Blindsided Ambition

Diagnosing a crisis in young women’s lives.

For 30 years, America has been turning out gifted girls—athletes, student leaders, artists and writers, science whizzes. Cheered on by parents, teachers, and coaches, they go to college and universities and do brilliantly. Routinely, they head off from graduate and professional schools to demanding positions in business, philanthropy, medicine, the law. They do everything asked of them and more, but unaccountably, as they draw closer to the vocations for which they’ve long been preparing, a cloud gathers over them. By turns hectoring and anxious, a gloomy chorus announces that success will deplete their romantic prospects and cheat them out of the families they want to have. It seems that Virginia Woolf’s imagined adversary, the Victorian Angel in the House—she who always put her own needs second—rises to flap triumphantly over the times, despite Woolf’s hope that modern women would kill her.

Anna Fels, a practicing psychiatrist in New York City, has arrived to wrestle with the Angel. In Necessary Dreams, she mixes the empirical findings of social science, her own observations from 20 years of clinical work, anecdote, and cultural analysis to question why and how ambition is leached out of American women’s lives. She uncovers a quiet crisis in the inner lives of the kind of educated, talented women who are her patients and her peers. Whether you believe women are as embattled as Fels does, her book reframes the struggle for equality in a powerful way. She goes beyond debates over employment discrimination, harassment, and the problems of working mothers. What she’s after are the buried psychological debilities that afflict women in their working lives outside their homes: the ways in which, she maintains, they feel compelled in a thousand different ways to take themselves out of the picture.

There is plenty of sociology to explain why women falter in their worldly ambitions, often giving them up altogether: the difficulties of the double shift for working women who raise families, the stalled public policies that refuse to adapt to the realities of mothers’ employment. But Fels sees deeper roots to the problem. She begins with the psychologists’ insight, derived from object relations theory, that in human development, ambition requires both the drive for mastery and the support of an audience. It’s nice to think that skill and excellence are their own rewards, but we are social creatures who need to be recognized and praised: The ego forms in response to a caregiver who echoes the baby’s utterances, smiles when she smiles, applauds baby’s first steps. And so it goes in adult life. A lawyer pulls off a shrewd courtroom move and shares her pleasure with her partners; a businesswoman relishes her success closing a difficult deal and brings the exciting news back to her boss.

It’s not that women lack the desire for mastery. The problem is that over time—as girls shift from being prized daughters to adults—the recognition dries up. Thus the lawyer’s story may well meet with polite indifference; that business deal mysteriously turns into a prosaic matter that anyone could accomplish. Raises and promotions, despite the hard work and triumphs, go to others. Yes, feminism has brought greater equity to the workplace, but interestingly the statistics show that equality is limited to young women in their 20s, at the lower levels of job hierarchies, who work at comparable jobs at comparable pay to men. After that, glass ceilings descend and pay differentials set in.

Fels is interested in how gender roles persist amid these inequalities, feeding off them, rationalizing them in this post-feminist era when it all was supposed to be different. Drawing on anecdotes from journalism, memoirs, and her own psychiatric practice, she dissects the ways in which interest and recognition go toward encouraging women’s self-deprecating behavior, their “niceness.” Women distance themselves from the “bragging” and assertiveness that they come to associate with egotistic men and obnoxious women and claim, instead, a principled modesty. Fels quotes, for instance, Susan Estrich’s observations of Harvard Law School faculty interviews: “[W]omen would come in and apologize before they began; downplay their goals; admit to the limitations of their accomplishments.”

The pervasive climate of nonrecognition leads women to seek sanctuary on the higher ground of internal satisfaction: They look for rewards in the work itself, not in fame, honor, or money. Maya Lin, in a magazine profile after a documentary on her life was nominated for an Academy Award, literally shrinks before the attention, testifying to the value of being small and slight since “people don’t see you.” Lin’s desire for privacy is understandable, notes Fels, yet she did permit a documentary to be made about her. “One can’t help wondering,” Fels writes, “if her palpable unhappiness serves as a kind of preemptive strategy: if she’s already cringing with discomfort and pain, no one else need criticize her for being self-promoting or egotistical.” 

Fels calls it the “gender recognition differential.” Men routinely expect their goals and achievements to be valued, and they seek recognition from others when it’s not forthcoming. But then they can always count on an audience primed to appreciate individualistic achievement and the competitive drive that fuels it. Despite 30 years of modern feminism, women still labor as the recognizers: generic listeners and deferential conversational partners. Fels says it flat out: “[T]he mandate that females provide recognition to males is a basic requirement of the white, middle-class notion of femininity.” The idea runs rampant through the mainstream psychological and sociological literature. Study after study proposes that women’s identity is more “relational,” defined by efforts to support, help, and nurture; that men’s sense of self is goal-oriented, based on achievement.

Indeed, some feminists—most prominent among them the psychologist Carol Gilligan—vaunt women’s “relationality” and “connectedness,” celebrating the reluctance to call attention to their achievements as part of an unspoken critique of the culture that puts such a premium on the self-centered, preening behavior of men. Gilligan and her followers have suggested that women more easily fold their ambitions into a more cooperative way of working and sharing recognition.

The problem with this argument, Fels points out, is that the massive research literature has not supported it. Women’s deferential demeanor varies greatly, it turns out, depending on whether or not men are around. “Girls and women change their behaviors when their interactions involve men,” she finds. “They more openly seek and compete for affirmation when they are with other women.” The corollary is that they are least likely to make claims on others’ attention when they are competing face-to-face with men for available recognition—in a conversation, say, or a meeting.

But why do women, even the most accomplished women, go along with this state of affairs?  “Being silenced or ignored … often remains a baffling and frustrating barrier,” Fels comments in a remarkable passage on the psychic structure of the modern workplace. “It’s hard to spot. It’s not as obvious as being denied the vote or access to birth control. Women tend to feel foolish asking for more attention for their contributions.” One ingenious study shows that men’s attention flags if a taped phone message is in a woman’s rather than a man’s voice. 

True, not every single woman is deterred. But whatever the female response, the psychological double standard remains powerful. There is more latitude of “choice,” but the research shows that women permit themselves to “choose” only when everyone else has been accommodated. Their own time, money, careers, training, and power come second. The hidden requirement to relinquish ambitions slated to enhance only oneself underlies the fraught crisis of the 20s and 30s, a moment Fels finds as volatile and potentially derailing as the more widely recognized crisis of female adolescence. The desires of even highly trained young women start to get fuzzy, as if blurring them makes it easier to give them up. Is a tenure-track job really so valuable, the gifted young historian asks, if it means asking her husband to relocate from the East Coast to a boring Midwestern town? Isn’t pediatric medicine better than surgery, after all?   

One way out of the conflict is to embrace “love, our subject,” as Adrienne Rich put it years ago. In the short run, for young women, sexual love and admiration provide affirmation that’s in short supply elsewhere. For married women, the retreat to the time-honored plaudits that come with successful motherhood is the strategy du jour for those who can afford it. But Fels cautions about the long-term risks of economic dependence on a spouse, which only increase as a woman ages and her time out of the work force accrues. And there is a heavy psychological toll as well: Full-time mothers show up in the therapists’ offices, too, bringing their own crises of loneliness and depletion. In their 20s, when mothering small children is in full swing, the literature shows that homemakers manage better emotionally than their employed peers; but in their 30s and beyond—if they can make it through the roughest early years of juggling—career women think much more highly of themselves, are happier in their marriages, and are more convinced of their competence at home and in the world.

Necessary Dreams is mild-mannered, well-documented, and reasonable, but it is also laced with fierce indignation at the waste of women’s gifts—so gratuitous in a world where truly, so many different ways of life are available for men and women. She doesn’t offer any solutions. Necessary Dreams appears rather as a diagnosis, a warning, an encouragement to ambitious women everywhere that their yearnings are not luxuries but absolutely necessary.