How Intelligent Women Benefit the Church

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A recent study suggests that intelligence is often associated with masculinity, not femininity.

“Why do you always have to analyze everything?”

I’ve heard this question many times, but I remember the first time someone posed it to me directly. I was 11 years old, in the fifth grade, and standing in the hallway surrounded by my classmates. I don’t remember who asked it, but I do remember that the question was quickly followed by an unsettling chorus of assent. To that point, I’d enjoyed the process of learning and felt free to excel academically. But something shifted in that moment.

Although I didn’t realize it then, our collective understanding of intelligence—and my perception of my own intelligence—had been taking shape for several years. A recent study by Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, reveals that children as young as six are already forming views about the nature of intelligence, including associating it with masculinity. Standing in that hallway was the first time I remember questioning whether being a “smart” girl was a benefit or a social liability.

Reporting on Bian’s research, Ed Yong of The Atlantic notes that society’s tendency to associate intelligence with masculinity can create hurdles for women. “The stereotype that brilliance and genius are male traits is common among adults,” Yong writes, “but Bian’s study shows that the seeds of this pernicious bias are planted at a very early age … [and] can have lasting consequences.”Citing a parallel study, Yong also notes that “in many academic fields, like physics, math, and philosophy, people believe that success depends on ‘raw, innate talent’” rather than hard work. These biases together predict that we’ll end up recruiting boys to these fields while girls with the interest and capacity will silently doubt themselves. Further, such stereotypes also contribute to the hostile work environment that women experience when they do enter these fields.

Our cultural tendency to associate intelligence with gender affects more than a woman’s education and future work. It also affects how she views herself and often prompts her to ask: “If people tend to see intelligence as a male trait, does being ‘smart’ mean that I’m somehow less feminine than my peers?”

This question plays a key role in Disney’s recent remake of Beauty and the Beast. While the story largely centers on the Beast’s transformation, Belle progresses through a parallel crisis of identity: Does her mental acumen and desire for knowledge make her a “funny girl”? In the opening song, the villagers sing that Belle is “peculiar” and “never part of any crowd” because she always has “her nose stuck in a book.” She’s pretty enough, they concede, but “she really is a funny girl, that Belle.” Belle seems oblivious to their judgment but later, in a moment of emotional vulnerability, she asks her father, “Am I…odd?”

When I first saw the animated version (shortly after the aforementioned encounter at school), I felt like I had been given a lifeline. I was Belle—misunderstood and rejected by my peers. All I had to do was find a Beast with a large library. But upon seeing the live-action remake with my 12-year-old daughter over 25 years later, I cried. I knew it wasn’t so simple.

As I grew older, the tension between my intelligence and gender only heightened. Attending Christian college offered plenty of opportunities to excel and challenge myself mentally, but immediately after graduation, I married and entered a subculture rife with debate about the nature of masculinity and femininity, and how they interact with spiritual formation. I went from classrooms that celebrated and encouraged my inquisitive nature to churches and small groups that operated on the unspoken expectation that my husband would speak (and sometimes think) for both of us. Even today, when my husband tells other people that I’m smarter than he is, I instinctively wince. He means it as a compliment; but I still see it as a social liability—an aspect of my character that, for many people, conflicts with my very womanhood and for some, my ability to be spiritually mature.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Hannah Anderson