Successful Women: The expectation, not the exception


September 19, 2019
Katharine Shultis, Mathematics
When I first saw the announcement about the centennial of the 19th amendment, my first question was “Which one is that, again? Maybe it’s the one that abolishes slavery.” Continuing to read the announcement, I discovered that it was only 100 years ago that women were granted the right to vote. Then my questions became more personal and incredulous. “How is it that my mother’s parents were born before that happened? Wait a minute! That was HOW many years AFTER the abolishment of slavery?”

And then I started to wonder how I could possibly have anything meaningful to say. I mean, really!? I grew up with two parents with Ph.D.’s and didn’t realize until 8th grade that graduate studies were not the path that a majority of adults took. I grew up knowing my grandmother, Betsy, who held a seat in the New Hampshire state legislature for three terms; a woman who raised four children while volunteering for the library; a woman who worked at securing the purchase of the Seneca Falls home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the National Historical Park to honor the women’s movement of the 1970s. 

I’m a mathematician, not a scholar of gender. Certainly, I’m a woman, but I had the privilege of attending a high school where my interest and passion for mathematics and the sciences was encouraged; the privilege of attending a women’s college where I was surrounded by intelligent young women and positive role models; the privilege of not feeling insecure about my gender and mathematical abilities until graduate school; the privilege of having a doctoral advisor whose wife was a president of the Association for Women in Mathematics and an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society. I mean, really!?!? How could *I* possibly have anything meaningful to say?

But I volunteered to write something anyway. And I read the play Grandma Betsy wrote about those days in mid-July 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and roughly 300 other individuals gathered to speak about women’s rights. Yes, this WAS 13 years before the Civil War, and 17 and 21 years respectively before the 13th and 15th amendments abolished slavery and granted all male citizens the right to vote. And yes, it took another 70-plus years for women to receive the right to vote. Because of their work all those many years ago, I had the privilege of making it most of the way through my schooling before wondering if my gender made me less capable, before realizing that there is still gender inequality, before recognizing that I am privileged in so many ways.

And I want that to not be a privilege. I want that to be the standard. I want every young girl to grow up with a grandmother like mine. Mine is a strong, capable, intelligent woman who was not only elected to three terms in the New Hampshire state legislature, but also sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty there. Grandma Betsy says she sees “women in government having the skills and temperament to address urgent issues such as gun control, climate change, and global conflict emanating from their strength and historic roles as care givers to human needs.” 

So yes, I do have something meaningful to say. I say that strong, capable, successful women should be the expectation, not the exception. I say that I want the next generation to have the privilege not to see their gender as something that could possibly hold them back from achieving anything and everything they’ve ever wanted, but to see their gender as just another aspect of themselves. In the words of another female pioneer, and the founder of my alma matter, Ellen Browning Scripps, I hope that they are fortunate enough to live their lives “confidently, courageously, and hopefully!”