Undeniable Examples of Women Geniuses?
June 4, 2008 10:36 PM   Subscribe

GeniusFilter: Help me win an argument and prove that there ARE undeniable examples of women geniuses throughout history or even today.

My Aunt argues that there are no women geniuses and that only men can be geniuses. I know she is wrong and that the lack of notable women geniuses in history has been due to masculine hegemony, historical social norms, etc. However, she is not swayed by such arguments and I need some good counter examples to prove her wrong. I've looked in Google and no convincing examples immediately present themselves.

Please provide examples of women geniuses (in Arts, Sciences, Math, Philosophy, or any field).

In the unlikely event that she is correct, please provide scientific reasoning as to why this is?
posted by DetonatedManiac to Society & Culture (62 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Marilyn Vos Savant was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest IQ (although those measurements are not without controversy) and she is a woman. I think we'll need to know your aunt's definition of "genius" in order to really answer the question, though.
posted by amyms at 10:47 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Define Genius?

I'd say Marie Curie would be up there. She discovered polonium, and won two Nobel Prizes in two sciences - the first and only person to do so.

Although, maybe that is dedication to work, not necessarily genius. You'd really need to explain what you mean by genius.
posted by cholly at 10:48 PM on June 4, 2008

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël
Hildegard of Bingen
posted by phunniemee at 10:54 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a big fan of chess grandmaster Judit Polgar. When she earned her grandmaster ranking, at age 15, she was the youngest person ever to do so. Her sisters are also pretty good.
posted by flotson at 10:56 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let me clarify:

it is actually my mom and my aunt who are having this argument, my mom simply drafted me to find some ammunition for her side (which I tend to agree with).

I left it open about the "definition" of genius since this is partly what they are arguing about... but if you want a standard, the standard is: Most Convincing

Something in the realm of Socrates, Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Michaelangelo.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 11:01 PM on June 4, 2008

I agree that the definition of genius will determine how this argument plays out, and that it will probably not end well.

Here are a couple of (half-remembered) remarks about Feynman, who a lot of people consider a genius: "Dick's method? His method is to write down the problem, think very hard, then write down the answer" and "[some other scientist] was very intelligent, but only the way you'd be intelligent, if you were ten times as intelligent as you are now. Feynman was intelligent in some completely different way".

And for free I'll throw in: "Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:02 PM on June 4, 2008 [10 favorites]

The English language novel would not have its current form were it not for (at least one) Brontë and Austen. Undeniable giants in the field. I'd put Shelly in there too, frankly. The mother of science fiction, no?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:04 PM on June 4, 2008

Well, unless you have an undeniable way of quantifying genius, I'm not really sure how you'll give her an undeniable example of female genius.

That said, there are three women right off the top of my head that are sort of archetypical geniuses from literature. Name Emily Dickinson if you want someone who was massively innovative, eccentric, and reclusive. There is Sylvia Plath if you want an example of a tortured genius. Mary Shelley if you want to name a wunderkind.

Now, their genius is debatable to the extent that all genius is debatable, but they fit some of the more recognizable constructs of "genius."
posted by Weebot at 11:08 PM on June 4, 2008

In arts? Emily Dickenson? Virginia Woolf? Charlotte Bronte? Mary Shelley? Those're just four examples of writers who had a profound effect on our culture, which certainly qualifies them for genius status.

I expect that there many women in modern science who could certainly be qualified as geniuses, but don't get popular attention that Einstein and his ilk got because things have advanced so far that no single person can have the same sort of sweeping revelations today that Einstein had back then.

Here's a list of women in science.
posted by Caduceus at 11:08 PM on June 4, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Mexican scholar and poet. She taught herself Latin before she was ten, and she was ordained as a nun because it was the only way she could study. She had to give up her extensive library and her collection of musical and scientific instruments to avoid being prosecuted by the Inquisition.

She's the only woman in Mexico's bills.
posted by clearlydemon at 11:09 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ninja'd twice over on the literature front. Ah, well.
posted by Caduceus at 11:09 PM on June 4, 2008

Surely genius doesn't need to be only science.

Margaret Thatcher was a brilliant political operator

Joni Mitchel is a genius songwriter

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant story teller

And yeah, define genius.
posted by mattoxic at 11:16 PM on June 4, 2008

Susan Sontag, Leni Riefenstahl, Esfir Shub, Maya Deren, Annie Leibowitz, Ayn Rand, Frida Kahlo, Anais Nin, and so many more...
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:19 PM on June 4, 2008

Maybe also Mary Somerville.
posted by phunniemee at 11:19 PM on June 4, 2008

Something in the realm of Socrates, Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Michaelangelo.

Well, that's the sticking point, right?

Western civilization has trended heavily patriarchal for thousands of years - perhaps forever. In such a situation societal pressures tended to direct women away from philosophy, art, and science and into... oh I dunno... housekeeping.

So your question is two fold: 1.) Are there women geniuses? And 2.) if so, why doesn't history reveal them?

The answer to the first question is; yes, certainly there are women who are geniuses. (Despite the fact that I once dated someone who didn't believe in atoms.) The second question is a bit more complicated but I've tried to outline it above.

The good news is that in the west subjects of inquiry are opening to women. Science, philosophy, and art have all seen examples of women genius in the past century or so. Today there is absolutely nothing eyebrow-raising or heretical about a women pursuing any of these fields.

My personal favorite smart woman? Hannah Arendt.
posted by wfrgms at 11:20 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lady Ada Lovelace (though the Wiki page doesn't actually do her justice, now that I'm rereading it...the idea of the universal machine didn't originate with Turing, but with Lovelace)

Princess Elizabeth (cleverer than Descartes by half)

Émilie du Châtelet (Voltaire's lover for a time, he became disillusioned with her once it became apparent that she was smarter than he would ever be)
posted by voltairemodern at 11:21 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I could introduce your aunt to my friend who is a CalTech graduate and AI researcher, but she would probably be strained to understand why she's a genius. Hell, the second she starts talking in vector equations I'm totally lost, but smitten.

There are lots and lots of women working in science today who are geniuses. We just don't really ever hear about them - in the same way we hardly hear about scientists in general - scientific research has rapidly progressed beyond the understanding of laymen (such as myself).

"Ho, hum... Did you hear about that new Bose Einstein condensate experiment? They've discovered anomalous eigenvectors in the collapsing wavefronts!*" or "She discovered an entiely new and better way of analyzing protein folding!*" doesn't exactly grab front page headlines these days, except in trade journals and special interest magazines.

Try reversing the argument, and seeing if she can recall any current geniuses that are male.**

*Neither of these are actually really scientific phrases. They're just strings of pretty words that sound scientific. I am not a scientist or an engineer.

**Bill Gates is not a genius. Nor is Steve Jobs. Wozniak? Ok, but is he currently a genius? No, probably not.
posted by loquacious at 11:27 PM on June 4, 2008

Hypatia. Game over.

And pray, tell your fool aunt to educate herself before denying the contributions of one half of humanity for whatever inexplicable reasons she may have. I suspect she is more comfortable blaming her sex rather than her personal inadequacies for her failures, but I am probably stepping way over the line.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:28 PM on June 4, 2008 [7 favorites]

Also, if you want another example from physics, try Lise Meitner. She was shy Jewish woman who became the second woman to receive a doctorate in Physics from the University of Vienna, who would then escape from Nazi Germany, discover nuclear fission while in exile, get robbed of the Nobel Prize, and eventually would have the element meitnerium named after her. Her discovery was instrumental towards the creation of the atomic bomb (She "left Germany with the bomb in my purse.", the press would say), though she wasn't too pleased about that development. Exciting life.
posted by Weebot at 11:31 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

And pray, tell your fool aunt...

Yes, but first kindly explain to her that gender bias has always made it far more difficult for a female "genius" to even have the opportunity to exercise her gift.
posted by kurtroehl at 11:33 PM on June 4, 2008

From mathematics, there's Sofia Kovalevskaya, who proved the Cauchy-Kovalevsky theorem in partial differential equations, and Maria Gaetana Agnesi, who wrote one of the first books on differential and integral calculus.
posted by pravit at 11:39 PM on June 4, 2008

Explain that history is written by the winners. If she is unaware that women had to hide behind assumed names and resort to other subterfuges to exercise their talents, then a huge job of education will need to be done.
posted by Cranberry at 11:43 PM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

The problem is it's only been recently that women have had a more level playing field in terms of making accomplishments, but most scientific advances are much to esoteric for ordinary people to really grasp.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 PM on June 4, 2008

Emmy Noether. As written by Albert Einstein:
In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.... Emmy Noether, who, in spite of the efforts of the great Göttingen mathematician, Hilbert, never reached the academic standing due her in her own country, none the less surrounded herself with a group of students and investigators at Göttingen, who have already become distinguished as teachers and investigators.
posted by panic at 12:11 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Artemisia Gentileschi
posted by Wolof at 1:09 AM on June 5, 2008

I'd second Curie, although your aunt will probably dismiss her because she was working with her husband; you can find a list of women who won the Nobel here. Note to your aunt that she won her second on her own. And there are bugger all people who have ever won two in different fields. Her daughter won one, too.

I'd dismiss Shelley, because, frankly, one work ever? I would, however, include her mother; who laid the groundwork for modern feminism.

In science there's some controversy around Rosalind Franklin. If you wanted to demonstrate why there aren't as many credited women geniuses, they way she got screwed over key discoveries of how DNA works are a pretty good illustration.

Of course, as others have noted, a lot will hinge on what you consider genius. Was Elizabeth I a genius? It's not unheard of for people to describe, say, Bismark as a genius, and I don't think it's unreasonable to claim she was as great a nation-builder as he was, and significantly more successful (her protestant English monarchy grew into an Empire and did a great deal better for a great deal longer than Bismark's Prussian-dominated unified Germany); consider likewise Catherine the Great of Russia.
posted by rodgerd at 2:03 AM on June 5, 2008

Coco Chanel? "Yet Chanel hated being called a genius because it implied luck, not effort, and she had worked hard for her considerable success: No. 5 was the first perfume to be sold worldwide and is still the biggest-selling perfume in the world. It established her as a formidable businesswoman as well as creative force at a time when it was unheard of for women to do such things. For Coco Chanel was a true pioneer, whose ideas changed the women dressed forever."
posted by iviken at 2:13 AM on June 5, 2008

Mary Ann Evans wrote Middlemarch, which is often touted as the finest novel of the 19th century, if not of all time. She was unquestionably a genius, just read her work, it's incredible. She also made the first English translation of Baruch Spinoza's 'Ethics' into English, I'm amazed she hasn't been mentioned yet.
I agree with the overall sentiment of the thread that women really haven't been given the chance to shine in the chosen fields (maths, philosophy, science) until extremely recently. That said, I'll offer a case for the other side, for which I've completely failed to find any links, which is the idea that there is more variability when it comes to men. That you tend to get more male geniuses, but also more male criminals. The reason for this would be that in polygamous societies (many women for each male) you'd have to be quite special to pass your genes on if you were a man. Women on the other hand can get pregnant fairly reliably, and so don't need to have this element of risk programmed into their genes. I'm sure I've read this somewhere on the blue, perhaps someone else remembers the link?
posted by greytape at 2:59 AM on June 5, 2008

I'm a bit shocked that no one has mentioned Grace Hopper yet. She also coined the term "Bug" and "Debugging" as it related to computer systems. You used to have to literally clean those things out of the old machines.

For shame!
posted by michswiss at 3:11 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your argument is really over "famous genius", where famous is, "every school child knows about". I'm not sure that using that test you can win. There's only a handful of people like that, and they're all men. The playing field for becoming a renowned genius has not been level throughout history.

If you can get your aunt to agree to take away the "school child famous" distinction, there are inarguably countless genius-level brilliant women.
posted by popechunk at 3:52 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

@fire&wings... I think calling someone a "genius" or not based on your subjective opinion of the worth of what they accomplished is a little dodgy. The Pieta's a really nice statue -- I've seen it. Is it better than "Jane Eyre"? Not to me, but I'm one person.

What Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo are is untouchable cultural heroes. You don't say "Eh, I think the Sistine Chapel's kinda ugly, really. I saw a painting at the mall the other day I liked a lot more" ... even if it's what you really think... for the same reason it's not okay to slag on Ghandi, MLK, JFK, etc. Or mention that Hitler had some good ideas that FDR copied.

Even in our semi-enlightened modern era, it's very difficult for a woman to achieve the same kind of cultural sainthood in the same arenas. Look at the uphill battle Clinton just went through, where everything she did was interpreted through the filter of her walking into manly territory with a vadge on. Women still get smacked down for daring to display the exact same traits that accompany changing the world. Look at the female political figures on this list... how many of them died nastily for daring to accomplish so much?

The women who achieve that same kind of sacrosanct status do it through "safe" channels. Mother Theresa, the horde of writers that have already been mentioned, historical figures like Florence Nightengale... they won their untouchability through accepted womanly traits such as nurturing and (acceptable lately, but not back when the Pieta was carved) creative expression.

Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci had unique circumstances behind them. Powerful, rich backers... an era in history that supported what they were doing... and opportunities to create work that would be seen and endure in important, lasting places. Look at the other ninja turtles... do you know them as well? Why not? Because they didn't get the same opportunities for fame. Fame =! genius.
posted by Gianna at 4:05 AM on June 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

What about the nameless women who invented agriculture while the men were off hunting, or more likely hanging out in the forest bragging about their exploits and having pissing contests?
posted by zadcat at 4:23 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

musically, meredith monk.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:31 AM on June 5, 2008

If you are willing to go beyond the narrow confines of Western civilization (although somehow I doubt your aunt would even acknowledge them...), Murasaki Shikibu is a top level cultural heroine in Japan; author of one of the earliest novels in any language, whose work is still studied in schools today, and whose name everyone knows, rather like English speakers know about Shakespeare. Almost on equal footing in Japanese culture is Sei Shonagon.
posted by thread_makimaki at 4:44 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a whole rant going, but it was just pissing into the wind, a task I prefer to leave to others. (I'm not cleaning that mess up, by the way.)

Anyway. Some sterling examples from the world of classical music- never mind Shakespeare's sister, what about Nannerl, W.A. Mozart's thwarted sister? (Arguably- but that's really the point. There is no way of knowing.) Mendelssohn's slightly less thwarted sister. In our less restrictive times: Yehudi Menuhin had two sisters- all three were considered prodigies. Yalta, and the other sister Hepzibah. Nadia Boulanger is another example who would be known to aficionados of 20th century classical music.

Perhaps you need your aunt to define genius in order to better pick your weapons. If she believes it is a term which only can only be applied to masculine achievement then you have what I believe is called a circular argument.
posted by Coaticass at 4:57 AM on June 5, 2008

As far as literature goes, I think Anne Tyler should be mentioned. Her character studies are just excellent.
posted by h00py at 4:58 AM on June 5, 2008

By sterling examples, I mean of talented women whose opportunities to shine may have been more or less limited... sorry. That was clearer when I was ranting. (Or maybe not.)
posted by Coaticass at 5:00 AM on June 5, 2008

(raises hand) I'm a genius, and I'm a woman.

Okay, let me clarify a little -- the most widely accepted definition of "genius" actually is "someone whose IQ is in the upper 2% of the average." Coincidentally, that's how MENSA determined their membership -- and I'm a MENSA member. Ergo, I have a genius-level IQ.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:02 AM on June 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

My favourite explanation for the differences in abilities between men and women came to me via Malcolm Gladwell:

"In other words, although the average math ability of boys and girls is the same, the distribution isn't: there are more males than females at the bottom of the pile, more males than females at the top of the pile, and fewer males than females in the middle. Statisticians refer to this as a difference in variability... This pattern, as it turns out, is repeated in almost every conceivable area of gender difference."

So yes - there are less female 'geniuses' than men (and let's not forget the corollary: there are more male 'morons') but I don't think anyone reasonable could state that there has never been a female genius. Just this week The Globe and Mail recently profiled the world's youngest professor Ali Sabur:

"She then went on to complete a master's degree and doctorate in materials sciences and engineering at Drexel University, while being on record as the youngest person to have received fellowships from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defence... She is also a brilliant musician, having attended the renowned Julliard School's music division, where great musicians mentored her. She's no pushover either, as she's earned a black belt in tae kwon do."
posted by copystar at 5:15 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Previously: Why the dearth of female philosophers? | Ask Metafilter
posted by Coaticass at 5:32 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think physicist Fotini Markopoulou is probably a strong contender for a modern genius, or genius in the making.
posted by greatgefilte at 5:41 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ask your aunt to list, oh, 20 people she thinks is a genius. Presumably this list will be composed entirely of men. Go through the list and explain the advantages they all had over women.

If the genius was from way in the past point out that during that time there was almost no chance for a woman to enter the same field without undergoing vastly greater hardships than the men would face (in education and in reception from all community surrounding that field). When possible, point out women who have made contribuations.

For all those people on the list from the modern era that she considers a genius either point out corresponding females who did similar work and she just isn't aware of or, again, explain how all the bias in the system (there are plenty of studies that show that females experience all sorts of discrimination in class rooms that would stifle interest in excelling in a field) hurts the chance of a woman from entering and excelling in a field.

I think this may be a good way to explain to your aunt the reason why she doesn't know of many female geniuses.
posted by Green With You at 6:55 AM on June 5, 2008

Hypatia is the name you are looking for.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:57 AM on June 5, 2008

If you consider the fact that she couldn't sing and was kind of funny-looking when she first hit it big, it's not hard to see why Madonna's been hailed as a genius for wringing 25+ years of fame out of turning pop music into a visual medium.

(Personally, I think Dorothy Parker and Josephine Baker were much more brilliant overall, but in much harder-to-define ways.)
posted by kittyprecious at 7:21 AM on June 5, 2008

Howard Garnder, Theory of Multiple Intelligences

From the web link I provided:

Linguistic intelligence ("word smart"):
Logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart")
Spatial intelligence ("picture smart")
Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")
Musical intelligence ("music smart")
Interpersonal intelligence ("people smart")
Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")
Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart")

Your aunt is a mysoginist. Hit her with a stick.

Her definition of smart is probably rooted in the West's obsession with logical-mathematical intelligence as the only 'genius'. I respectfully submit both Michaelangelo and Bernini as non-logical genii, though both are men. There are plenty of recognized and un-recognized women geniuses in too many fields to count.

Again, hit your aunt with a stick and cause her to be quiet. Jeez.
posted by FauxScot at 7:45 AM on June 5, 2008

I definitely think Emmy Noether and Grace Hopper both fit the genius mold.

Right now, for a real living breathing genius, google Daphne Koller. The lady is scary smart.
posted by crinklebat at 8:12 AM on June 5, 2008

Agree that the "title" of genius has not been given so freely for the women, even when deserved. I think that it's likely that the OPs aunt will argue that she's never heard of Artemisia Gentileschi or some of the other women who deserve to be more widely acknowledged as geniuses.

But I think that it's pretty damn hard to argue with Marie Curie.

She was recognized in her own time (what with being the first person to win/share two Nobel Prizes), her contributions have withstood the test of time, and she's widely 'famous' even to those with absolutely no interest in physics/chemistry.

Second place for argument-stopper goes to Ayn Rand.
posted by desuetude at 8:17 AM on June 5, 2008

For poetic genius, you can't really beat Sappho, who has inspired other poets (mostly men!) for centuries. Take a look at this page (ignore obnoxious blue background) for examples of the obsession just one of her poems has caused (includes poems by Catullus, Lord Byron, Tennyson, William Carlos Williams...).
posted by CiaoMela at 8:25 AM on June 5, 2008

In mathematics, there is Sophie Germain (who had to publish under a male pseudonym), the aforementioned Emmy Noether, and believe it or not, Florence Nightengale. We think of Nightengale more as a nurse these days, but I'm more amazed by how she kickstarted the field of information visualization. And seconding Ada Lovelace, essentially the world's first computer programmer. Another famous computer scientist, the first person to write a compiler is Grace Hopper. Elsewhere in science are the previously mentioned Hypatia of Alexandria and Marie Curie and the surprisingly not mentioned Jane Goodall.
posted by ErWenn at 11:08 AM on June 5, 2008

She's definitely wrong, of course, but you may actually be wrong too, in your reasoning at least. The idea that "the lack of notable women geniuses in history has been due to masculine hegemony, historical social norms, etc." is seriously in doubt as an exhaustive explanation. No doubt that has plenty to do with it, particularly outside of the last century, but as copystar notes, while males and females have identical average IQs, the distribution appears to be quite a bit wider among men. We should then expect both fewer geniuses and fewer morons. Here is a transcript of a debate from Edge on a related topic by Stephen Pinker (a leading proponent of biological accounts of sex differences and many differences between people in general) and Elizabeth Spelke.
posted by abcde at 11:34 AM on June 5, 2008

Olympia Morata.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on June 5, 2008

If you need a good talking point about how history is written by the winners, tell your aunt about how Catherine Littlefield Greene, Eli Whitney's landlady, most likely invented the cotton gin.
posted by workerant at 12:08 PM on June 5, 2008

A lot (but not all) of the answers for this question are "debatable" at best. Josephine Baker, Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelly (sp), Coco Chanel? Sure they were brilliant, but you can't compare them to Newton. THATS WHERE THE ARGUMENT STARTS FOR MYSOGINISTS.

So you gotta fight fire with fire. Sure they're brilliant women...but they aren't brilliant enough. Its like someone saying "Women in science are ugly", and you responding with "Nuh-uh...my girlfriend is a botanist, and she's hot". Ummm yeah, thats totally debatable. What you need to do is kick their ass with a PACHOWWWW!!! Something that they can't deny.

They think Newton, Da Vinci, Einstein, Michaelangelo? Cool...use the women in THAT category. Those people(maybe Einstein), never took an IQ test, but their genius is undeniable. Other people in that same category would have an undeniable genius also. Any women in that category???

Check out this list:


Charlotte Bronte was smarter than Bach, Beethoven AND Einstein. Anne Louise Germaine de Staël was smarter than Ben Franklin, Emmanuel Kant. Sofia Kovalevskaya was smarter than Darwin and Mozart. George Eliot was smarter than Copernicus, Lincoln and Napolean. Anna Lindh was smarter than George Dubya (the original, original; George Washington...come on now, who ELSE would I be talking bout in a genius list), and Sir Francis Drake.

I'd mention more people...but I'm guessing you're aunt really isn't about the readin' and writin', so she wouldn't know.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the depressing results of misogyny is that if women start to excel in a field, rather than that raising people's general impression or opinion of women, it will often cause people to devalue the field. So if there's one woman who can rise out of the ordinary womanfolk and be a doctor, then she's special, but once lots of women are doing it, maybe it's not that impressive to be a doctor after all. We see this in ordinary skills too - carpentry is an impressive ability, and a woman who can do it all the more impressive, but knitting is not an impressive ability, and a man who does it possibly laughable. But really why is working with wood more impressive than working with yarn? Both are useful, both are mathematical, both take a certain amount of skill but can be learned by pretty much anyone who will practice..

Which is to say, plenty of women who may have achieved things were not recognized for it at the time because they didn't have a large enough sisterhood of other women to turn to who could say, yes, your idea is interesting, and the men they turned to didn't give it due credit.

Princess Elizabeth seems in many ways a clearer thinker than Descartes, but she only wrote letters, not a book of her own, and so slips into the background while Descartes becomes a (n often considered misguided) foundation for philosophical thought from that point...

One aspect of this is that I think women are more likely to think their idea is ordinary and so not need to show that they're absolutely right about something. I see this to a certain extent even in women academics, that there seems to be more room for searching for agreement than for knocking each other down and proving why their opposing theory is better. But this kind of obscures the place of the "genius" because the very idea is that it's someone with an unprecedented and perhaps inexplicable connection. So if we're all going to essentially have the same ideas, then no one's a genius. We're just all communicating human beings.

The classic description of true genius is the thinker whose idea occurs the same way an athlete just "knows" how to hit that ball, without processing but just by somehow being there, in a way that he can honestly "thank god" for the gift he has, having no real control over it. But whether the men we consider (if we consider) geniuses actually had this experience or not, and whether it matters, is a whole 'nother problem. In one way, all thought seems to work this way, and in another way, we could argue that no thought actually works this way; it's just that sometimes consciousness misses the middle steps. So then any thought is genius (which is sort of what Noam Chomsky once said... any use of language), or we're basically just arguing about the degree of impact or clarification that the product had on humanity. THis is massively influenced by how humanity received it.

Re: the distribution argument, do we have reason to believe that the "classical" geniuses that the OP lists are also going to fall into the extreme upper portion of a standard IQ test? The ability to do well on an IQ test is a) not absolute (people get different results after education / training) and b) not correlative with great achievements (lots of the great scientists and thinkers over the centuries have probably had pretty average IQs, and plenty of people who do exceedingly well on the tests do not do anything special with their lives.) So the idea that this explains away anything is not well founded.
posted by mdn at 12:53 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

The massive list of genius people with the highest IQ
posted by Kerasia at 3:10 PM on June 5, 2008

Gerty Cori completed her premedical and medical studies in one year. She won the Nobel prize in Medicine with her husband, and mentored six other Nobel laureates-- Kornberg, Ochoa, Leloir, Sutherland, de Duve, and Krebs.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 5:46 PM on June 5, 2008

If none of this works you could also send her to read the classic "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists" by Linda Nochlin.

Opening sentence:

"Why have there been no great women artists?" The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist "controversy," it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."

posted by Cuke at 7:52 PM on June 5, 2008

Simone de Beauvoir -- probably responsible for large chunks of Sartre's ideas, also invented modern feminism.

Lou Andreas-Salomé

Sarah Flannery

(Though really, Marie Curie is all you need)

And Sappho. Duh.
posted by paultopia at 1:05 AM on June 6, 2008

Lucian calls her a "model of wisdom", "the admired of the admirable Olympian" and lauds "her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration".

posted by ersatz at 4:36 AM on June 6, 2008

What about Ayn Rand in philosophy? Betty Friedan in feminism? Oprah in business? Rosalind Franklin in science? How much she contributed to discovering the structure of DNA depends on your point of view, but there's no doubt that she was a big part of it. Though she's not very well known, so your aunt might not have heard of her. If you're looking for something way esoteric, maybe Nazira Zayn al-Din?
posted by lilac girl at 9:56 PM on June 6, 2008

Nthing Marie Curie (the buck stops with Marie, as far as I'm concerned, I worship her) Lise Meitner, Sappho, Simone de Beauvoir, and Emilie de Chatelet, who was close to developing the conversation of matter theory before Lavoisier did. I'd also view Grace Hopper as a genius on the level of Alan Turing or any of the inventors of the Atomic Bomb--Edwin Teller, J. Oppenheimer, etc. All of these ladies are seriously geniuses on the level of Da Vinci.

Ladies who completely revolutionized their fields: Florence Nightengale, the first person ever to think that WASHING YOUR HANDS would be necessary in a surgery room.

Ladies who were geniuses of the type that they hit a target no one else could even yet see, true visionaries: Nellie Bly, the pen name of a famous journalist who pretty much invented the expose style of newspaper writing, and in the process brought sweeping change to the free-for-all rape and murder systems that used to be called "hospitals" and "insane asylums" in this country, and Margaret Sanger, who in 1913 wrote a little pamphlet called Family Limitation, coined the phrase "birth control", started Planned Parenthood and has done more to liberate women sexually than Madonna. Margaret Atwood, who I think gets visited by spirits from another world when she sleeps--her novels and poetry are unbelievably visionary.

And finally, a genius for today: Mildred Dresselhaus, currently a professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. She's one of the grand statesmen of the nanotechnology movement.
posted by aarwenn at 9:00 AM on June 26, 2008

One more: Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her book "Herland", about a feminist utopia, is undeniably a work of genius.
posted by aarwenn at 9:06 AM on June 26, 2008

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