Are you an ambitious womanFlannery O’Connor: “Success means being heard and don’t stand there and tell me that you are indifferent to being heard.”

Ask a woman if she’s ambitious and she’ll look at you as if you just asked whether she sticks pins in puppies for fun. Ask a woman if she’s competitive and she’ll look at you as if you suggested that she’s a hooker.

“Me? Ambitious? Well, I want to succeed in my vocation, of course, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘ambitious.’ I just want to get what I deserve, if that’s okay. As for competitive, no way. I hate being measured against somebody else.”

Women rarely admit our ambitions out loud not only because we fear failure — a fear we share with our male counterparts — but because wanting to succeed might make us seem less feminine.

That’s the tricky part.

Wanting an audience, wanting success, wanting to win — isn’t that what scary women want? We don’t like those women, right?


Isn’t it true that when women talk about wanting to win, to succeed, to be the best in their fields, to be at the top of the list, it can be unsettling? Doesn’t it sound — as is only ever said about women — too “pushy”?

And isn’t that why women often phrase dangerous statements as questions?

It’s time for that to stop.

Listen to Flannery O’Connor who, in a letter to a young woman who wants to write, insists on the importance of striving for success:

“Success means being heard and don’t stand there and tell me that you are indifferent to being heard. You may write for the joy of it, but the act of writing is not complete in itself. It has to end in its audience.”

Facing an audience whose evaluations will depend on merit rather than sincerity or emotional effort, girls are often encouraged to retreat. They are permitted to demur and back away from their goals. So they bite their nails, they diet themselves into near invisibility, they cry behind closed doors.

What a waste.

When asked to explain exactly why they are reluctant to describe themselves as ambitious, my female students reply that if they seem too eager to get the “A” or to be elected to run some university office, they might lose friends. They will be regarded as ruthless. “I don’t want to claw my way to the top,” a sophomore told me. “I don’t want to seem arrogant,” said another. “I’m no better than anybody else” said a third. These are all dynamic, smart, and diligent students, none of whom wants to be called a “winner” in public because she thinks it might hurt somebody’s feelings.

Let’s face it: Women have had restricted access, historically, to positions not only of privilege and power, but of possibility. One of my favorite passages by the essayist and novelist Virginia Woolf concerns the way she was barred from entering even the libraries at the great universities of England around the turn of the (last) century. As Woolf describes it in “A Room of One’s Own,” she’s walking along the paths at “Oxbridge” university when she’s yelled at by the guard at the gate. Not surprisingly, she begins considering the nature of exclusion. Here is one of the century’s greatest authors (not authoresses; if she’s an authoress then I’m a professoress or a doctorella) and she’s not allowed to go into a university library because the male students and scholars cannot bear to be disturbed by a woman — and they find women essentially disturbing.

Woolf, initially, thinks “how unpleasant it is to be locked out.” But it then occurs to her “how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

To be denied access to a system is bad but it is nevertheless infinitely preferable to being immovably fixed and irrevocably locked into the system. Feminism — you knew I’d end up using the “f” word somewhere in this post, didn’t you? — is about choosing your own path, about writing your own script. About seeing all the possibilities.

Many girls are still instructed to imagine themselves only in mid-level careers because if they aim higher, they might not reach their goal. So what? The misery of failure is most often a story circulated by those in power to keep others out of it.

What can you do? Recognize that you have options and pass those along. You can laugh about it, you can learn how to do it yourself, and you can change it. You clear away the dust and clouds and what you have is something spectacular: freedom.

Freedom is scary; to stand or fall on your talents, intelligence, and energy is to take a risk. Grasping for success, you risk failure.

But why not focus on the brilliant first possibility — the possibility of coming first?

Somebody has to do it.

Why not you?

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