Will the Talent and Genius of Women Ever Be Fully Recognized?
I’ve just finished reading The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan, a fantastic book that addresses the contradiction that although amazing, talented women in all fields of study and professions have existed in contemporary and historical times, we struggle to easily recall who they are. One of the points she makes that resounded with me is that women are brought up to instinctually feel less competent and, certainly, less entitled to be given, well… a title.
This past Friday night my husband and I attended the testimonial dinner for the immediate past president of our synagogue. He’s a smart, accomplished guy who helped get us through the complexities of Covid. I give him his due. But, that night, after the endless sports analogies and references to drinking Scotch and smoking barbecued meat, the past president’s speech included the usual thank you to ‘the wife’. I should preface these next comments with the fact that our conservative synagogue, like most, has had a few female presidents and chairpersonships of the major (i.e., serious) committees — finance and long-range planning. We’ve certainly made progress. And, at some point, a female president has thanked her husband. But this past president, in thanking his wife, also made the comment that every major decision he had made at the synagogue was thoroughly vetted with said wife. With the woman behind the scenes. With the woman without the title. And that, although all the accolades were coming his way tonight, some of the thanks belonged to his wife. We applauded her and she was given flowers. What she wasn’t given, what she didn’t ask for, what went by the wayside, was the title. Is this just the expectation of any spouse? Or is this still the expectation, largely, of women?
I was shaken by this moment. I’ve been that wife myself over the years. I have an accomplished husband. I’ve taken a back seat to his career. I’m only now coming out of that phase of my life by reinventing myself as an author. Let me rephrase. I’ve constantly been reinventing myself professionally within parameters that meet the needs and wonts of others in my life. My husband, my parents, my children. Is what I get from defining myself in this limited fashion, accepting this as my role, worth it? The nurturer in me, the mother in me, says yes. The part of me that I’ve secreted away all these years that is now once again emerging, isn’t so sure. I’ve surely lost something along the way. But what?
As we’ve learned ‘you can’t have it all’. Even men. But what men still seem to enjoy to a greater degree than women, whether in professional or volunteer roles, is the constant stroking, the advantage of being formally recognized for what they do, what they contribute. Being given the title. The glory. That is the difference between a woman who discovers how to cut and redesign DNA, or how galaxies come about, and the woman who is given the Nobel prize for doing so. Or being given the chairmanship, or the first authorship in a professional paper.
It’s time we stopped being so generous with our talents. It’s time we demanded more than a bouquet of flowers. It’s time we women thought ourselves worthy of being leaders — from the get-go. By our mothers and our fathers. Our husbands and children. By ourselves. Time we gave our daughters and grand-daughters messaging, from the cradle onward, that sets limitless expectations…that reflects their potential for genius. I gave my daughters, daughter-in-law, and nieces a copy of The Genius of Women at our Passover seders. Dayenu. Thank you, Janice. I hope they get the message.