How Brainy Women Benefit the Church

A recent study suggests that intelligence is often associated with masculinity, not femininity.
How Brainy Women Benefit the Church

“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.

Smart Is the New Pretty?

In response to gendered notions of intelligence, it’s easy to overcorrect with celebrations of “girl power.” While buying my daughter’s spring wardrobe, I came across T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “It’s cool to be smart” and “Epic and smart… like my dad” and shockingly, “Smart is the new pretty.” These celebrations of female intelligence are not a form of overcorrection so much as mis-correction, a superficial response to a much deeper problem. While meant to affirm women, such tropes simply replace one form of hierarchy for another and all too quickly, being “not like other girls” means being superior to them.

Consider how this phenomenon plays out in women’s discipleship. Women who crave more mental engagement can become dissatisfied (and often rightly so) with standard women’s discipleship resources. They begin to disdain “women’s books” and confess a preference for conversation with men. Sometimes they’ll classify emotional expressions of faith (typically associated with the feminine) as weak and inferior. These women are not rejecting male and female differentiation so much as they are rejecting what Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker identifies as the “infantilizing undertone that is often present in the discussions of women’s ambition.”

Unfortunately in the mess and muddle, these women also risk losing the blessing of feminine friendship if they feel forced to choose between their intelligence and their womanhood. If the things a woman loves—information, debate, mental calculations—have been deemed masculine, she can become ostracized from other women and begin to believe that she cannot connect with them because she’s not like them. This sense of alienation (real or imagined) can lead her to preemptively push away other women and cultural expressions of femininity and suddenly, her intelligence—a gift that was given to her to serve others—becomes yet another source of division.

Lady Wisdom

Unlike our narrow cultural norms, the Christian faith has the breadth to account for all the facets of a woman’s identity. Made in the image of a multi-faceted, infinitely complex God, we should not be surprised when he chooses to combine culturally disparate impulses in the same person.

More than simply allowing for a category of the intelligent female, the Scriptures actively encourage women to develop their mental capacities. Just as much as men, women are called to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds. And perhaps just to prove the point, God divinely ordained that wisdom would be portrayed in the feminine. The Book of Proverbs climaxes, not with a vision of the intelligent male, but with a vision of a fully formed woman who uses her mental capacity to love and serve her community.

It’s taken me years, but I finally understand that nothing about my womanhood is at odds with my mind. If anything, being female lends me a unique perspective that my male intellectual counterparts lack. My parenting, too, has shifted with these concerns in mind. A few weeks ago, I observed as my ten-year-old son took a battery of achievement and IQ testing. When the proctor finally met with me, he confirmed that, yes, just like his mother, my son will probably always analyze everything. I couldn’t help but wonder how his experience of his own intelligence will be different from mine. Will his giftedness open doors for him in ways it hadn’t for me as a girl? Will I be tempted to parent him differently than I parent my daughter, who also excels academically?

As we strive to build truly Christian communities, we have to ask ourselves these same questions. Whether in our homes, schools, or churches, we are called to honor and facilitate women’s intellectual development as much as we honor and facilitate men’s. We’re also called to actively deconstruct false correlations between masculinity and intelligence, freeing both men and women to live in the image of their Creator. This may mean shifting our understanding about which topics of conversation are “male” and which are “female.” It may mean creating spaces for men and women to engage in ideas and theology together. It may mean learning to honor multiple expressions of femininity so that the woman who knows how to knit sentences together is as valued as the woman who knows how to knit sweaters. Or it may be as simple as honoring God’s sovereign choice to equip the same woman to do both.

Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of Made for More and the newly released Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul (Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.

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