Ambition, Part One.

When I was nine years old we were going to perform Peter Pan in summer camp. All the girls wanted to be Wendy. I wanted to be Peter Pan. Fast forward to seventh grade. My home room teacher announced that until we had elections she would appoint a class president. I looked her in the eye and knew she would choose me. I wanted her to choose me.


I recalled these early experiences with ambition as I was reading an excellent book, Double Bind: Women and Ambition, a collection of essays edited by Robin Romm. Most of the authors agree that we are stuck with a definition of ambition that relates only to personal achievement, a definition that doesn’t allow room for nurturing and fostering relationships.  It is a definition that is perceived as antithetical to being a mother. 

Several authors question the definition. Sarah Ruhl asks, “Can ambition be directed toward others, and involve satisfaction and rest? Or does ambition only count as checking thing off your own list and moving ever forward?”

When I decided that I wanted to be a community college president, it was in the service of others. I was passionate about the mission of providing opportunities for students who might not otherwise have access to higher education. But the presidency was a goal I could only achieve by “checking things off my list,” earning a doctorate, participating in leadership programs and traveling for my job, which took me away from the day-to-day obligations of being a parent. While I remember running off to Little League in my high heels before going back to the office and carpooling for hours because we lived at the outer edge of the neighborhood where their school friends lived, my children remember the band concerts I missed and being dependent on other parents to get to weekend parties. I remember telling them one day that they could have any international cuisine they wanted – if it were available in the frozen food aisle. Despite that generous offer, my daughter complained that there was nothing in the freezer but a copy of my dissertation (this was well before cloud storage). I never doubted that my career goal was my priority. but there was no way to fulfill that and the standards of “good mother” at the same time.  

Francine Prose describes ambition as the force of human nature “essential to the progress of what we have agreed to call civilization.” It is ambition, she says, that has given us the discovery of new continents, great music, and modern medicine.   Without ambition the world would be “poorer, more dangerous, less pleasurable…” Since ambition has made the world safer and more beautiful, it is “odd,” she says, that women have been told not to invent, or compose or design anything. If they have these aspirations they learn by adolescence to hide them.

Conversely, there are some women, of my own generation and younger, who have brought up to believe that the mantle of achievement belongs on their shoulders. They are made to feel that to abandon the more traditional definition of ambition – to veer from the corporate career ladder or law partnership for something or someone they love, is also a betrayal.  When it comes to ambition, this is the persistent double bind faced by women.  

Barbara ViniarComment