A Q&A with Janice Kaplan, author of ‘The Genius of Women’

Extraordinarily talented women have always existed – they just haven’t been acknowledged. Janice Kaplan is setting the record straight.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Matt Mercado
Janice Kaplan appears with her new book, “The Genius of Women.”

Janice Kaplan was floored after a survey showed 90% of Americans believe geniuses are most likely to be men. “You can’t get 90% of Americans to agree on anything!” says Ms. Kaplan, former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine and author of 14 books. “We always tell girls now they can be anything, but does that mean you can be anything but geniuses?” In “The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World,“ Ms. Kaplan rediscovers geniuses from the past, spotlights living ones, and presents inspiring, thought-provoking  lessons from their journeys. 

Q: How do you define genius?

How we define a genius changes over time and in how a story gets told. I interviewed one professor at Cambridge who described genius as where extraordinary ability meets celebrity – celebrity in the sense of being recognized and having your work noticed. Over the centuries, women have had the extraordinary talent over and over again, but their work has not been noticed or recognized. I tell the story of the amazing Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission in the 1930s. It was a huge breakthrough and it won the Nobel Prize. I said “it” won the Nobel Prize, because Lise Meitner did not win the Nobel Prize; her lab partner, Otto Hahn, did.  

Q: Is the situation improving?

I tell the story of two women who were key in the CRISPR study [a groundbreaking gene-editing technique]. They have won some big awards, but right now there are men trying to rewrite the story, trying to take the credit. ... Certainly the barriers for women are far lower than they’ve ever been before, but the barriers are much higher than we sometimes realize. 

Q: Which story particularly affected you?

Composer Fanny Mendelssohn, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, who most people at the time said was more talented than he was. She composed, she traveled, she played with him, and at some point her father, Abraham, wrote her a letter basically saying, “Music can be Felix’s life forever, but for you it can only just be a hobby. Your real life must be as a housewife. ...” Just imagine how you would feel, being told the whole society is standing up against you, and you can’t do this. Part of why it’s enraging also is to realize how much we still do that, in much subtler ways. 

Q: What can we do about it?

Genius by its definition means you’re an original and you’re distinctive. But as I did my research, I found many traits these women had in common. We need structural change, of course. [But] one thing I found surprising was so many of these genius women seemed to have blinkers to bias [against them]. Despite all the things that were in their way, they didn’t see it. ... Virtually all the women had one person who believed in them. ... That one person who believes in you can sometimes be enough to overcome all the obstacles that bigger society throws in your path. I’ve found the genius women had a really positive approach. 

Q: I was surprised that so many of the women had children.

Wasn’t that wonderful? Again, there are many structural issues that compromise a lot of women’s careers and keep a lot of promising women from achieving what they should. That said, almost all the women I interviewed said their partners or spouses shared child care responsibilities. [For them], having children, having a family seemed to enrich their lives rather than take away from it. I think [having] many roles in their lives takes a little bit of the emotional burden off each one.

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