Monday, September 28, 2015

Ambition and Women

My mother used to say that I was ambitious. I took that as a compliment, although I doubt that she meant it that way.  Her concern was that my ambition interfered with her time, i.e. the time belonging to her in my life, as if that was actually something that I had defined. She was jealous of my ambition, not because she wished that she had had the freedom to be ambitious and pursue her dreams, but because my ambition took me away from her. This attitude did nothing to bring us closer.  In fact, it pushed me farther away from her.

What is ambition, anyway, and why has it been so bad for women to have? Is it purely a male domain? Has it been defined only by men?

Kristin van Ogtrop in the September 28, 2015 Time magazine tries to figure it out ("Why Ambition isn't Working for Women").  She approaches the subject from the angle that women and men are ambitious for different things.  Women want professional success in their careers, but they are more ambitious to have a family, children, and home life.

Photo: kimberleymackenzie.ca

As Andrew Moravcsik points out, in his article "Why I Put My Wife's Career First," in the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic, the well-being of children and the happiness of men depends on men being ambitious for family, children and home life. I found it somehow ironic, and disturbing, that only a few pages later, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes extensively about the effects of incarceration in America on the Black family. Wow.  Talk about inequality.  Mr. Moravcsik has the means to be able to write about how he has taken up the lead parent role in their family in support of his wife's career while none of the Black families Mr. Coates writes about could imagine being in such a position.

So, that got me wondering about how Black women would read Kristin van Ogtrop's article and if they have different ambitions for themselves than White women do.  Then I realized that because I asked myself this question, it was clear to me that Ms. Ogtrop was most likely writing only about White women.  Then I wondered if the American media across the board made such distinctions without even realizing it. Probably.  I'll pay closer attention in the future. 

When I was a little girl in elementary school, I had a schoolmate and friend named Debbie M.  She was Black.  I didn't see her as being different from me in any way.  In fact, I thought she was far, far more beautiful than me or any of my friends because her skin was a different and quite beautiful color. White was so boring. I wished that my skin was the same color, and I asked my mother one day how I could change my skin color to match Debbie's.

"You don't want to do that," my mother said.

Even at that young age I detested people trying to tell me what I wanted or thought or felt.  So I countered, "Why is Debbie's skin that color?"

This isn't Debbie; wish I had a photo of her
My mother explained that Debbie had an overabundance of a chemical in her skin called melanin that colored her skin.  It was sort of like getting a tan, but for Debbie, it was a permanent condition. So began my "programming" by my parents against Blacks (and anyone else different from us in belief or appearance), but that didn't stop me the following summer from working very hard to get a deep, deep tan the same color as Debbie's skin by sunning for hours upon hours outdoors. That I failed continues to disappoint me to this day.

And so, back to van Ogtrop and her article about ambition.  Is it really different for women and men?  Well, that was the very question asked by Time and Real Simple. The poll they conducted, and van Ogtrop reports on, revealed that men and women are more or less equally ambitious, but the reasons behind the ambition were complicated for each -- and I would guess are more personal than general for a gender and may answer the question: what do you find personally fulfilling?

Some people strive to contribute to the world.  Others strive to help other people.  Still others strive to climb the corporate ladder to succeed in the business world.  I think it's important for each person to think about what will fulfill him or her in life, and then how to accomplish that fulfillment.  I know women who wanted only to have a family, to be mothers and wives.  I've also known women who purposefully climbed the business ladder as ruthlessly as their male colleagues.  Is the woman who stays home to insure her family is happy and fulfilled less ambitious than the woman who climbs the business ladder, or equally ambitious?


We, as a society, influence collectively through media, movies, TV, books, schools, churches and through the passing down of beliefs from parents to children how each person perceives "success" and "ambition."  In America, success is defined in terms of money earned.  The ambition to succeed in business often means a desire for wealth, position, and social power.  Maybe it's time to re-evaluate our societal definitions, eh?

For me, ambition is a drive or compulsion to accomplish a goal and is not in any way limited by gender, sexual orientation, religious belief or skin color.  Success, then, is the accomplishment of that goal.

What does ambition mean to you?

2 comments:

Daughter Number Three said...

I think of ambition as self-motivation. I think our school system, by design, does a lot to kill self-motivation, since it's all about external reinforcement. Learn this (at least until the test is over) and get a good grade. Get good grades and get some kind of status and something to put on your college application. Jump through the hoops enough and you'll get a job where you can jump through more hoops.

If we really wanted kids (later adults) to be ambitious, we would come up with a learning system that works from their internal motivations.

Ms Sparrow said...

It seems to me that women of any color transfer much of their ambition to their children. Their primary goal is to see their children succeed. To that end, they spread the ambition around in a wide arc of home, family and community. Men, on the other hand, seem to focus their ambitions in fewer, more focused areas.