Unapologetically Smart

I am a woman.  I am smart.

I’m using “smart” in the standard academic sense of the word, not to minimize other forms of intelligence (artistic, emotional, spatial-relational, etc.), but to limit the scope of this discussion.

Perhaps I made a few people uncomfortable by opening with those two lines.  Heck, I made myself uncomfortable.  Do I sound too braggadocious?  Should I back up my assertions with cold hard facts?  Is this the right way to make my point?

My parents expected that I would do my best work to the best of my ability.  Early on, I learned not to talk about doing well in school; my academic success was inversely correlated with Positive Reaction of Classmates.  “You got an A?  I hate you!”  How many times did I hear that?  Being average is just that, being average, one of the majority.  Being above-average means drawing attention to yourself and attention, in the hierarchical pack mentality of 1970s public schoolchildren, was rarely good.

In elementary school I proved to be a good speller.  As my “reward,” the teacher removed me from class and sent me to the librarian to dissect word roots, his own personal linguistic passion, one that I did not share.  A good girl does as she is told.

The Junior High yearbook pictured a boy and a girl for each of several categories: Cutest Smile, Most Likely to Be a Moviestar, whatever.  Did we vote?  I think we voted.  Anyhow, I took it as a personal affront that “Most Likely To Succeed” seemed completely independent of academic performance.

In high school, I was insulated from teasing by surrounding myself with like minds.  Three of the five valedictorians came from my core group of HS friends.  Yes, I was one of them.  The valedictorians.  And I was mortified that people, like the entire student body, knew my GPA.

My high school dating experience was quite limited, fortunately.  I knew that boys didn’t like it when girls were too smart and I’m sure that I would’ve played dumber if I deemed it necessary for relational harmony.  So I’m glad I didn’t date much.  My end-of-HS boyfriend, another of the valedictorians, liked his girls smart, and immersed himself in friendships with girls who wanted to study and learn.

By the time college rolled around, I expected the competitive nasty teasing to be over and done with.  Not so much.  I continued to keep my academic situation to myself, even developing a script for when people asked, “What’d you get?”  Never trumpet your cerebral assets from the mountaintops.

I met my college boyfriend when he TA’d my computer programming class.  He seemed to enjoy that I presented him with a question/problem that he couldn’t answer, and I knew there might be some hope of a relationship working.  He married a super smart woman, whose line of work I can barely begin to comprehend, much less explain – something to do with genetics and the various factors that impact cell development, gene expression, and cellular death.

In my junior year at Oberlin, I received a letter from an organization about which I knew exactly nothing: Phi Beta Kappa.  They said I could mail them something like $50 and become a member.  I mentioned the letter to my parents as well as my hesitance to pay the fee and join their little club.  Mom and Dad said, Anne, this is ΦΒΚ.  You have to join.

Enter medical school.  Dating was, uh, interesting.  “I’m in medical school” is completely different from saying “I’m in college.”  People have their own biases about medical school, medical students, doctors, and women doctors.  Even now, many folks who find out I’m a doctor are intimidated.  I found myself trying to reassure the last person to admit intimidation, saying, “Oh, I haven’t been in clinic in a long time,” as if the temporal remoteness of doctorly duties would somehow normalize me.

But back to dating.  Most of the men I dated felt threatened by me and my brain.  I say this because they engaged in frequent micro aggressions, to use a newer word for an ancient concept.  I was familiar with the little jabs, often masked as statements of fact or even compliments.  I’d heard similar sentiments on the playground years prior.  “Of course you would know that because you’re going to be a doctor.”  Or “I only went to business school, not medical school.”

The most glaring example occurred when I was a third-year medical student.  I started dating a first-year resident.  I can’t remember what led up to it, but I basically said Isn’t it cool how the second half of the menstrual cycle is constant, like you can count backwards fourteen days from a woman’s period and, bam, that’s where she would ovulate.  So all the variability in the length of the menstrual cycle comes from the first half.  Awesome.

My boyfriend freaked out because he didn’t know this basic menstrual fact.  He didn’t know it and I did, a third-year med student and more importantly, his girlfriend.  My knowledge made him feel bad about himself.  I backpedalled – I just studied it, you know, so it’s fresh in my mind.  It’s okay.  I’m sure there’s a lot that you know (that I don’t know).

We didn’t last – thank goodness.  Maybe he needed to be with a woman who knew less than he did.  Lora Park (NY Univ at Buffalo) researches this phenomenon, that men want to be smarter than the women they date.

The field of medicine as a whole continues to be rife with sexism and misogyny, as evidenced in a recent Washington Post article.  How many times did people assume I was a nurse?  How many times did patients choose to call me by my first name, while referring to their male physicians as “Doctor”?  And there was that blatant proposition from the professional athlete after I had just finished his rectal exam in the ER.

Where am I going with this?  For many men, it’s deeply unsettling when a woman is smarter, faster, or better at something.  Insecure men often fall back into comforting patterns of objectification, sexism, and misogyny, instead of celebrating women’s strengths.  Regression to Mean.  As men contemplate a long-term committed monogamous relationship, let’s say a relationship lasting at least four years, they are freaked out by the idea that this woman might be smarter than they are.

The 2005 Access Hollywood video and Howard Stern tapes show Donald Trump being himself.  Anyone who is surprised hasn’t been paying attention.  Anyone deciding to disavow only now didn’t do their research.  In Trump’s mind, women are conquests, reduced to a compilation of body parts, either sexually desirable or disdained.  He believes he can take whatever and whoever he wants, without regard to pesky things like consent, legality, or morality.  And men who feel threatened by smart women love the camaraderie of “locker-room talk.”  A good old-fashioned session of misogyny will clear that insecurity right up.

In case you were wondering, #ImNotWithHim.

Here’s the deal: I want my president to be smarter than I am.  I want her (and I’m using “her” as the generic pronoun just for kicks, not as some commentary on Clinton’s candidential viability – I can make up words, right, ’cause I went to medical school), I want her to know more than I do about history, law, politics, Black Lives Matter, economics, conflict resolution, the Labor Movement, public education, communication, government, group dynamics, and activism to name just a few.  I want my president to be able to acknowledge when she is ignorant and continue her journey of lifelong learning.

There you have it.  I’ll see you at the polls and I’ll be voting for a candidate who is #SmarterThanIAm.

I’m all about action.  What can we do?  How can we do better?

1) Raise girls to be unapologetically smart.  This is different from being arrogantly smart or ungenerously smart.  Here’s a script we can teach our girls: “If you feel bad about yourself because of my accomplishments, that’s your problem, not mine.  Don’t attack who I am to feel better about yourself.”

2) Raise boys (and girls) to value smart girls.

3) Teach boys how to bond with each other intimately in ways that don’t denigrate girls and women.

4) Teach boys how to genuinely demonstrate affection, not by pulling hair, physical aggression, or teasing.  At the library, I recently witnessed a teenage boy throwing a girl around.  And he didn’t think he was being mean.  He probably thought he was telling her he liked her.

5) Speak up.  Speak up when you see that teenage boy throwing a girl around.  Speak up in the locker room when teammates start down the well-trod path of sexism and misogyny.  (Ace assures me that he hears reductive sexist banter in the hockey locker room all the time.)  Folks who do psychological work with children, teenagers, and adults, please chime in on suggested approaches.  I must confess, at the library I didn’t know what to do or say.

6) Give kids the vocabulary to admire each other.  “I liked it when you read that poem in class.”  “Wasn’t it awesome when Shanika went off on String Theory and Mr. X was like, dang.”

7) Vote for candidates who are smarter than you are.

8) Add to my list.

Musical Moment #1 evolves to

Musical Moment #2

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Unapologetically Smart

  1. Adam says:

    Well… technically… I don’t think he “enjoyed” that he couldn’t answer the question. 🙂 I am pretty sure that he also liked the fact that you didn’t like that he had answer that would work, but you wanted to know more – you wanted to know why it would work and what was really happening inside that silly VMS box. I would also bet that, almost 30 years later, he remembers the question.

    So… I’m not sure she’s smarter than you. But I’m sure if she’s close, she’ll be plenty smart enough.

    I do remember a person I work with (and I think this was a quote from some show/movie) saying “When did it become a problem that the people who are the leaders are smart? I want a President smarter than me.” (I assume he was unintentionally proving his point by not saying “smarter than I.”)

    Or as Toby Ziegler said: “Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight.”


    • anne says:

      xo (What was the question?)

      • Adam says:

        Well, the question started as “Why doesn’t this loop work?” But… the real question ( and this is where the ‘smart’ came in to play ) was “What I have here should work, why doesn’t it work?” It was about using different loops (repeat – until v while).

        The solution came down to whether or not the conditional should be executed prior to any operation. (Should it always go once even if the conditional is true or should it not execute at all if the conditional is true – basically “do x – if y is true, then stop” instead of “if y is false, then do x until y is true.”)

        28 years ago.

  2. Good stuff, and right on. My own experience growing up was that it wasn’t cool to be a smart boy, either. I learned to dirty up my language and drop a good percentage of my vocabulary to avoid being picked on. There seems to be a significant population that doesn’t like “different,” and different includes above-average intelligence. (I still don’t like thinking of myself as smarter than average, but maybe it’s time I own it, like you do here.) Anyway, it seems to me that presidential candidates who seem too smart get a lot of flack, and it seems doubly so for Ms. Clinton. So let’s start early. Let’s encourage smart to be seen as cool by young people, same as physical prowess. And then the boys in high school who think smart is sexy might get over their fear of asking out smart girls, and maybe we’ll eventually get more smart candidates for president.

  3. Hear, hear! Great post!

    Another idea:
    9) Encourage schools (and their newsletters, and yearbooks, and newspapers, and pep rallies, and PA announcements) to feature and celebrate academic and creative accomplishments as prominently as (or dare we suggest, more prominently than) nonacademic accomplishments: remember all those rallies and announcements about National Merit scholars, AP test takers, debate team wins, quiz bowl, academic decathlon, math team, language competitions, theater productions, music concerts, art installations, etc., that crowded out the ones on athletics? (Yeah, me neither.) Giving these a higher, and more consistent, profile would also put the spotlight on more girls, and for laudable reasons—ones in fact more closely related to the reason schools exist in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *