Melissa Scholke: Celebrating intelligence

By Melissa Scholke, Columnist
Published January 27, 2015

For some, sports, television shows, comic fandoms or celebrity tweets conjure moments of irrational enjoyment when individuals spontaneously shed layers of formality and reveal small hidden passions. In my case, I have a penchant for words in their most rhythmic forms. I’m a bit of a music addict and a poetry nerd. Whether it’s song lyrics or stanzas of poetry, deciphering the multitude of possible meanings sparks excitement within me. When my friend unenthusiastically informed me the curriculum for his creative writing class included a unit of reading and writing poetry, I gleefully interrogated him. His phone swiftly became the recipient of an onslaught of text messages inquiring whose work he’d be reading, what types of poetry and if we could exchange the titles of interesting poems we encountered, since I’m currently taking a poetry course myself.

Now may be an opportune moment to casually remind you of that nerd status I previously mentioned.

Last week as I sat in the League doing homework, my friend surprisingly complied with my overeager request. He texted me a poem by Anne Sexton titled “In Celebration of My Uterus.” The title was odd, yet intriguing. My first instinct — after an initial glance — was to reply with a sarcastic remark, considering I could think of a monthly occurrence that would dissuade me from such a celebration. However, my sarcasm dissipated as I delved into the language of the poem. Initially, the speaker discusses the possibility of removing a physiological marker of what makes her a woman — her uterus. Though a signifier of her sex was deemed tainted or useless, the speaker acknowledges that her value as both an individual and as a woman is not lessened in any way. The poem, instead, expands and transforms into a description of womanhood and the multitude of its magnificent variations.

While there are probably numerous interpretations of the work and a myriad of aspects I haven’t mulled over yet, two lines, in particular, struck me. Sexton, in the first stanza, writes “They said you were immeasurably empty/but you are not.”

Women, in our society, are continually impressed with the notion that we are “immeasurably empty” in some way. Womanhood far too often translates into weakness — whether it’s emotionally, intellectually, physically or professionally. Even in the realm of academia, femininity is incorrectly construed as an indicator of deficiency. The multitude of degree holders, from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees, is comprised of women, but a study found academic fields that “most valued sheer intellectual brilliance such as philosophy, physics and math were the most likely to have fewer women in their ranks.”

In these male-dominated fields, innate genius is unreasonably portrayed as part of the job description. According to Sarah-Jane Leslie, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, one of the leaders of the study, “The problem lies not with women’s aptitude but with the ‘brilliance required’ attitude.”

In further coverage, Leslie elaborated on how the establishment of this unrealistic expectation merges with long-instilled gender-stereotypes and deters women from participating in certain academic disciplines.

The automatic societal assumption is that women lack the knowledge or technical skills to participate in male-dominated professions and areas of study. Society imbues us with the assumption that women are devoid of rationality and logic, and possessing feminine characteristics can hinder professional progress. The only way to counteract the negative effects of appearing too feminine in the workplace — according to a 2011 study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business — is for women to “self-monitor” their behavior and “simultaneously present” both masculine and feminine traits. Women who are able to maneuver themselves across a tightrope strung between stereotypical constructs of masculinity and femininity obtain more promotions, according to the results of the study.

However, new research coincides more with the ideas I encountered in Sexton’s poem. While supposed signifiers of womanhood are misconstrued as undesirable or problematic, the shifting atmospheres of the contemporary workplace and classroom may soon reveal more of the exemplary merits of women. More and more, we’re living in a collaborative society where the ability to work in groups is crucial to accomplishing professional goals in every field of study.

In a recent study conducted by researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Union College, the “average social sensitivity of group members” was deemed as a crucial component in creating the smartest groups. Individuals with higher levels of social sensitivity are more capable of deciphering the tone and facial cues of their colleagues, and women tend to display higher levels of “social sensitivity.” As a result, the findings suggest groups composed of a larger proportion of women performed better than groups of men in the study.

Just as Sexton’s poem concludes with a listing of women participating in various activities, ranging from studying the cardiovascular tissue to straddling a cello in Russia to examining the angular distance of meteors, intelligence is as diverse as the pursuits that require it and the people who pursue it. Brilliance is not restricted to one gender or one group. Levels of intelligence are expressed by a variation of degrees; no one type is superior. Rather than using intelligence to create boundaries for ourselves, society should revel in the intellectual diversity of each individual.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.