When It Comes To Women Ambition Is Still A Dirty Word

The public argument between the two journalists Ayala Hasson and Geula Even resulted in many schadenfreude responses, especially in the social media. I saw very unpleasant sexist remarks on my Facebook page. Those reactions to the two strong women got me thinking about the instinctive negative attitude to ambitious women.

In 2008 I attended a conference on Women and Ambition in the Workplace. The conference was organized by the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in Trinity College, Dublin in association with the Irish Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Although the conference was devoted to ambition that word was curiously absent from the discussions. There was certain unease surrounding ambition itself and as an adjective for a woman.

Even a keynote speaker– a successful career woman, chose to attribute her success to luck and not to ambition. She did not mention  hard work or determination either.

My paper dealt with a different period when working women were in a minority. I spoke about the 1950s in Britain. Although that decade started only five years after the end of WW2 — a time when British women basically had run  the country– once the men returned from the war and reclaimed their jobs, the women were sent home and became housewives.

At that time the attitude to women’s ambition was negative even among Feminists. For example, in a pamphlet put together by a group of Feminists, they warned married women “against thinking that their abilities or ambition justify them in shelving the woman’s responsibility for the domestic side of married life.” They further stated that  “unless both husband and wife do not desire children, which would seem to be a rather unnatural state of affairs, then a woman must expect her career to be seriously interrupted for a time by the bearing and rearing of children, and should give this time joyfully and not grudgingly.”

Two sociologists and Feminists from that period, Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, who studied  women and work refrained from using the word “ambition,” instead they chose the more friendly word “vocation.” They argued that  “a sense of vocation influences quite a few women in their desire to continue work after marriage. This may be found in particular among teachers, nurses and other kinds of social workers. Some may be inspired by a very laudable feeling of social responsibility, having spent years of preparation and having taken up one of the limited numbers of places at a university or professional school, they owe it to the community to put into practice what they have learned”

Sixty years later at the conference in Dublin a prominent Feminist, Linda Hirshman, held very similar views to those of Myrdal and Klein.  It was the woman’s responsibility to have a meaningful career, she owed it to her community after long years of learning. Hirshman did not use the word “vocation” but she talked about responsibility and commitment. However, she never said a word about  personal ambition as a motivating force in a woman’s career..

The conference organizers realized that ambition was essential for the advancement of women’s career, they just did not know how to handle that hot potato. Ambition is naked, it is a self-centered drive, and successful women, even today are too uncomfortable to admit that they have a strong desire for success, power or fame.

On a week when one woman was elected to the Israeli Supreme Court and seven other were  appointed as ambassadors, I have to wonder whether they could have done it without ambition, probably not.


About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.
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