but what message are they receiving louder?

We all have to figure out how to get along in the world in whatever generation we’re living in. Composer Fanny Mendelsson chose to publish under her brother, but she also threw huge salons where hundreds of people arrived to hear her play. This was possible because it was considered a party, not a performance. It’s horrible! But on the other hand, you have to be realistic.

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Beware of men who ask you to complete them.

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Another topic you surface is that of celebrity and the notion of ideas being sanctioned/celebrated by gallery walls, by academia, by journals, by a foundation that is predicated on “objective achievement” that is essentially a fallacy…

I realize it’s a huge undertaking, but how do we begin redefining/calibrating these parameters?

It helps when we have more women in power. What we’re talking about in all of this is power. Who gets to define and set the rules. When men are in power they’re going to define everything through their own lens. No one can blame them, no one wants to give it up when they have it. They’re going to define power through men.

We need women in power who are hiring other women.

I love this idea you surface of a societal placebo effect — that beliefs and expectations can literally shape our achievements…which dovetails with a later concept in the book around the self-objectification of women, of observing oneself through the damaging lens’ of others…

‘We’re liberal and woke.’ We don’t realize how deeply these issues infiltrates our lives. Think of the study of the Asian women who were given a math test. If they were reminded that they were Asian before the test they performed vastly better than if they were reminded that they were girls. You think, ‘this is math. You know calculus or you don’t.’ But even in something like that — how you perceive yourself is more important than any knowledge. The anxiety of these truths can interfere with your ability to function.

A sugar pill can make you well if you believe it and the opposite is true as well.

I’m always keen to know a little bit about other writers’ processes — are you a dogged “ten-pages a day come hell or high water” person or a more, “when the mood strikes” …or somewhere in the middle?

I love to write, but I also think of it as a job. I’m pretty rigid about my schedule. I start first thing in the morning and write all day — maybe stopping around 2 or 3. You have to take it seriously. If you wait to write until inspiration strikes you will never write. I write in many different places: On trains, the Yale Club to write because I love the library. I’m not so good on airplanes.

I never finish a book and not know what the next one will be, but I’m so invested in this topic that I’m just focused on this, hoping to find many iterations of its message and see what conversations happen.

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