This is the stuff of double-standardized cliché—an ambitious man is a go-getter, an ambitious woman is off-putting—and in that sense the stories Romm has collected from her ambition-ambivalent writers are compelling but unsurprising. More remarkable, though, is the extent to which the women, here, have adopted the same rough posture as their critics and doubters. Here are immigrant women, and women of color, and privileged women, and struggling women, and women who are mothers, and women who are not, and women whose families encouraged their dreams, and women whose families did not, questioning their own ambition—and, quite often, resenting it.
“Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide,” Elisa Albert, the writer who is also a doula, confesses. “Even though I’ve settled into a life with as much professional fulfillment as personal happiness, I’m still not sure if my ambition is friend or foe,” Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown, notes. “Too much ambition of the most ruthless, thoughtless kind is ugly on everybody, men and women alike,” the writer Pam Houston observes. Ambition, the women acknowledge, is a blunt instrument; in the name of individual dreams, it can enforce conformity, standardizing and sanitizing desires until they fit into neat packages: “law school,” “a best-selling book,” “influence,” “work-life balance.” It can make for generations of grown-up organization kids. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist, had a patient who once called asking that Holland increase the dosage of her anti-depressant. The patient’s boss, Holland soon learned, had just humiliated her in front of her staff—and she knew she couldn’t, on top of everything else, be seen crying in front of them. “Was it ambition that made her feel she should erase every emotion to conform to the hostile environment in her workplace?” Holland wonders. The question answers itself: Fuck ambition.
In a review of Double Bind for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino argued that the book highlights “the infantilizing ways we talk about women’s ambition.” The problem illuminated in Romm’s collection seems equally one, however, of rampant commercialization—of our cultural tendency to discuss complicated things through bland slogans and blithe catchphrases. “Ambition” has at this point been dutifully hashtagged, and transformed into a t-shirted slogan, and otherwise converted from a fraught ideal into a marketable meme. It has been cheerily capitalized, with the result that its complicated politics, the stuff of glass ceilings and parental leave and makeup taxes and tampon taxes and Lilly Ledbetter and Hillary Clinton, have been largely subsumed under the haze of modern marketing.
Which is also to say that ambition has followed a similar trajectory that feminism has, in this age of the easy commodity. Silk-screened, capitalism-inflected, celebrity endorsed—the American culture of the present moment tends to treat ambition, or rather #ambition, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, when of course its true fulfillment first requires a situation in which women are paid equally for equal work, in which their bodies are respected as their own. Until then, “ambition” will manifest in women’s lives merely as what its commercialized version understands it to be: a dream about the possibility of dreaming. A means that never resolves into an end. “Get it,” women encourage each other on Facebook, in response to their friends’ promotions and vacations. But … what is it, actually? And how do you go about the getting?