When you think of an ambitious woman, what do you think of? In December, the Atlantic published “The Ambition Interviews”: How ambitions changed and were redefined for 37 female graduates from the class of 1993 from a high-achieving sorority at Northwestern University.
The women were interviewed about how their career paths and ideas about ambition and success have changed in response to life’s events, chiefly having children. This group of women aimed high, got graduate degrees, and climbed the career ladder until they had their first child. Then the vast majority of them–30 of 37–scaled back their careers or left the workplace entirely. It took me most of the way through this lengthy article for my understanding of ambition to shift rather than simply taking the view that the women had sacrificed ambition itself–their career–to have children. I began to wonder about ambition. Had I bought into ambition as black and white, as either a sacrifice for a career or not? The author pointed out that nothing had changed with regards to their ambitions – they still took a lot on and were high achievers, it is just that their values changed. I wondered if perhaps they have wizened up and let their values wizen up as well. Perhaps relationships and being a wonderful mom was the obvious choice over a high-powered job with lots of acclaim but perhaps little overall impact on their heart or the world.
I am reflecting a lot lately on the legacy women leave and how their story is or isn’t presented in our society. My grandma is at the final stage of her life. I spent much of the holiday with her. Her and my mom spent a few hours showing me how to use my grandma’s 1970’s Husqvarna sewing machine, which she is giving me. Somehow the act of giving me her sewing machine and passing along her knowledge was an acknowledgement that she has come to the end of nearly 9 great decades of life. My grandma is super strong to put it mildly. She lived through an air raid in WWII. When she was 17, she moved across the world from England to San Francisco with no money and no job after meeting my grandpa and little by little built a small real-estate empire, raised a family of 4 boys and made a home in a new land. And she has been a hell of a grandmother, taking the time to teach my sister and I table manners, to sew clothing for my dolls, to make homemade plum jam and syrup. And yet, like so many women in this world, her success and triumphs in a difficult world got no medals, no corner offices nor big promotions, no feature stories in the NY Times Business section. Hers is a quiet ambition and accomplishment, where a reward is a grand-daughter who dreams big and stands strong in the face of life’s struggles or sons who go on to do great things, raise great families.
And having this relationship with my grandmother, sharing time at the end of her life has me reflecting on ambition. I wonder: is our notion of ambition wrongly colored by ill-fitting cultural ideas? That to be ambitious is often synonymous with choosing to climb the career ladder, making family and relationship sacrifices for job titles and wealth. Is my grandma in her aspirations to raise a strong family, conjure from nothing the resources to make it grow – less ambitious than a moneyed ivy-league graduate who climbs to the top of J.P. Morgan Chase? Does one or the other deserve more respect or admiration? Which one has more of an impact on our world? These questions are circling in my head as my grandma’s life comes to an end. But her legacy does not. My grandma’s love, strength, wisdom, and grit live on when she leaves us.
I wonder, when more of our voices as women are heard, reflected in mainstream culture, will our notions of ambition and values shift? Might we talk about the dignity and honor of women in ways where making the choice to devote time to raising children doesn’t sound like a giant craft project, or a decades long stay-cation, but a loving, honorable and yes, ambitious undertaking? Might ambition and legacy be about something more than leaving a self-named building or trust fund behind you?
My grandma and I share a strong desire that women get their fair share of the power in this world. My grandma has lived a long life through the decades of inequities that women experience as if there were some reason we truly deserved less – less respect, less money, less acclaim. She is very smart and very strong and when I think of her, I picture her seated at her kitchen table, plotting with me about how women can take back the world. At one point she said to me “Our time has come.” I picture her as the illustration of how preposterous sexism is. She is a force. She is tough. She is savvy. She is dignified. Her existence is a self-evident counterpoint to anyone who thinks that a woman is less capable than a man. Thank you grandma for your ambitious and courageous life.