The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan Read Online (FREE)
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A cadre of academics—all men—put together a canon of books some years ago that they considered essential reading. These Great Books came to define what it means to be an educated person, and schools including Columbia University and the University of Chicago used them as the basis for a core curriculum.
A hundred or more books made the list. Not one of them was written by a woman.
The men behind the Great Books sanctimoniously claimed that they chose works that contained great ideas, and they didn’t care who wrote them. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that they were fooling themselves. Our decisions about what is great and worthy and valuable are based at least in part on social expectations. We appraise value—whether in intellectual ideas, pocketbooks, or real estate—within a socially accepted context. For the male academics who made the list, and for so many before and since, the expectation was that men were the geniuses worth studying.
My friend Michael Berland, the well-known pollster and strategist, conducted a survey just a few years ago to understand people’s attitudes toward genius. Mike has been doing polls for a long time, and he is better than almost anyone at predicting results and then knowing how to use the findings to move forward. But the genius poll floored him. In one question, he asked who was most likely to be a genius—and 90 percent of Americans said that geniuses tended to be men. When asked to name a female genius, almost the only name anyone could come up with was Marie Curie.
How did we get to the point of ignoring, undermining, and overlooking the extraordinary talents of women? In our current era of assumedly aroused consciousness to gender issues, why do both men and women still believe that men’s contributions to society are the ones that really count?
In interviewing dozens of mathematicians, physicists, artists, writers, philosophers, and Nobel Prize winners for this book, I have discovered that 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.
Recognizing genius does not have to be a zero-sum game—and yet it often feels that way. There are only so many Nobel Prizes and tenured jobs at Harvard. There is only so much space for great works in museums and only so many authors whose works can be listed on a core curriculum. You would think that a more aroused awareness in recent years would turn a list like Great Books into a dated relic, but any change gets met with angry resistance. When Columbia University started revising its required reading list to include women writers like Sappho, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Jane Austen, even some of the most liberal male professors were outraged. Sure, Virginia Woolf is worth reading and maybe she even redefined the novel more dramatically than anyone else of her time. But which man gets dropped to make way for her?