In a pivotal scene in Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, Amy March, a talented artist who holds high aspirations beyond her family’s modest means, declares to her rich (male) friend Laurie, “because talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great or nothing at all.” Amy also keenly observes, “the world is hard on ambitious girls,” noting that for a woman, it takes more than talent and ambition to ensure the world recognizes her genius. This scene embodies the crux of Janice Kaplan’s new book, The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World, out today from Penguin Random House. Kaplan recognizes that genius women have always existed through the ages while also shedding light on the forces that have kept these women from being recognized and celebrated.
First off, while Kaplan doesn’t offer a precise definition of genius, she notes, “genius requires some combination of innate intelligence, passion, and a dedication to hard work,” and she underscores its importance by saying, “geniuses matter because they are the innovators and visionaries who shake the world.”
But if geniuses matter, what does it say that in a recent poll of attitudes toward genius cited by Kaplan, 90% of Americans said that geniuses tend to be men? Furthermore, the only female genius respondents could name was Marie Curie, the Noble prize-winning scientist who discovered radioactivity.
Kaplan poses the confounding question, “how did we get to the point of ignoring, undermining, and overlooking the extraordinary talents of women?” Through the writing of The Genius of Women, she determines the “real issue separating men and women isn’t talent or achievement or natural brilliance or hard work. It’s being in the position to set the rules. Men have had that power and women have not. Men have been making the decisions about what is good and what matters—and their biases become the status quo, the accepted ethos, for all.” So, in short, it’s no surprise that society assumes all geniuses are men since men have been setting the rules and definitions of what genius is and, therefore, deciding who qualifies as a genius.
Ultimately, Kaplan is interested in understanding how some genius women have risen up despite real and ideological obstacles, and gleaning lessons from them that will help ambitious women of today stay their course. She identifies six key elements that have helped nurture women geniuses.
- It’s crucial for genius women to have the support of one crucial person—a mentor, a teacher, or a parent.
- Women geniuses should ignore their detractors and put up blinders to bias. Once they’re in a position of power, they can then address these barriers for other women on the same path.
- Seeing beyond gender expectations helps women geniuses not be limited by them and to define themselves and their successes on their own terms.
- Having an indefatigably positive approach, which allows to them to see problems as opportunities, is critical for women geniuses to stay on course to achieve their vision.
- Even when societal norms suggest that women aren’t cut out for certain fields, women geniuses possess an unshakable core belief that they belong where they are, doing that at which they excel.
- Women geniuses not only contain multitudes when it comes to their fields of expertise, they also have multifaceted lives, where they play a range of roles.
Spliced throughout the book, Kaplan features several stories of women geniuses, usually to point out how they possess one of the above six elements, which thereby helped them transcend the obstacles placed on them as women in their field. She features the stories of well-known women pioneers, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Geena Davis, and Broadway theater director Tina Landau, and lesser known ones, from Mozart’s sister, Anna Maria, who showed great musical promise as a child, which went uncultivated, to Frances Arnold, the 2018 Noble-Prize-winning chemical engineer.
While Kaplan acknowledges that a woman genius “can be confident and believe in yourself and focus so intently on your work that you don’t see the barriers and biases – and still be tripped up by structural unfairness, social messages, and implicit bias,” she unwittingly reveals her own implicit bias and lack of intersectional perspective, by not recognizing how women of color and other groups of marginalized women have historically faced and continue to face even greater barriers. Of the 13 women’s stories she uses to anchor chapters, only two are those of women of color, media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey and Fei-Fei Li, a scientist and leading expert on artificial intelligence.
Oprah’s transformative life story can be used in so many ways to inspire today’s women to break down major obstacles, including race and gender; however, Kaplan chooses to narrowly focus on Oprah as an example of a woman who sought to become a beauty queen—”Ms. Black Tennessee”—as a means to pursuing her broader ambitions. Given that women of color feature so sparsely in The Genius of Women, it strongly suggests that Kaplan does not truly understand that for these women, it is exponentially harder to “put up blinders to bias,” and to hold onto a “core belief that they belong” when faced with not only biases against their gender but also those against their race.
In the last chapter, Kaplan concludes by noting that “our perceptions of what women can do are transforming, as is our understanding of all that has been lost from women of the past.” While this is certainly true, the only way we can grasp what has been lost to us because of the lack of cultivation and recognition of past women geniuses is if we include women of all backgrounds in that history. Similarly, to know what heights can be reached by empowering future women geniuses, we must see and nurture that potential in young girls of all backgrounds.
Kavita Das worked in social change for 15 years and now writes about race, culture, gender, and their intersections. Das is the author of Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar.