It took me a long time to recognize people’s distaste for smart women in many situations, largely because intelligence to me is the most appealing quality in a woman (or a man), friends or a partner, not to mention students, politicians, and colleagues. I don’t mean intellectualism—citing Greeks, quoting Shakespeare, or knowing the capital of Tuvalu. These things appeal to me, too, if performed with delight rather than superiority. But I mean saying useful things about what is going on or about topics under discussion. Over the years, though, I’ve seen how people ignore or ostracize women who say smart things. In my world, this usually happens subtly, while it happens bluntly and even violently in other places.
In my behavioristic reading of gender theory, gender comprises the repertoire that society differentially reinforces because of sex. It’s the stuff that boys and girls, men and women, are encouraged to do or discouraged from doing because of their biological sex. This set of different behavioral rules for the two sexes has a number of consequences. One is that it can feel very important in most situations to know the sex of a person so as to apply the correct set of rules. Another is that, because political, social, and economic pressures have exaggerated the importance of sex roles, gender has become central to most people’s sense of self-worth. People get more insulted—and more prone to violence—if someone attacks their sex-role adequacy than their overall adequacy. The question of disliking smart women then becomes a question of whether saying intelligent things is womanly under current cultural norms.
All these reasons that follow can be considered in terms of cognitive dissonance, the unpleasant experience of holding incompatible ideas. One idea is that a woman just said something smart. What follows are reasons for believing that women shouldn’t say smart things. The conflict is typically resolved by marginalizing the woman or denying that she said something smart.
1. Smart women make bad slaves. I like the theory that men and women were equals when we were foragers, that is, for most of our 70,000 years with contemporary brains. With the advent of agriculture, the food surplus (and the ability to store it) changed many things about us. Sex roles became more differentiated (and men may have gotten bigger than women), monogamy became less important, and slavery became economically feasible. Pair-bonding-within-tribes was replaced with citizenship (derived from the word for cities), with the food surplus feeding a military force for protection. Masculinity was perfected to encourage young men to fight (even foragers would fight other tribes and would need masculinity to encourage it). Domination extended to women, not just to slaves. Smart women, from Hypatia to Malala, upset the structure of patriarchy. This picture is a bit too graphic for most of America, but it seems applicable to cultures that don’t send girls to school.
2. Smart women make frustrated housewives. Nietzsche and Freud wrote about a primary problem of civilization, the difficulty of living in communities for a species as aggressive as ours. Hierarchies served the purpose of organizing aggression into pecking orders, and the story of humanity became one of mastering one’s anger, hunger, and sexuality. Sin was invented to encourage this mastery. Women became a source of sin, like an aromatic donut, and men the locus of mastery. But another solution to the problem of community life was for men to agree to obey the regime outside the home in exchange for a kingly posture inside it. The wife’s job was to do the unrewarding chores, those that are negatively reinforced, i.e., those that are noticed only when they are not done.
3. Smart women are too big for their britches. The structural hierarchies in cities, the courtship rituals in our species, and our ability to look powerful even when we lack it have all made us status-conscious animals. We enhance our status in many ways, but one pervasive way is to act as children cannot, since childhood is in all societies a sign of reduced power. Women have a handicap in status play because their size makes them typically look more like children than men do (when standing next to men). Children are also, besides being smaller than adults, less able to control their bodies. I’m not saying that women are less able to control their bodies than men are; I’m saying that society focuses on women’s reproductive cycles in order to make them seem more like children, and this too handicaps them in status performances. Men’s visual lust also highlights women’s bodies. Further, society generally trains girls to play lower status than boys. Smart women disrupt status transactions, and other people put them back in their place, like children who interrupt grownups. This is obvious on talk shows that have panels, where men talk and women get hands placed on their shoulders or forearms to remind them to wait until the adults have finished speaking.
4. Smart women make it less terrifying to throw like a girl. Masculinity is often taught and maintained as a status that is superior to femininity. The football coach or drill sergeant motivates players or recruits by labeling them as “ladies,” a stigma they can relieve themselves of by demonstrating stoicism and aggression. St. Augustine preferred to keep the Jews alive but miserable not because genocide was wrong, but so their misery could stand as an object lesson to people thinking of leaving the faith. Many an unhappy white person has found comfort in not being black, in being better than someone. When women say smart things, it disrupts this system.
5. Smart women make bad mommies. I mean mommies, not mothers—smart women make perfectly good mothers. Every child needs a mommy, a parenting figure who admires and attunes to the child, who polishes the child’s performance of self by acting as a mirror to her. Children also need a daddy, a parenting figure who is admired by and attuned to by the child, who shines on the child. Mommies provide care and daddies provide protection. In recent history, the role of mommy has been filled by women and the role of daddy by men, but that is an arbitrary system often framed around pregnancy and nursing, as if these months define a woman’s role in life. When people say smart things, they are shining and not then polishing the performance of others. A smart woman suggests that your own mommy was somewhat stifled in her role and may have had better things to do than wait on you. Some readers will claim that their smart mothers weren’t frustrated as housewives. Hey kids, you’re fulfilling in the long haul—but you’re not that interesting. How much of the vast parenting literature makes complicated what is actually quite simple in order to sop up the intellectual curiosity of mommies?
6. Smart women often refute men’s theory of mind. “Theory of mind” refers to our ability to infer that other people have what we have—thoughts, feelings, agendas, and perspectives. Calling this a theory of mind unnecessarily complicates it—still, it’s a useful metaphor for how we treat others, for whether we see them as human. First, our verbal community teaches us to consider ourselves a mental creature, and then it teaches us to include others as well in that category. Not everyone is included, most especially people from different tribes and people who are to be treated as less than fully human—enemies, servants, foreigners, and (for men) women. Violence typically depends on depersonalization, meaning that the violent actor’s theory of mind does not extend to the victim. Because the main evidence we have of our own mental life involves the words we hear in our heads, it is harder for people who speak another language, or even in an accent, to convince you that they have real thoughts. Parents recognize when their toddlers suddenly express intentions and opinions. Much incidental or unconscious racism and sexism can be clarified by asking whether one person can imagine that the other is having intelligent thoughts. An important date-rape-drug question is, “Why would anyone want to have sex with an unconscious woman?” One answer might be that such men think all young women are always without consciousness—like aromatic donuts. The system of inclusion or exclusion among the fully human is upset when someone who is not authorized to have a mind reveals one.
7. Smart women betray the sorority. Some groups of women (especially in some classrooms) join together around not standing out, around not making the other women feel bad. Smart women can make other women feel envious or inadequate.