Women are praised for being beautiful, sensitive, socially-skilled and gentle all the time, but throughout our lives we are discouraged from brandishing our intelligence. With the wage-gap and self-esteem crises facing a disproportionate amount of women, why is it such a radical idea to value a woman’s intelligence?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I was an argumentative child, or at least that is what I was told, it was only when I was older that I realised that an analytical, critical conversation about a particular subject is not an argument, it’s a valuable intellectual exercise. The point is that I had a lot to say in general, and about everything. A lot of my discussions with people were related to poltics and oppression, and most of them occurred at home with my parents’ friends and family. This was before the time that ignorance could be presented as “alternate facts” and some of the discussions got impassioned and heated, but never personal or offensive. Still, my mother did not like this. She started telling me, each time people came over, that I shouldn’t discuss politics with my dad’s friends. When that didn’t quite work, she redirected me into helping out in the kitchen. I would volunteer my opinion on something being discussed and she would immediately give me a task.
By the time I was a teenager, I was spending most of my time at soirées coordinating kitchen activities and bring out platters of food. Everyone loved this! I heard an endless stream of compliments: You’re so mature for your age, you help out so much at home, you’re such a sensible young girl, you’re so socially skilled, you’re already trained to be a great hostess. It bothered me. The compliments bothered me because they were casting me into the role of an ideal woman, but also because that role had been given to me to keep me from talking politics with men. That concerned people in my life enough to find a solution, and discuss it with one another. It bothered me also because alongside this negative tag of being an argumentative, headstrong young woman, I was also pressured to always have outstanding grades. It never made sense to me why I had to be great at school, when using my knowledge only seemed to upset people around me. This dichotomy seemed sinister and it continued to be unexplained.
Of course, I understand it now. Women cannot be too smart lest it make the men feel less smart. It’s a ripple effect of the perceived inferiority of women, more commonly known in the noxious upper middle-class drawing-rooms du jour as the “men-and-women-are-equal-but-different syndrome”, as perceived by the patriarchy. When I was a child I didn’t understand why I was told not to disagree with my father or any other men, I didn’t realise that a girl disagreeing with a man could be perceived as an offence. I didn’t understand why I was told it was important to be intelligent, but not to brandish that intelligence. I wasn’t told why the people around me discussed the possibility of their daughters earning more money than their future husbands as a potential problem in the hypothetical marriage.
I didn’t understand it fully until I grew up and started to experience it. It started with a man I was in a relationship with for many years. He loved spending my money but he hated my ambition. He constantly fought with me for wanting to do well in school and then college. When I got into prestigious programs he chided me for trying to show off. When I got good job offers, he lost his temper and accused me of being “too available” to get those jobs. When I achieved goals and had professional success, he often said to me, “What do you think of youself? You think you’re so smart but you’re nothing. You don’t even know how to be a woman.” Harsh, and unnecessary, but it taught me that a lot of men, and people, cannot handle a woman’s pride in her intelligence or accomplishments. You can be as smart, accomplished, skilled or ambitious as you like but all of that just counts against you, especially when you don’t know how to accessorize, match drapes and tapestry or dress meat. In that entire relationship, I never felt like my partner was proud of me, I never felt like he appreciated anything about my brain and because of the generally abusive dysfunction in the relationship, I became scared of my own accomplishments. I kept them to myself. I didn’t share them with my family or my friends or my partner, I didn’t even use social media until this year, because I was taught that brandishing my intelligence in any way was showing off and it caused friction in my relationships.
However, romantic or familial relationships aren’t the only way in which we devalue and refuse to recognise the intelligence of women. We do it socially as well. Once I was with a group of my husband’s friends on my balcony. My husband is a decade older than me and some of his colleagues are a decade older than him, and as a result I sometimes have to socialize in circles that are strange to me. My world, with my heathen friends, my seditionist colleagues, my strange pets, my brutally-honest family and my radical books is very, very different from his world of uniform-wearing certified patriots. They take offence at me asking them to call me by my own name and don’t understand why I am being such a pain about my legal identity. There is no overlap in our worlds. While on the balcony I was talking to someone about carbon taxes, and several men were talking over me about segregation of garbage as the radical idea that will save the planet (I cannot, I swear, I just can’t). At a certain point someone interrupted the man who was speaking to alert him to the fact that I was talking.
“I think she’s saying something,” this man said to the one speaking over me.
“She’s hot,” the guy speaking over me said.
Now, this man is over twenty-years older than I am but let’s say that’s not an issue because I like em old. He didn’t want to hear from me because I am not a brain to him, I am red lips and low-cut tops, and therefore hot (which, really? I think he meant he thinks I’m easy). Nothing I could have said had any potential value to him because I have a vagina and to him that meant that purpose is mere aestheticism. Similarly in my husband’s circle, there is a systematic segregation, they encourage women to hang out with women and men to hang out with men. When they encourage women to hang out with women it is often explained by saying that men have no interest in womanly discussions about sarees, jewellery and household help. No one ever asked if women were actually interested in these discussions, or why men couldn’t be. It’s just how it is.
“It’s just how it is,” is one of those bullshit tautologies that shut off further questioning without explaining themselves. It has no meaning and under its garb we teach young women that they must not expect to be valued for their intelligence as much as the men. That’s at the heart of the wage gap as well. Women can be intelligent, we’re okay with that, but if they wish to be decorated and socially-liked they just be gracious, beautiful, not-arrogant and strategically quiet. That’s part of why the industry of beauty and vanity targets women like it does, because it knows, as do we, that women are much more likely to seek approval and appreciation for their beauty. That’s why homemakers are forced into a competition of whose house is the cleanest and shiniest, because they know that no one is sitting around waiting to laud their dazzling intellect. That’s why no matter how successful you might you be as a woman, when your company goes public (talking about you, Vimeo), you’ll be photographed with your child and covered from that angle.
Women aren’t appreciated for their intelligence. It’s pretty shitty to live in a world where that is a radical idea.