The New Ambition

by Susie Orman Schnall

A man who doesn’t need any new people learning his name said in a commencement speech recently that he believes the majority of the female graduates he was addressing “are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.” And, get this, he quoted Taylor Swift while doing so.

Now, I have nothing against women who are excited about becoming mothers. Or women who are excited about becoming spouses or partners or whatever type of romantic connection turns them on (though that’s something else unnamed man has major issues with). I’m fine with making homemaking a career choice—unfortunately an all-consuming, 24/7, unpaid one that is still not universally respected in our society—if that’s the woman’s choice. Pursuing a career isn’t for everyone. Just like marriage, having children, or watching men play football isn’t for everyone.

What I am opposed to, anaphylactically allergic to, is any man declaring, especially in an auditorium in 2024 filled with females of all ages, and to a round of applause, that women are meant to be in service of men. And that doing so will make them happy and fulfilled. I had to take Benadryl just to type that sentence.

We can’t also just chalk this up to having been said at a religious institution. His words have consequences that travel beyond the lovely brick walls of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

What about all the young women in that audience who have jobs lined up? Who are excited to make names for themselves, build their own financial stability, feed their intellectual and creative cravings?

I’d like to tell them to (a) not listen to that ill-advised choice of a commencement speaker (makes you wonder whether his speech was vetted, makes you think it might have been encouraged) and (b) follow your ambition. Wear it like a blooming, glowing, freaking tiara made of flowers that pours bright sunshine all over your face.

Be proud of your ambition. It is so powerful.

Despite the patriarchy being alive and well, still chugging along with its abortion bans and repugnant cost of child care and its Harvey Weinsteins getting their sentences overturned, we have millions of ambitious women on our team taking names, kicking ass, and making huge impacts on our world in a variety of disciplines.

And guess what, football-kicking misogynist man, these women can do those things and have children and partners. That is if they want to. How dare you tell an entire gender what’s best for them.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, bold and ambitious women seemed exotic to me. As if they were raised by an alien species in a faraway unfamiliar land. I studied them as one would a rare butterfly: I thought they were beautiful but there was no reality in which I’d actually be one.

I still have the crinkled November 2017 issue of WSJ Magazine that featured a profile of Reese Witherspoon discussing ambition in a way that reorganized my DNA. When asked what would have happened to her had she not become a successful actor, she said she’d be a leading surgeon. Apparently the interviewer must have registered shock on his face, to which she replied: “What? I’m just being honest. I’m ambitious, and I’m over hiding that.”

At the end of the article, Reese doubles down: “I know I’m good at things. And I’m over being bashful about it. Do basketball players have to sit there and act coy? Tell me something: Does LeBron James twiddle his thumbs and say, ‘Jeez, I’m kind of great at shooting, and I guess I’m OK at dribbling and passing’? No, he’s like, ‘I’m amazing! I rock!’ I wish more actresses had that kind of bravado.”

I wish more women in general had that kind of bravado. I wish, when I was younger, I had that kind of bravado.

I’ve always been hardworking and determined to do well—excellent at doing the school, plotting the map, laying the stepping-stones. But I never thought of myself as ambitious. Even if I might have actually been so by definition, it would have never occurred to me to say I was, especially at the outset of my career. Plus, in my 20s, my career visions never extended past two or three years into the future. Perhaps it was my assumption—conscious or not—that I would become the primary caregiver to my future children. That I would succumb to the gender roles thrust upon my sex for generations, delivered to me in the form of societal norms propagated via government policies on equal pay and childcare as well as on the advertising and television shows I watched (thank you, Carol Brady). I don’t remember being given the tools, or the vocabulary, to think otherwise. I hadn’t known I was supposed to lean in. My mother taught me to write thank you notes, not to topple the patriarchy.

Plenty of women my age—in their early 50s —did have the tools in their 20s and 30s, did have the vocabulary, did plot out their career dreams with graduate degrees and carefully cultivated mentors, so I can’t blame my ambivalence on anything but my personal experience. It wasn’t as if girls my age weren’t given opportunities. They were. I wasn’t as if they didn’t know who Gloria Steinem was. They did. It just wasn’t top of my mind, for some reason, for me to grab those opportunities, lift them over my head in triumph, plant my feet hip-distance apart, and loudly proclaim myself a woman of ambition.

Until recently.

This is why I am enraged when I hear that a man was purposefully given a platform, literally and figuratively, to spout garbage declaiming ambition in women. We can’t afford to take any more steps backward. We’ve come so far.

From where I stand, being an ambitious woman has been normalized to such a degree that it’s become expected, celebrated. Necessary.

My own “ambition awakening” happened in my early 40s, around the same time that I started writing novels. What better way to test out my new courage, my new fiery ardency than to write characters who did things, said things that I would have never imagined myself doing or saying?

My characters have told off their bosses and have then slept with them. They’ve given presentations in front of boardrooms and killed it. They’ve sat at the table and spoken their minds. They haven’t shown up when they said they would and have also shown up when they weren’t supposed to. They’ve embarked upon careers when society and their parents and their professors told them it couldn’t, and more importantly, shouldn’t, be done. They have soared, stunned, and done what they needed to do to suit themselves, their dreams, and their goddamn freaking ambition.

I’m not sure if at this point, I’ve learned to be more ambitious through my characters or the other way around, but it’s been an exciting evolution—both as a writer and as a woman.

Long live the ambitious women. Women who aren’t afraid to break trail, break rules, break long-standing traditions and routines and payscales that no longer serve any of us. Break ceilings and floors and walls and barriers that used to keep some women out and other women in. Women who aren’t afraid to fail and then get back on their feet and start all over again, possibly to fail once more. Women who set examples so those of us a few steps behind can watch and learn and become.

I want to talk about ambitious women. I want to read about ambitious women. And so I’m going to continue to write about ambitious women. How better to channel society’s questions, to explore our feelings, to cement a new normal. A new normal where girls don’t have to be given the tools or the vocabulary. A new normal where girls ingest those things like they do love from the absolute moment they’re born.

Susie Orman Schnall is the award-winning author of five novels. Her latest, Anna Bright Is Hiding Something, set in the world of female founders and startup culture, is about two ambitious women.

 Top Image Via Getty 

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