Math for fashion

September 9, 2007

I was seriously ticked off to see the nose-wrinkling contempt with which Salon’s so-called feminist blogger Carol Lloyd dismissed Danica McKellar’s new book aimed at convincing middle-school girls that math is cool, relevant, and learnable. It’s so depressing to realize that the fundamental bases of feminism are still mysterious to so many who should know better.

The thing that particularly seems to have aroused Lloyd’s ire is McKellar’s suggestion that girls who study math can get high-paying jobs which might enable to them to buy luxury goods such as designer clothes. This, Salon asserts, is a “sexist formula” — a spoonful of consumerist sugar meant to disguise the fundamentally “unsexy” medicine of math. So there’s the gauntlet thrown: in this corner, a female mathematician who talks to tween girls about expensive clothes, cooking, and high-paying careers; and in that corner, a female writer who doesn’t particularly like math or the lifestyle of wretched excess it might bring to deluded young women. Who’s the better feminist and who’s the victim of false consciousness here?

Why is it still verboten to talk honestly about the link between girls’ math/science performance, and their chances for long-term economic success — in terms that ACTUAL GIRLS might understand? Anyone with the slightest understanding of human psychology knows that 12 year olds — both male and female — don’t really grasp and valorize abstract professorial concepts like learning for the pure joy of learning. Kids understand tangible stuff: toys, clothes, cars, trips to Disneyland. So why can’t you make an equivalence that might actually mean something to them — like “Hey girls, if you want to wear pretty clothes as an adult, study math!” — without some bluestocking English-major tsk-tsking all over you in the name of moralistic feminism?

Feminism seems to me strongest and most compelling when it provides real economic, legal, and social benefit to the masses. The feminism that leads opposition to genital mutilation, “honor” killings, forced marriage, sex slavery, and spousal abuse is clearly on solid ground. The feminism that brought us voting rights, equal pay for equal work, legal redress for sexual harassment, and great opportunity for public life — hey, big ups ladies. But the feminism of recent days that has managed to get its head up its ass by engaging in endless arguments about the lifestyles of tiny minorities of the most privileged women in the world… that’s not a feminism that interests me.

I want all girls to study math and science, and to be taught it in ways that make sense to them, and to believe they can excel at it. Anyone who does anything practical towards that goal, like Danica McKellar, is getting my support. When Salon’s blogger writes a book about how middle-school girls should study math for reasons other than consumerism — study math to save the world! study math to become a more fulfilled human being! study math because writers don’t build technical societies! — I’ll support her too.