So, um, I'm, like, smart?
Features Editor writes on reclaiming intellectualism as a woman in college
Despite the playground phrase that was sprinkled throughout my elementary school years — “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to college to get more knowledge” — my time spent in school was marked by a subtle undercurrent that I wasn’t going to be eligible for the world of “serious” academia.
Throughout my 12-year tenure as a student in California public schools, I had a proclivity for verbal fillers (“like” and “um” are my favorite), an obsession with the “Twilight” franchise and in ninth grade, upon hearing the news of Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction, an emotional meltdown in the middle of an English class. Obviously, the notion of the austere “intellectual” was in direct conflict with not only who I was, but also how I was perceived.
During my first year at Brandeis, I quickly realized just how gendered our notions of intelligence are. In lectures and discussions, it became clear that boys who constantly “jump off” of female students’ comments conceptualized themselves as smart in a way that I didn’t. They were comfortable with, for lack of a better word, dominating the classroom.
Eventually, I had to seriously question why I wasn’t at ease with publicly participating in this academic space in the same way as some men. I preferred to impress my professors with my essays rather than raise my hand because writing allowed me the time to perfect my thoughts and verbiage. From this line of inquiry, I was forced to face my own problematic understandings of exactly who gets to be considered “smart.”
Before college, I was ostensibly a feminist by every measure. I was a congressional campaign intern for a Democratic candidate, I was a member of my high school’s Progressive Club and in articles for self-described feminist publications wrote statements like “Spending money at businesses directly benefiting women of color is an act of resistance against a patriarchal, racist system.” However, despite my seemingly progressive — dare I say revolutionary — stances as a high school student, I still internalized the idea that femininity and intellectualism were at odds with one another.
Because these two qualities existed as a dichotomy in my mind, I simply chose femininity. I thought in higher academia, I would have had to sacrifice my passion for pop culture references and aggressive femininity. In a way, this choice freed me from the proverbial tug-of-war that many women face between determining what gender norms they have to follow to be “presentable” while still distancing themselves from being excessively feminine as to not risk losing their status as “competent.”
Logically and objectively, I am fully aware that grades shouldn’t determine self-worth. I spent my entire pre-college educational career as a public school student. I’ve sat through dozens of lectures about how people are more than just a number and how grade point average is a social construct. But my reclamation of intellectualism (probably) would not have happened if I wasn’t being graded. As toxic as this may be, the fact that I was able to not only get the same, but often better grades than my male peers — who didn’t have “Valley Girl” dialects, speaking more like Kennedys than Kardashians — allowed me to see that my femininity wasn’t at odds with my ability to be quantitatively “smart.”
However, regardless of my internal paradigm shift, the outer world is still a firm believer in the dichotomous relationship between womanhood and intellectualism. Despite legislative and administrative efforts to make education a more equitable sphere, I believe that the path to making an inclusive academic space lies in deconstructing our notions of who gets to be smart.
While problematic preconceptions about intellect hindered my ability to think of myself as smart, I would be remiss if I didn’t also admit to benefiting from them. I am a native English speaker. I came to college having read Shakespeare and knowing things like who the “model minority” was. So, while my unapologetic femininity and womanhood act as disadvantages in my perceived smartness, my other experiences provide me with advantages.
This year has taught me to listen to the content of what is being said rather than seeing the speaker. I’ve had to dismantle the idea that someone can “sound” smart. I’ve had to reconstruct classist notions that privileged extracurricular activities over jobs. I have realized that, for some students, a college education means that their family has to lose a source of income. Above all else, college has made me realize that there is no blueprint for an intellectual, only an opportunity for everyone to be one.
"I have felt that being a woman has altered people’s perception of me and my intelligence. I always have men start explaining things to me even though I already understand the concept."
- Claire Kiewra '22
"Being ‘too girly’ might make people not take you seriously in a professional setting, as a lot of scientific settings are still male dominated. But at Brandeis, I haven’t been pressured to be less feminine, partially because I feel that Brandeis’s STEM community is pretty progressive and accepting of diverse perspectives."
- Pallavi Goel '21
"Men tend to not recognize when I am joking and take that as an opportunity to explain to my why my joke was wrong, whereas women are usually able to deduce that I am joking using context clues like tone. Inwardly I have always felt a lot of pressure to go ‘above and beyond’ because I watch mediocre boys praised for just trying and girls only praised for succeeding."
- Julia Haynes '20
Men have a tendency to re-explain their thoughts when I disagree with with them. This seems like an insult to my intelligence because it’s like “you could not possibly understand my argument and yet disagree.” Their immediate urge to re-explain themselves stems from an assumption that I suffer from inadequate language and comprehension skills."
- Valerie Janovic '19