January 30, 2005

Sex and genius

On Friday, the Association for Women in Mathematics chapter at my school hosted a mathematician with a background in women's studies who spoke on the notion of 'genius', with some attention to the Larry Summers fiasco. In a paper she's currently writing, she argues that the idea of 'genius' -- at least in the Western tradition -- is a bundle of slightly incompatible notions, including perseverence, innateness of ability, independence and autonomy, transcendence (disconnectedness from the mundane world), and masculine virility. A sub-thesis of her work is that this bundle of notions might explain the treatment of brilliant women, who almost universally are regarded as either sub-par intellectually or as unfeminine.

Though I only skimmed her paper, and she did not talk about the connection much during the talk, I believe her argument is one I've seen before, in such feminist philosophers as Monique Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir: all the above 'virtues of genius' can be identified with 'qualities of masculinity', and set opposed to 'qualities of femininity'. Women, according to classical stereotypes which are still prevalent in various degrees today, are capricious and unreliable, innately mentally and physically deficient compared to men, dependent on a husband or father and simultaneously responsible for the care of others, domestically fertile rather than heroically virile, and immanent (completely of the mundane world; it is an antinomous with transcendent in the above list). Hence, according to this dichotomy, an intellectual woman is, by definition, a contradiction in terms: either a 'failure' as a woman or a failure as an intellectual.

I've emailed her, asking for permission to link to the paper so you can read it for yourself (not that any of you will actually be interested); for the time being, you can check out her website.

Update: She has let me know that she doesn't want her paper available quite that publicly; however, feel free to contact her via the email address on her site.

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