What Is An Intelligent Woman?

I wrote this article in 2008 and it was originally published in The Eleusis, the Alumna magazine for Chi Omega Sorority.

What is an intelligent woman? The answer depends on whom you ask and at what time in her life. I had many assumptions about my future when I was a Chi Omega at Ohio Wesleyan: become an elementary school teacher, marry, have children, and be a school principal while raising my family. My plans started well, but unexpected circumstances made my path less direct. Life is a journey and sometimes you change your mind about what you really want to do as you experience more of it. For intelligent women, as for anyone really, life is more satisfying when we get to follow our passions and use our abilities to their best. Whatever our intellectual profile, we are at our smartest when we do what we were designed to do.

I work with families. I assess children and consult with their parents, so I will talk about women who have children. In this country people who marry each other have IQs that are—on average—within 12 points of each other. Basically, they get each other’s jokes and that’s generally an attractive beginning. The probability that their children will be within 15 IQ points of the parents’ average is about 67%. My point is this: the mothers of the gifted children I see are also likely to be smart, gifted women.

I’m now doing what I love—what I seemed to be made for—but it hasn’t always been clear and I must admit that I stumbled into this. I did indeed teach elementary school, raise a family, and train to be a school administrator. But when my own three sons, all clearly very bright, experienced difficulties in school, I started to learn everything I could about intelligence: what is it, where does it come from, can you measure it, and how malleable is it (e.g., can parental behavior change a child’s intelligence significantly)? After all, if they were so smart, why were they having any trouble at all in school? As I learned the answers, I became aware that schools—the way they are set up—don’t meet the needs of many children very well, and this has been the case for a very long time. That partially explained why my own children were having problems. As I moved farther along in my learning, I saw that it wasn’t as clear whether girls were “suffering” from the way schools work. More boys get into trouble, hated school, and can’t wait to get out, while more girls love school, get good grades, and feel great about themselves during the school years.

Schools seem to fit most girls very well. The problem is that many of our brightest girls actually learn to underachieve—learn less than they could—and develop a number of self-image problems as they go through school. Briefly, classrooms at each grade level (usually kindergarten through grade 8) are set up to include equal numbers of boys and girls, children from different economic and ethnic backgrounds, and advanced and the struggling learners. The brightest kids get spread out. David Lohman from the University of Iowa, co-author of both the Cognitive Abilities Test and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, notes that by first grade the typical same-aged mixed-ability classroom already has 12 grade equivalencies of achievement in it! What does this mean for a smart girl? She gets to be one of the smartest, best students until she takes ability-grouped classes in high school. Little intellectual competition for eight years can mislead her about her abilities relative to true peers, those with whom she will compete in high school, college, and career. To further add to her difficulties, the way the smartest children are spread out means that she often doesn’t find another girl who is enough like her to become her soul-mate friend. She doesn’t get used to facing challenging material or practice study skills (she doesn’t need them), and she may fill all of her saved time with “running the school.” At the time, she may feel quite good about that. But, too many of these smart girls end up thinking they are what they do. And when things get more difficult in her advanced courses in high school and college, she starts to doubt she is very smart after all and is often overwhelmed by how much time it takes for studying and school work. She doesn’t want to let go of all her activities, those things that everyone admires in her, and she starts to burn the candle at both ends, and—regrettably—she may start to lower her educational and career expectations for herself.

The smart girl grows into a smart woman and becomes wife and mother. Having spent the majority of her childhood being a super efficient multi-tasker who can do anything, she now thinks she should be able to do everything perfectly in her mother role. The majority of the mothers who come to me as clients already have graduate degrees. Although a significant number still work outside the home, a substantial number no longer do because their children’s needs require so much of her time and attention. For professionally trained mothers, this puts self-inflicted pressure on them—if they’ve given up their careers for awhile—to be the best darned mothers they can be!

Are you starting to see how all this fits together? Women who are capable of earning a college degree often learn from their early school experiences to expect too much of themselves and it leaves them with self-doubt. The irony is that intelligent women are more capable in general than they end up feeling about themselves. My children were leaving home as I finished my PhD and I still didn’t know how I’d use my degree. I ran into someone I’d known years ago who expressed disdain for my uncertainty, like, “So, why did you get a PhD if you didn’t know what you were going to do with it?” Of course, it made me feel defensive and not very smart. It didn’t yet occur to me that I could use all I’d learned about intelligence for an actual job or career.

On life’s journey, intelligent women learn that they must be flexible and adaptable so that they will recognize when their true purpose and passion shows up. All your earlier hard work and training feeds into who you are now. None is wasted even if you’ve changed careers or stayed home raising your family. Your next opportunity is still around the corner. The intelligent woman will be open to the possibilities that unfold before her on her own journey.

Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D., Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a specialist in assessment and individualized interpretations and guidance for gifted children and adults. Parent of three gifted adults, Ruf has taught, supervised, and administered in el