‘Double Bind: Women On Ambition’ Collection Of Essays Exposes The Burdensome Barrier Women Face

“She’s too ambitious!”

We’ve all heard that being said about either someone in our lives, or a prominent public figure. If you were paying attention to a lot of the media punditry and narratives around the 2016 US Presidential election (how could you ignore it?!?) you will no doubt have heard this word being used to describe Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton…among other words.

They accused her progressive, assertive and knowledgeable presence as being too ambitious, too “bitchy”, too hawkish, and the list goes on. Yet there were some incredible double standards, especially in comparison to her Republican opponent and current President Donald Trump. His assertiveness, sexism and click-bait statements were seen as powerful, authoritative, a sign of strength, and everyone’s favorite: “he tells it like it is”. COOL.

If you didn’t get the message, along with a number of other systemic and societal barriers women still come up against today, being ambitious is definitely one of them. Hillary Clinton is by no means the only one, and politics isn’t the only arena where the double standards work against women.

A new book titled ‘Double Bind: Women on Ambition’ features a collection of essays by numerous women in a range of industries (literature, healthcare, law, media, sports and more) sharing personal stories and perspectives on how the “ambition factor” has affected their life in some way. Some of the notable names include Molly Ringwald, Ayana Mathis, Roxane Gay, Francine Prose, Lan Samantha Chang and ‘Smash’ creator Theresa Rebeck, whose essay was shared exclusively on EntertainmentWeekly.com.

The book was edited by Robin Romm, a writer who has struggled with the notions around ambition in her own career, and wanted to take a deeper dive into how it has affected other women’s lives. In the introduction, she explains her conundrum trying to balance the way women were socialized to be soft and polite, with her determination and ambitions, saying “striving and achieving had to be approached delicately or you risked the negative judgment of others.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever felt you needed to pull back on your assertiveness about your career and desires to succeed, if may be because you have been conditioned to do so. This, Robin explains, is “the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat.”

Throughout the book, it is clear that the term ambition becomes a far more nuanced, messy and complex issue for each woman. It is not a binary by any means, and the intersectionality in a woman’s life means the topic certainly begs more discussion in a wider sense. Robin’s book is the perfect jumping off point.

In an review about the book for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino describes how the further we delve into the essays, it is clear there is no single, clear, perfect solution to overcoming the complexity around ambition in women’s lives. She juxtaposes the commercialized version of overcoming the ambition gap (Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ movement and Tory Burch’s #EmbraceAmbition campaign, for example) against women such as novelist Elisa Albert who dissects ambition as something far more complicated in her life than simply something to attain like a credit on a resume.

“Maybe my great ambition, such as it is, is to refrain from engagement with systems that purport to tell me what I’m worth compared to anyone else. What I would like to say is Lean In my hairy Jewish ass…Our contexts are not the same, our struggles are not the same, and so our rebellions and complacencies and conformities and compromises cannot be compared,” she writes.

Generalizing about ambition in the lives of women, which can sometimes be the downfall of such campaigns like ‘Lean In’ (assuming those trying to climb the corporate ladder are starting out on the same level), doesn’t address some of the ways ambition in and of itself can achieve the opposite of its intent.

“If you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness,” writes Elisa Albert.

Another issue is looking at how the familiar work-life balance issue which is something demanded of women almost exclusively more than men in public discussions, doesn’t properly categorize all aspects of a woman’s life.

“We simply cannot approach marriage and family in the spirit of achievement at all,” said Elizabeth Corey, a political-science professor at Baylor, who believes success and productivity in the workplace should not be compared to or measured in the same way in motherhood.

Then there are essays like the one written by feminist author Roxane Gay, who explained how a high school male friend accused her of success only through affirmative action when she was accepted into Yale and he wasn’t.

Blair Braverman, a musher, recalls an incident with her former kennel partner, a male who was threatened by her success.

“The day after I won my first dogsled race, my kennel partner dumped me,” she writes.

Theresa Rebeck, the former showrunner and creator of hit TV show ‘Smash’ remembers how the men in the writers room would insert “girl scene here” into the formation of new scripts and expected her to write them since she was a woman.

Robin Romm herself, a former federal investigator, describes accidentally becoming privvy to what some colleagues thought of her ambition when she was unintentionally CC’d on an email about her work.

“Obviously Robin’s numbers are very impressive. But she’s so aggressive when she’s on a case. Her assertiveness is off-putting,” she wrote.

What’s most important about this book is the acknowledgement of the nuance in these essays. That ambition itself is not a bad thing, and by all means should be encouraged in women’s lives, but that each person’s relationship to their own ambitious outcomes and repercussions prove society is still a long way from not looking at ambitious women as anything different to that of a man.

Novelist Ayana Mathis writes “I and mine are not lean-in women”, and The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, in her review on this book, reiterates that we do ourselves a disservice when we try to “solve” the ambition gap by attaching the issue to catchy slogans and hashtags, instead of realizing actually how complex it is.

“The novelist is locating ambition where, of course, it really lives: not in slogans and hashtags and board rooms and Pinterest boards, but in discussions of privilege and social justice and inequality. Mathis is reminding her readers that ambition, like so much else in the United States of the current moment, is a privilege enjoyed only by the luckiest among us. Brilliant, successful, and tired, she is hoping that words will be enough, but not sure that, things being what they are, they will not be. Mathis lives, after all, in the same world the rest of us do: one that teaches women to want so much and, at the same time, to expect so little,” she concludes.

You can purchase ‘Double Bind: Women on Ambition’ from Amazon or IndieBound.





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