I can’t stop singing the word “ambition” in my head to the tune of “tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof as I write this, but that’s actually completely okay with me.
A few years ago, Reese Witherspoon declared that “ambition” shouldn’t be a dirty word. Too often the idea of “ambition” for women is associated with being cold, selfish, and unlikeable. It’s strange that a word that holds so much promise can be twisted with negative connotations: oh, you have big goals and are going to work hard on them? Must be a bi—
I love ambition. The very word is full of potential, a taste of the dreams that have yet to be realized. This may be connected to the fact that I’ve never concerned myself much with being likable. Do I want people to like me? Sure. Do I want to be the kind of person everyone likes? I know some people like that, and I like them (unsurprisingly), but I just don’t have it in me. I’m way too focused and way too mean for that.
Still, this continues to be a huge problem for women. Witherspoon wrote again about the gaps in careers and salaries, noting especially the abysmal disparity in media production. Only one woman has ever won an Academy Award for Best Director. One. Only three have ever won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and six have earned a Tony for Best Direction of a Play. The gaps are even worse for women of color: every single one of those winners is white.
As a student surrounded by female classmates of all colors, the lack of representation is particularly contentious. I know that women are in training for these positions, because I’m working alongside them. Why, then, do they rarely reach the top accolades? Call me silly, but I suspect the answer isn’t that 99% of women are worse at directing than 99% of men.
On the other side of this coin, there’s the mounting problem of millennial women’s disillusionment with ambition. Growing up, we were told that wanting a spouse and children was oppressive, and a great career would make us happy. Now, women reaching their 30’s are discovering that a career (great or otherwise) is not enough to fulfill them. They should have never been taught that lie in the first place. Life satisfaction looks different for everyone, and turning off women from long careers by pitting them against spouses and children is just another form of oppression. I am primarily career focused, and I’d also like to have a spouse and fulfilling social life as an adult. The idea these are mutually exclusive has never been forced on men, so why is it implied that it’s a choice women must make?
These issues are huge, but there is progress being made. I’m heartened by the positive direction Witherspoon described in her article, as well as my experiences with my classmates. Ambition isn’t a dirty word, and it doesn’t mean you can’t be soft or kind or hard or angry or any particular dot on the human experience—it just means you’re going to do something extraordinary.
And if all else fails, I gladly bow to our new ruler.