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Objects of the class “Pauline Kael”

A woman who’s arguably the top person ever in a male-dominated field.

Steve Sailer introduced the category and entered Pauline Kael (top film critic) as its inaugural member. I followed up with Alice Waters (top chef/restaurateur), Mata Hari (top spy), Agatha Christie (top mystery writer), and Helen Keller (top person who overcame a disability; sorry, Stevie Wonder, you didn’t make the cut).

We can distinguish this from objects of the class “Amelia Earhart”: a woman who’s famous for being a woman in a male-dominated field. There are lots of examples of this category, for example Danica Patrick.

Objects of the class “Objects of the class”

P.S. Some other good ones from that thread:

Queen Elizabeth 1 (tops in the “English monarchs” category)

Margaret Mead (anthropologists)

We also discussed some other candidates, including Marie Curie, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen Willis, and my personal favorite on this list, Caitlin Jenner (best decathlete of all time).

P.P.S. Some more:

Oprah Winfrey, talk show host

Rachel Carlson, environmentalist

Mother (Mary) Jones, labor organizer

And Temple Grandin, autistic person.

75 Comments

  1. P says:

    I think Stephen Hawking wins the “overcame disability” category.

    Not sure if mystery writing is a “basically male field”. There have been a number of very successful female mystery writers since the beginnings of the genre.

    • Andrew says:

      P

      1. Regarding Helen Keller, of course it’s a tough call. One could similarly argue that Arthur Conan Doyle, not Agatha Christie, is the top mystery writer of all time. To be in the category, the woman in question just needs to be arguably the top in her field. I’ll clarify that in the above post.

      2. Regarding female mystery writers: yes, I agree that mystery writing is not as male dominated as many other fields. Still, once you set Agatha aside, the clear majority of top mystery writers are men. For every Sara Paretsky there are five Robert Parkers; for every Dorothy Sayers there are five Rex Stouts; and so on.

      • Jonathan says:

        Add Ngaio Marsh, PD James and Ruth Rendell. I would not put Agatha at the top except in productivity. I’d lean to Ruth.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          But most of the women mystery writers mentioned were noticeably later than Christie; so they do not go against considering her top in her class in her time. Presumably any of the top of class can be superseded in a later generation.

  2. hgfalling says:

    Judit Polgar feels like a little more than an Amelia Earhart but less than a Pauline Kael, although technically of course the former.

  3. Z says:

    Alice Munroe for short stories. I still haven’t read her, but I hear she’s arguably the best

  4. WB says:

    Marie Curie for chemistry and Margaret Thatcher for British prime minister–I think those are decent examples.

    • Oliver says:

      Margaret Thatcher being ‘best ever’ British Prime Minister is a rather divisive opinion!

      • WB says:

        You’re right. I was thinking important and famous. I’m not sure what “best” constitutes in terms of political leadership.

        And while Thatcher is no doubt important and famous, she’s second to Churchill on both dimensions.

        So strike her from the list.

  5. Andrew says:

    The above suggestions make me think of Janet Malcolm in the “modern essayist” category. But then there’s Renata Adler, and Joan Didion . . . I guess this is a female-dominated field! Given that three of the top people in this category are women, it won’t quite work.

  6. Greg says:

    Stop objectifying women!
    The reification of women, however, is encouraged.

  7. Phil Koop says:

    I nominate Katherine the Great in the “18th century European monarch” category.

  8. Radford Neal says:

    Murasaki Shikibu, in the category of Japanese Novelist. Though one could argue that women dominated Japanese literature in the Heian period, I think they don’t over all time.

    And there’s Emily Carr in the category of Canadian Artist.

    There are also several possibilities in the category of English Novelist and in the category of Canadian Novelist. They’re not too compelling, however, in that the total number of arguably “best”, male or female, is rather large, since there’s a lot of personal judgement involved.

  9. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Sarah Palin: Annoying politician

  10. Chris says:

    Hildegard of Bingen, far and away best-ever composer of Gregorian chant.

  11. jrg says:

    The silence of recognizably female commentators is
    a) deafening
    b) suggestive of the male echo chamber
    c) an object of the class “Sailer”
    d) all of the above

    • Jen says:

      +1 I’m a regular reader of the blog, and although I don’t know Andrew, I’ve gotta say this post seems beneath him.

        • Jen says:

          I haven’t followed the background for this post, but on the face of it, it doesn’t pass the smell test. For me if it wouldn’t be appropriate to sub out ‘Female in a male-dominated field’ for ‘[insert non-white race here] in a white-dominated field’, or something similar then I think the post doesn’t pass the smell test. I recognize that it isn’t an offensive post, just more of the same as indicated by jrg’s pointing out of potential reasons for the lack of female commentators. Overall I find it kind of patronizing.

          • Andrew says:

            Jen:

            I have no idea what the smell test is. I just think it’s an interesting topic. But I agree that this sort of subject can be controversial. Back in the 1980s people got pretty heated over the topic of whether Larry Bird was the best basketball player. He of course was a white in a black-dominated field. Then there was Tiger Woods a few years later.

          • Andrew says:

            P.S. I’m not arguing with the fact that you find it patronizing. Different people have different reactions to things. One reason it’s helpful to have a comment section is so I can learn about these unanticipated reactions!

          • Steve Sailer says:

            “For me if it wouldn’t be appropriate to sub out ‘Female in a male-dominated field’ for ‘[insert non-white race here] in a white-dominated field’, or something similar then I think the post doesn’t pass the smell test.”

            There’s a movie out right now, The Man Who Knew Infinity, with Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as G.H. Hardy, that’s premised on the idea that it is interesting to study the career of somebody doing outstanding work in a traditionally white-dominated field.

  12. Gregor says:

    Hasn’t yet stood the test of time, but currently Ronda Rousey may qualify.

  13. Dzhaughn says:

    Clara Rockmore was the best theremin player, although I am less sure that is a male dominated field. Or even a field.

  14. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Victoria Welby https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria,_Lady_Welby who to some surpassed Bertrand Russel et al in the philosophy of language.

  15. Martin says:

    Any particular reason why the mentions are a bit heavy on the anglophone side? I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but do you think this is “real” or some sort of cultural perception bias?

    What about Emmy Noether? Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba? Karen Blixen (I can think of at least two fields here)? Golda Meir? Nefertiti (What is the ovearching category for “Pharao’s wife” and “FLOTUS”?)? Negative: Dilma Rousseff (category: top impeached president, if indeed the impeachment gets through)? If you accept rather morbid, not really “self-made”, but not less important entries: Henrietta Lacks? Mythological: Isis?

    • Andrew says:

      Martin:

      Some of your examples fall in the “Judit Polgar” category of top woman in a male-dominated field. For example, Golda Meier is famous for being an early female prime minister, Emmy Noether is famous for being a world-class mathematician who happens to be female, etc. But I don’t think they fall into the category of arguably top person in the field, as with Agatha Christie, Pauline Kael, and the others in my post.

      • Martin says:

        Yes, that is true enough, though I think the categories (or rather what a category is) are somewhat ill-specified. E.g. based on what is Kael “the” top film critic? Both in terms of inconoclastic and commercial success I see serious competition from Ebert (though time could make a big difference, I guess); and what she’s invoked for most frequently, it seems, is a quote that is not hers so begin with, and has nothing to do with film criticism.

        Also, with Elizabeth I topping English monarchs you seem to be open to narrowing the categories to make the topping possible. So: Why, for example, would Marie Curie not be the top in the cagegory of recpipients of two Nobels, whichever ones? IMHO she surpasses Frederick Sanger. There is stiff competition from Pauling though – but one the other side, I think she left out stuff like that vitamin C gobbledygook. Bardeen is the other one, but he seems completely devoid of iconoclastic repercussions, contrary to Curie).

        And so on: Mata Hari as top spy, or just an iconoclastic figure in our cultural memory that is judged on anything but her actual quality as a spy?

        • numeric says:

          Richard Sorge has to be the top spy in history if one judges on the basis of consequence of their work (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sorge). His work allowed Stalin to pull back the 70 or so divisions from the Far East that won the battle of Moscow in 1941 (many historians claim that the USSR would have been defeated if Moscow had fallen).

          • Martin says:

            Now, I was talking off the cuff and cannot really say anything about this, and I think one should not over-analyze the topic. But I also think it’s interesting that (as with Kael) the statement that “Well, _obviously_ she was the best, d’oh!” is easier to make than the case that she was, indeed, the best. And especially with Mata Hari, I am under the impression that her being the best spy is at least as much part of a legendary image detached from any actual person as anything concluded from what the real person was or did – knowing nothing about any actual spy, I know the name Mata Hari in a sort of metonymous sense only. Saying she’s the best is almost tautological in this sense.

      • Jacob says:

        Anecdotal, but I can tell you Noethers theorem is my personal favorite result in physics. Objectively we can at least say it is enormously important. How are we defining “top person”?

        • Andrew says:

          Jacob:

          Sure, maybe top algebraist. That could work.

          • Martha (Smith) says:

            So hard to decide what “top algebraist” really means — in particular, how do you define “algebraist”? If you include number theory, then Gauss would probably be considered better than Noether. I think in a lot of these categories, a better criterion would be “best in their time.” It is arguable that Noether was indeed the best algebraist of her time.

  16. Alex says:

    Ronda Rousey (possibly for Most Popular MMA Fighter)

  17. J says:

    Why is it that dudes always be obsessed with “the best”? #statusfetish

  18. Alex says:

    Ronda Rousey (arguably Most Popular MMA Fighter)

  19. B D McCullough says:

    Question: What is the relationship of “Objects of the class Kael” and “Objects of the class Wegman”?
    http://www.thewrap.com/howard-suber-pauline-kaels-research-theft-it-felt-rape-32647/

  20. Paul Alper says:

    Andrew has written about Pauline Kael back in 2005: http://andrewgelman.com/2005/10/17/red_and_blue_vo/

    The issue back then was an apocryphal attribution regarding Nixon’s election in 1972: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” Kael has denied that she ever said that. Here is an attribution and confession by Katha Pollitt, a writer for The Nation regarding the recent (first round) of the Austrian presidential election:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/life-in-bubble/

     “You know you’re living in a bubble when no one you know voted for the far-right candidate and everyone’s astonished when he wins. From my Viennese friends and the cheery young Greens handing out campaign literature at the upscale Karmelitermarkt farmers’ market to the international scholars at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (where my husband is a fellow this year and I am a guest), everyone I spoke with before the first round of the Austrian presidential elections on April 24 confidently predicted victory for the Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, who ended up with 21 percent.”

    Bubble living is quite possibly far more common than we imagine even without any overt desires. I was working at a university in Trondheim in 1972 and the country was voting on whether to join the EU. Everyone I knew and worked with was opposed, yet the vote was very close–53.5% against. Incidentally, the second vote in 1994 was almost identical–52.4% against–indicating that Norwegians are remarkably stable.

  21. mark says:

    Megyn Kelly for Fox News Prime Time hosts.

  22. Jonathan says:

    Some fields are hard to evaluate. Take activists, certainly more men involved but do you then separate out women’s causes such as suffrage? Excluding actual revolutionaries a la Lenin, you could argue for a Carrie Nation because temperance took over the country to the point it became part of the Constitution.

    If you limit by time period, then you can find more examples: Jane Austen, for example, representing eras when women had little access to being published.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “Jane Austen, for example, representing eras when women had little access to being published.”

      Women had lots of access to being published even from before Jane Austen.

      Fanny Burney, for example, was a major figure in London literary circles in the 1780s.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Burney

      A recurrent theme in Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” is the men writers grumbling about how the women writers make more money than they do.

  23. I vote for Dou Yifang. Best ancient policymaker. Not technically a head of state, but used her influence on two consecutive emperors to create a golden age of peace and prosperity.

  24. Joe says:

    There’s just no sense in which Mata Hari is arguably the top spy. I wouldn’t even make her the top female spy in comparison to Ethel Rosenberg.

    Even just in the 20th century you have Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby, Oleg Penkovsky, Victor Cherkasin (case officer to both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen – hard to top that) – not to mention all of the people who may have been spies (and part of the point is we may never know the identity of the most effective spies). If Roger Hollis was working for the Soviets, then he may well be the greatest spy of all time, for example. In all cases, we can identify dramatic geopolitical effects of these people. For Mata Hari the effect was …? Seriously, I have no idea.

    • Phil says:

      I’ll speak up for Mata Hari as a… What’s the word for a spy who isn’t a mole? Sneak a look at people’s private papers, that sort of thing?

      Of course, the best spies wouldn’t be caught so we have no idea who they were.

  25. Corey says:

    Baroness Ingrid Daubechies.

  26. Bartleby says:

    Depending on your politics, Angela Merkel?

  27. Noah Snyder says:

    Jane Austen, best English novelist. (Room for disagreement, but still.)
    Oprah Winfrey, highest wealth African-American.

    I want to put Mary Shelley for inventing science fiction here somewhere, but starting something is a bit different from being the best at it, and with only one novel it’s hard to really argue for best here.

  28. Noah Snyder says:

    Oh, and JK Rowling for most successful fantasy author.

    • Phil says:

      Yes, she should be on this list or some similar list. The thing is, she is the only primatologist I can even name, so I’m not sure whether the field is actually male-dominated.

      And how about Sylvia Earle for deep sea explorer and educator? I think we have to give Cousteau the shallows — he did invent SCUBA after all, and had a long career as an educator. But for everything below SCUBA depth, I think The Sturgeon General takes the prize.

      For ’80s pop musician, there’s Michael Jackson and Prince and Lionel Richie…and Madonna.

      You know what? I acknowledge that there are few women contributing to this list and that at least one has said this whole thing is patronizing, but I actually find it heartening / encouraging. Jane Goodall! Sylvia Earle! Jane Austen! Rachel Carson! These are giants in their fields.

  29. Alex says:

    Arguably the most powerful Chinese monarch (the office itself could only be held by a male) was the late 1800s Empress Dowager Cixi, powerful enough to survive an assassination attempt by the actual Emperor (who she’d placed on the throne) and secretly confine him to house arrest.

  30. Jim says:

    Oprah Winfrey was arguably the greatest talk show host of all time, almost certainly so if you limit to daytime. Overall, talk show hosting is a male-dominated field, though less so in daytime.

    Rachel Carlson was arguably the greatest environmentalist, though some would say John Muir and there’s an argument for Teddy Roosevelt.

    Mother (Mary) Jones was arguably the top labor organizer of all time (she’s certainly the only one with a magazine named for her). You could also argue for Samuel Gompers, Cesar Chavez, or John Lewis.

  31. Florian says:

    The idea that Alice Waters is the top chef, even in the last 50 years, is laughable. Alice Waters tends to be comparatively well-known about people who don’t really care about food, since her food is about stories (the food being organic, locally sourced, etc.) rather than sensory attributes.

    All-time, Carême or Escoffier are good contenders. In this century, Le Bocuse is probably the best bet. In the last 50 years, I’d go with some of the molecular guys.

  32. Chris G says:

    FWIW, when I saw the topic advertised last weekend I was expecting something different, i.e., the class “Pauline Kael” having to do with epistemic closure: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” (Apparently she never said that but I’ve heard it attributed to her multiple times. That perhaps opens up another class: fabricated quotes attributed to well-known people. For example, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”)

  33. frizzled says:

    Is Andrew being tongue in cheek or does he really believe Jenner was a woman when he won those medals? Isn’t this just re-writing the past? How do we know other athletes in the past weren’t also ‘women’, anyway? I find the unwillingness to criticize this incoherent, dogmatic view a bit disturbing, especially here.

    There are two athletic sports where women regularly beat men – ultramarathon running and cross-Channel swimming. Pam Reed and Gertrude Ederle, respectively, were previously the world record holders.

    • Andrew says:

      Frizzled:

      Of course I was being tongue in cheek regarding Jenner! Also, yes, I did think of Gertrude Ederle, actually, but this doesn’t work here because long-distance swimming is a female-dominated category. It would be like including Florence Nightingale because she’s top nurse, or Jane Addams as top social worker.

  34. Chris says:

    Mother Teresa for most famous charity worker. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks for most famous civil rights activists.

  35. Chris says:

    Helen Clark for best New Zealand prime minister.

  36. brianG says:

    Sort of shameful that this had to be triggered in my mind by her recent passing, but Pat Summit warrants consideration

  37. James Savage says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned Lin Ostrom. She didn’t call herself an economist, but did have a large impact on the field. And of all the other great institutional theorists, all are male (North, Coase, Williamson etc.).

    • Andrew says:

      Jim:

      I don’t know enough about Ostrom’s work to really comment here, but I assume she wouldn’t qualify as “top economist” (that would be Smith, Marx, or Keynes, I suppose) or even “top modern economist.” So the trick would be to come up with the right category. Perhaps a case could be made for “top public choice economist,” which I guess is still a male-dominated field.

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