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The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World


The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World

March had barely begun when the United Nations released its disruptive “Gender Social Norms” report, the findings of which reflect an exhaustive survey of entrenched gender bias in 75 countries across every inhabited continent of the globe.

The most disturbing revelation --- more typical of the 19th than the 21st century --- is that 90% of men and women representing numerous cultures and developmental backgrounds hold some sort of negative bias against females.

Just days before that, Janice Kaplan’s THE GENIUS OF WOMEN was released.

When an acquaintance countered my enthusiasm over Kaplan’s vigorous advocacy for equality by saying, “Oh, you got saddled with another let’s-make-women-great book…” I slowly exhaled and mentioned the UN survey. We had a moment. It was instantly and abundantly clear to both of us that there are not enough similar books on the shelves to make Kaplan’s message redundant, and likely not in our lifetimes.

While she takes a mainly optimistic, celebratory and supportive view of what women have achieved thus far within the strictures of societal patriarchy, her many in-person interviews with and anecdotes about successful women also reflect concern, along with a tinge of sadness and empathy for the obvious and more subtle costs of that success.

"To fully appreciate THE GENIUS OF WOMEN, even the most skeptical reader needs to enter openly into its surprising diversity of feminine narrative."

As many descriptions of THE GENIUS OF WOMEN emphasize, one of the greatest historical and contemporary injustices against women in all fields is not, surprisingly, lack of recognition for achievement, but rather recognition deferred or diluted. Kaplan includes an illustrious series of female ultra-achievers whose work was undermined during their lifetimes to protect the careers and egos of male colleagues.

She shines a deserving light on Maria Anna Mozart, quietly considered to be her famous brother’s superior in musical composition and keyboard technique, but pulled from any possibility of a concert career by the enforced social norms of marriage and child-bearing.

And during the mid-20th century, there was the brilliant physicist Lise Meitner, completely excluded from mention or acknowledgement when the 1944 Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission was awarded to Otto Hahn, with whom she had collaborated for decades.

Just as striking, but fortunately with a much more appropriate outcome, was the almost-dismissal of 2018 Nobel physics winner Donna Strickland. “Donna who???” the world asked. This brilliant Canadian scientist from the University of Waterloo, in my own hometown, was completely unknown to international media. Why? Because she’d been denied a Wikipedia page on grounds that she wasn’t significant enough!

To her everlasting credit, Kaplan mentions Dr. Strickland in the opening pages of THE GENIUS OF WOMEN, helping to firmly quash those patriarchal assumptions that could have doomed her to anonymity. For decades, like many other contemporary women who found a place in Kaplan’s book, Strickland has quietly but diligently mentored young women in science.

The temptation to enfold a long and glorious list of major women --- especially those whose names have been invisible even to avowed feminists --- is overwhelming. But to do so would undermine the richness of Kaplan’s achievement in both celebrating and questioning what it has taken for women to be as successfully recognized as men, often in the same jobs and professional fields.

To fully appreciate THE GENIUS OF WOMEN, even the most skeptical reader needs to enter openly into its surprising diversity of feminine narrative. Every interviewee brings up different reasons why success and failure were often career twins, why women still must work harder and longer to reach acceptable level of power and influence, why the costs are still too high for those who appear to have attained “equality” with male counterparts --- even the not-so-subtle deception behind inferior male job applicants being hired over women of far superior competence.

It may be 2020, but working hard, maximizing your intellectual potential, and simply being the best person for the job have in many respects not brought women an inch closer to true equal recognition. Throughout THE GENIUS OF WOMEN, Janice Kaplan minces no words in telling us why.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 20, 2020

The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World
by Janice Kaplan