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Just Don’t Call Me Ambitious

Forget the B-word; if you want to hit a woman where it hurts, one word’s sure to do it, according to longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in this month’s Elle magazine, and that word is Ambitious.

Here’s Bennetts’ lede:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Hillary Clinton? Oprah? Condoleezza Rice? Um, no.

Soon after Catherine Zeta-Jones married Michael Douglas, I met her at their baronial apartment overlooking Central Park West. Waving a hand bedecked with a diamond as big as a grape, Zeta-Jones gestured toward the mantel, where her husband’s Academy Awards were displayed, and confided that she wasn’t satisfied with his reflected glory. ‘I want my Oscar up there too,’ she said, her dark eyes glittering with determination.

Why so taboo? It seems a logical assumption that a film actress should want an Oscar… but, Bennetts writes, “in all my years interviewing movie stars, nobody had ever admitted to coveting one.”

And even after women have scored mega-success, they minimize what it took to get it. Bennetts’ piece outlines the ways some of the most successful, prominent, and groundbreaking contemporary women have refused to own their ambition. Hillary Clinton described herself as “stunned” when President Obama asked her to be his secretary of state, to the point that “‘I kept suggesting other people: ‘Well, how about this person! How about that person!'” Oprah (as Bennetts reminds us: “the richest self-made woman in America and the country’s first black billionaire”) said she doesn’t think of herself as a businessperson. From Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman president of Harvard–to Michigan state governor Jennifer Granholm to former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, women seem more likely to attribute their success to luck or to describe it as something that “just happened” than to own it. Can it really be that women still haven’t learned to take a compliment? Or is it that to be seen as ambitious is no compliment at all, but (much like being dubbed ‘opinionated‘) risky, dangerous, unladylike?

Um, probably. According to Celia Lake, a pollster and political strategist Bennetts quotes in her piece:

When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches… The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.

And, while we might be inclined to say but things are changing! Girls today are surely more confident than that! Bennetts offers up evidence to the contrary, quoting a recent Harvard grad, who recalled her experience in high school, and why she opted out of running for class president.

I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. And the truth is, they probably wouldn’t have. There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much.’

I’d venture to say aspiring class presidents of the male variety do not face such “he has too much” anti-campaigns.

But why do we buy into it? One reason, according to longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt, is socialization.

[Feldt’s] interest in power was sparked by research she did on women in politics. ‘Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve scarcely moved the dial at all,’ Feldt says. ‘The problem was not that the doors were not open. The problem was that women were not walking through those doors–and that just blew me away.’

One reason women hang back is what Feldt calls a lack of ‘intentionality.’ It seems that from their earliest days, boys know they’re supposed to have a specific interest; they can decide to be and do whatever they want,’ she says. ‘Girls are now told they can be and do anything, but they’re much less likely to be taught that they should have a life plan that’s intentional. Girls are socialized to be reactive; boys are socialized to be the askers, girls the askees.'”

We’ve written about that before, and we think there’s something to it: boys are brought up knowing their job is to slay the dragons, to go, to see, to conquer. While the girls… well, we were the pretty princesses waiting to be rescued. And if that’s indeed the case, and if it’s further the case that we fear being seen as ambitious, for (perhaps) the more grown-up version of I’m afraid people won’t like me–well, is it any wonder so many of us are so undecided? We’re given the message that we can do anything, but we’re not socialized to be the doers. And even if we decide what we want and that we will do what it takes to get it, there’s no guidebook that shows us how. Even the women who’ve gone before, rather than saying, well, I did this, and I did that, and these things were really important, are more likely to sweep away the footprints they left, with a self-deprecating “it was really just a fluke.”

Perhaps the proper first step would be to wear our Scarlet As with pride. I’ll go first: I’m Shannon, and I’m Ambitious!

Feels kinda good.


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18 Responses

  1. on December 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Reply Of Life and Laughter

    You just articulated exactly how I feel; I graduated a year ago, and people keep asking, “What do you want to do now?” and I honestly don’t know how to answer except to say “get a good job.” There are so many things I want to do, and I’m lost as to which direction to go. I too am ambitious, just a little lost at the moment.


  2. I can totally own that everything I have achieved I have worked very hard for and have decidedly earned, but I too bristle at being called ambitious. How shitty. I never thought of it that way. And even as I sit here and think about how ridiculous it is to have such a reaction, I still cannot shake not wanting to be labeled ambitious. How lame.


  3. […] Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious? […]


  4. […] one more thing more that kind of takes us back to Shannon’s last two posts, on likability and ambition.  Ms Magazine’s January cover will feature Nancy Pelosi, who the magazine calls the […]


  5. […] simple. Our women especially. Easily defined. Simply categorized. And, when it comes to women, the less threatening, the better. But also: this thing about women having all kinds of options, all sorts of ways to […]


  6. […] important question, doncha think? Perhaps it has to do with fears of being perceived as too ambitious, or of women’s work being undervalued? (An equally important question might be this: who are […]


  7. […] Our women especially. Easily defined. Simply categorized. And, when it comes to women, the less threatening, the better. But also: this thing about women having all kinds of options, all sorts of ways to […]


  8. […] above) or that, if motherhood isn’t in their sights, well, they are weird.  And if they are ambitious?!  God […]


  9. […] the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an […]


  10. […] I fear the truth is that that children’s rhyme about sugar and spice and everything nice does more damage than just convincing little girls that boys are gross (made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails? who the hell came up with that one?); the message bores itself into our brains early and often. Women should be nice. We should smile. To be angry is to be unattractive, unladylike, unfeminine. […]


  11. I just googled ambition + women and found this article after leaving work in absolute fury today. I was called ambitious, and I didn’t take it as a compliment. Instead, I felt misunderstood & like I was labelled a career hungry bitch. I am effective at work, young and have had early promotions. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have other interests or that my whole focus is work. Reading these responses though, I think makes me realise that those thoughts are apologies for being female & effective. But ambition is the desire for achievement (or power etc). I see nothing wrong with the desire for achievement. Strive to get results. Isn’t that the objective of turning up to work??


  12. […] around. In the context of the workplace, arrogance–and its close cousins: aggressiveness, ambition, and risk-taking–is rewarded. Power is a great big ego-stroke: people treat you differently […]


  13. […] who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells […]


  14. […] a ballsier one, she ran for president–and nearly nabbed the nom. When so many of us feel our ambition is something shameful, something we should apologize for or even deny, Hillary