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Leaping from Our Spheres
-- The Blog of UUWF's Affiliated Minister

Emily’s Genius

Emily Dickenson - from Wikipedia

From the daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke, December 1846 or early 1847. The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood, the original is held by the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College.[1] – Wikipedia

Last Saturday, I checked off an experience on my ever-changing bucket list: attending a One Day University. This “extraordinary day of learning” which I had long read about in full page ads in the New York Times features popular college and university professors: shrinking a semester’s worth of lecturing into 75 minute sessions. It had finally come to my neck of the woods. I didn’t have to spring for an airline ticket and hotel room to register for and enjoy the four presentations I selected. And as the introduction to the program reminded me — there was no homework, no exams, and “best of all, no stress.”

Well not exactly. I had ended up picking classes taught by male professors (there were a couple led by women, with topics not as compelling to me). And as engaging and personable as they all were, they couldn’t seem to come up with examples of women as objects (the biology and psychology of resilience) or women as subjects (Geniuses). The latter session was led by Craig Wright, a professor of music at Yale University, where he teaches a course on The Nature of Genius: scanning Western History for figures like Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein.

The definition of Genius:

  • Extraordinary intellectual and creative power.
  • A person of extraordinary intellect and talent.
  • A person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140 (not necessarily so as we recognize multiple intelligences).

Men — and all the exemplars were men — who not only were smart, exceptionally smart, but whose work made a difference in our history, cultural, intellectual, literary, scientific, etc.

Professor Wright acknowledged early on that he had not listed any women, and in response to a question I asked about whether or not this was due to bias or disadvantage, he cited Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay on the barriers to women in academia and other fields: exclusion from institutions of influence; lack of money, poorer food and lodging; lack of places to concentrate on work or places to publish, teach, display their art.

All of this was true when Shakespeare’s fictional (or perhaps real) sister set off to London to make her way as a playwright and poet, ending up in ruin. It was still true when Woolf described the status of women in 20th century England, in many ways true today.

Yet there have been notable women, genius women who have deserved to be in the pantheon of the luminaries, as he describes them.

May 15 is the anniversary of the death of Emily Dickinson, poet extraordinaire, who grew up in a Unitarian home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Whether it was social phobia or epilepsy, or the protection of her writing gifts that kept her housebound for most of her life is not known for sure. But the 1800 poems she wrote, few of them published while she was alive, changed the face of American Poetry in form and content. The significance of her choice of topics: love, family, death and nature: personal and honest, cannot be underestimated, nor the popularization of her poetry and poetry in general after her death.

I am about to embark on a contemporary poetry project involving 52 verses scribbled on discarded envelopes (just as Emily did) as a continuation, hopefully of poetic innovation.

Our Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation Margaret Fuller Awards for creative, academic, scholarly, and prophetic work by today’s women was launched to encourage our female geniuses to seek and achieve innovation and standing.

In Emily’s honor and memory may we be encouraged to do so.

Leaping From Our Spheres

Rev. Marti KellerDon’t miss the “little gems full of both passion and facts” in the Blog of UUWF’s Affiliated Minister, Rev. Marti Keller.

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