Spectacle and Impostor

These essays about female ambition spotlight society’s tortured relationship to women who want to achieve—and our own tortured relationship to ourselves.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

America loves ambition. Our national fairy tale stars the bootstrapping dreamer rocketed to prosperity on his own grit and gumption. Recently, though, we’ve become especially enamored of female ambition, or at least the idea of it. We’re a country of women encouraged by best-selling authors and tech leaders to ask for raises, possibly after power-posing in our office bathrooms while belting out “I AM MOANA” or “Let it goooo.” (We’re also a country of poor or underemployed women who’ve never read Lean In, watched a TED talk, or seen Frozen, but more on that in a moment.) From an advertising perspective, nothing is trendier than reminding girls they can do anything. They can buy anything. “Dream big!” the girl children of these United States are told. The weight and costs of those dreams are too often elided.

Not so in Double Bind, a new assembly of essays on women and ambition put together by the lawyer-turned-author Robin Romm. “I define ambition, per Anna Fels, as the desire to do good work in the world and have that work recognized by people who understand it,” Romm writes. Through no fault of hers, this is a maddening introduction. How simple it sounds! Yet, in 2017, any book about women’s “desire to do good work and be recognized for it by those we respect” must inevitably be a tortured weighing of other questions: How much confidence is too much? Are we striving for the right things? What about when society won’t grant us permission to dream? No wonder American feminists, as Megan Garber notes in the Atlantic, are presently suffering from “a pervasive sense of ambition fatigue.”

Throughout Double Bind, women discover that they are caught in a tug of war between achievement and self-effacement, toughness and softness. Romm, who says she is “motivated by the desire for mastery,” sensed from an early age that her striving “had to be approached delicately” to avoid “the negative judgment of others.” She recounts her rise through a San Francisco law firm, replete with an older man who described her “aggressive” manner as “off-putting” in an email accidentally sent around to the whole staff. The tale covers familiar, if absorbing, territory: Women are still urged to be bold, but not too bold. They are informed the world is their oyster, but their shoulders feel the weight of its sexism.

For an idea so richly marketable, “ambition” proves surprisingly elusive as the book’s two dozen female contributors—writers and doctors, professors and moms—attack from as many angles, giving this highly readable anthology the effect of an improv performance in which the talented actors keep saying “yes, and …” Is ambition helpful? Is it harmful? Does it mean wanting fame, success, or wealth? Wanting to find your purpose or passion? Wanting to be a kinder, more generous person? Wanting to stop wanting?

And an anthology—with its arena of competing voices—is surely the correct approach to a topic in which no single perspective can hope to compass the whole story. Double Bind resists simplifying ambition into a pure good or a pure evil, though there are certainly contributors who feel strongly about it one way or the other. Among the unconditional partisans for is Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who connects her hunger for success to her mother’s “invincibility.” Meanwhile, in my favorite essay, Elisa Albert expels an exasperated battle cry: “Fuck ambition.”

As compelling as it was to read about rampant male hubris in Hollywood (“The apprenticeship of television writing,” explains showrunner Theresa Rebeck, “is all about having your own ego kicked in the head so many times it develops a revenge fantasy”), or about the challenges facing part-time moms, the book felt most valuable to me when it dared to be counterintuitive. Camas Davis explores how being a woman and a butcher (she launched the Meat Collective Alliance in 2014) bore her career aloft. She believes her femininity interacted with her sense of mission in a way that rendered her sexier, more interesting—yet, she writes, “I was simultaneously a spectacle and an imposter. I felt looked at but not seen.” (Reading Francine Prose on a similar theme, the exotic allure of the desiring woman, made me wonder what Prose made of the rise of thirsty as slang.) Claire Vaye Watkins comes at the topic at a slant, distinguishing between those who run toward and those who run from. Erika L. Sánchez reveals how, as the first child in her immigrant family to go to college, her desires were colored by all of the extravagant dreams she assumed her parents had suppressed. Her goals didn’t feel like her own.

Paging through these narratives, I started to group them into ambition “from the inside out” and “from the outside in.” The first type of essay dramatized an ongoing conversation that, though valuable, can feel overexposed. It rehearsed the plaints of corporatized feminism, the blog post fodder: sneering bosses, the gymnastics of work-life balance, guilt and ambivalence, the fear of coming across as a “bitch.” To be clear, Double Bind’s essays on these subjects have much to offer us. Specific, moving, and real, they critique a culture drunk on the dreams of girls and hostile to the aspirations of women.

Other essays turn an eye toward the structural problems that make female ambitions so difficult to realize. As Ayana Mathis observes, “the uncomfortable truth is that there are a great many people who work very hard for all kinds of things and never, ever get them.” The hollowness of Lean In lies in its assumption that, armed with a few tips, women can leapfrog over the systemic obstacles arrayed against them: the lack of parental leave, the income inequality, the challenges to reproductive rights. But place a woman in a context that dooms her to fail, and ambition becomes incoherent. “I come from strugglers,” Mathis writes, laying out a code of values that challenges many of her peers’. “For us, the measure of a life is survival by means of elegant improvisation.”

Examining ambition from the “outside in” demands that we interrogate it as a way of being. It entails asking what it means to want things and whether our goals belong to us or to entire communities whose fates are entwined with ours. It involves realizing that we all wish for contradictory things, and at different times, and that, even in a single moment, it is hard to know, really know, what we want.

In perhaps the most controversial of the essays, philosopher Elizabeth Corey asks readers to look beyond ambition—beyond wanting—as an organizing principle. “Work and family evoke from us two distinct modes of being and of relation to others,” she writes. “The conflicts between these modes cannot, if we are honest with ourselves, be wished away or ignored.” On one hand: the Aristotelian ideal of self-cultivation, continuous progress toward a telos. You define your purpose as “mother” or “artist” or “CEO” or some combination thereof and devote yourself to evolving in that direction. On the other hand: giving and caring. Perhaps the altruistic mother engages in the same behavior as the ambitious mother, but she has abandoned her role as protagonist. She will never actualize herself the way her foil might, yet—in not trying to be the better mother—she proves to be the better mother. Corey’s quiet dismay at attempts to apply the work orientation to family and leisure aches on the page. If you become a parent, she suggests, you must forfeit the dream of becoming the best parent; you must snip a few shining threads of telos. Agree or disagree (I can certainly quibble), the essay delivers a bracing corrective to the proposition of “having it all.”

The next selection, by stay-at-home parent Allison Barrett Carter, disputes Corey’s premise. Carter sounds a tad defensive when she insists, “I actually love whipping up chocolate chip cookies while explaining detailed narrative arc[s] to my sons, then taking a phone call about nonprofit management for an organization I volunteer for.” But her conclusion—“My fierce ambition, which seemed so toxic to me in early motherhood, makes me a better mother and a role model”—resonates, if only because Carter’s piece shares real estate in the collection with so many writer-daughters who say they wish their moms had been more ambitious. (This is a poignant reversal, the child dreaming of a better life for her parent.)

Of course, in our society, dreaming is great; it is the possibility of getting that creates difficulty. What is ambition but fantasy plus follow-through, an alchemy of passive wishing and active striving? It doesn’t matter what specific steps we take—whether we are dyeing our hair to score the picture-perfect husband or competing with a colleague for the prestigious assignment. Women, once we stop mooning around and start bullet-pointing, appear to no longer deserve a high-five, let alone government support.

Double Bind, a book that probes that contradiction, is an ambitious project. Almost every page bears the signs of a writer’s struggle to speak with honesty and nuance about something at once culturally ubiquitous and awkwardly intimate. What is there left to unpack from “ambition”? What’s the correct take? Powering these essays is a will to divine the signal in the noise.

But even considered as a whole, Double Bind doesn’t clarify ambition; it complicates it. In that sense, the anthology is suffused by a strange and fertile sense of failure. Maybe a drive as idiosyncratic as ambition can never be entirely pinned down. How splendid that these women were driven enough to try and sane enough, after a certain point, to stop and be satisfied.

Double Bind, edited by Robin Romm. Liveright.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.