In her new book, the longtime writer goes searching for women geniuses

For Janice Kaplan, it started with a statistic: 90 percent of Americans said geniuses tended to be men. When pollster Michael Berland shared that number with Kaplan several years ago, they were both baffled.

“We tell girls that they can be anything, but does that mean they can be anything but geniuses?” Kaplan said when Alive caught up with her via phone at home in New York. “[Berland] said to me, ‘What do you think is going on?’ I spent the next two years doing research to try to give him an answer.”

The culmination of those two years led to Kaplan’s new book, The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World. Kaplan will discuss the book with Kelley Griesmer, CEO of The Women’s Fund, tonight at the Drexel Theatre.

Research for the book took Kaplan to the prestigious halls of Oxford, Princeton and Yale (the latter is her alma mater) to speak with a host of women geniuses, from Susan Wollenberg, the first woman at Oxford to become a professor of music, to molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman, the first woman president of Princeton University.

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Lest you think this is a book simply about academics, fear not. Kaplan also draws on stories from her life. An early scene in the book is both funny and depressing when Kaplan recounts quitting the Yale Club in protest because women weren’t allowed to use the swimming pool. The reason? Male members swam naked in the pool (funny). The rule wasn’t changed to allow women in the pool until 1987 (depressing). “Congress has a pool that banned women — our nation’s elected officials! — until 2009,” Kaplan writes in the book (more depressing).

She also includes short profiles of impressive women geniuses from history, including Maria Anna Mozart, who some say was more talented than her famous brother, and Mileva Marić, who some believe collaborated with her husband, Albert Einstein, on his breakthrough 1905 paper about the theory of relativity.

“It was really [about] looking for the themes and looking for the things that bound women currently to the women of the past,” Kaplan said. “I was intrigued by the idea that in every generation, no matter what the obstacles have been, there are some women who have managed to overcome them. And I looked to try to figure out what those lessons were and what we could learn about them for the future.”

Kaplan edited Parade magazine from 2007 to 2010 and has written 13 books. After graduating from college in the late '70s, Kaplan, who got her start in sports reporting, wrote the nonfiction book Women and Sports. She said her early career in sports media affected how she sees gender issues today.

“I remember as I was writing it — with the optimism that only a 21-year-old can have — thinking, by the time this book comes out, all these problems will be solved because it's all so obvious,” she said, and laughed. “But here we are, many, many years later, and the problems have not been solved.”

“I started out seeing just how discriminated women were," she continued, "and how the stereotypes we hold of what men and women can do and who they are, are so silly. Because when it comes down to an individual basis, they just don't mean anything.”

For Kaplan, how we deal with gender discrimination, both big and small, comes down to — you guessed it — all of us working together. To illustrate her point, Kaplan pointed again to Maria Anna, Mozart’s sister.

“We can say, 'She should have said, "No, I'm really talented. I'm going to keep doing this."' But we certainly didn't ask Mozart to stand up to the whole world and take a different social position than was expected. We just asked him to play his music and nurtured his talent," Kaplan said. "I think some of it is an individual issue, but I think we all have to work really hard to start to change the social structures that hold women back, and to change the social messages that we send that hold women back that start being sent at an extraordinarily early age.”