Self-Deprecating Women


Ambition in Women's Changing Lives

By Anna Fels

Pantheon -- 297pp -- $24.95

When former Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham made the momentous decision to go to press with the stories about the Watergate scandal in 1972, she downplayed her courageousness. Courage "involves choice," she said, and she believed she had none -- despite the fact that she was tossing bombs at a sitting U.S. President and potentially imperiling the Post's future. But her subordinate, then-Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, luxuriated in his sudden acclaim as a crusader. In the Hollywood movie of the events, All the President's Men, Bradlee was heroically portrayed by a growling Jason Robards. Graham, on the other hand, was completely absent. Turns out she had made a personal request to not be depicted in the film. Katharine Graham was brave. But, as was said at her 2001 funeral, the lady "did not strut."

This is just one of the many examples summoned by New York psychiatrist Anna Fels to illustrate how women self-deprecate and men don't. Her new book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives, explores why many women continue to slink out of the spotlight, bleaching themselves from their stories by deflecting accolades and minimizing achievements. Although many of the ideas Fels explores are not new, using ambition as a lens through which to examine women's experience is novel. As the author points out in this research-heavy treatise, both sexes have a need to master skills and be acknowledged for them. The recognition that attends such pursuits, Fels argues, is an essential psychic oxygen. But it's one that women, all too often, continue to deny themselves.

Necessary Dreams is filled with behavioral X-rays of everyone from writer Mary McCarthy to Madonna to sculptor Maya Lin. Simply put, says Fels, if one is to be seen as feminine, one must be selflessly unambitious. And to be unfeminine -- too masculine, in other words -- is to invite savage personal attacks, intense scrutiny, and conjectures about one's sexuality. Thus the double-bind of modern femininity: Mothers want their daughters to be masters of their own universe; articulate, strong, and independent. But not at the cost of their "promability" -- a date at the end of the school year.

For men, reveling in praise is as natural as breathing, and the confidence that approval produces becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to further triumphs. Women, however, too often stuff their badges away in a drawer and, in doing so, sabotage the support that would spur them to achieve more success. Thus they cheat themselves in yet one more economy: the marketplace of accolades.

Fels deserves credit for illuminating this dance of denial. Nowhere is it more evident than in the workplace, where the female Faustian bargain is often starkly displayed. Revel in recognition, assert oneself boldly -- and risk being seen as a pushy, emasculating-bully broad. Being liked means having to participate in the exhausting pageant of faux humility. That's a chief reason, Fels asserts, that women speak less at meetings, fail to push for raises and promotions, and even smile more at the office -- a facial tic of compliance known in research circles as "the fear grin." Women also, in general, take the subordinate role in workplace conversations, which costs them big in terms of the title and paycheck game.

Having children, then, becomes the ultimate black hole for women in terms of recognition. It's well-known that, in the status race, mothers bring up the rear, ranking equally with the disabled and the elderly. Because society values child-rearing so little (one need only look at the average hourly pay of a day-care-center teacher -- $7.86 -- to see just how little), raising children full-time, in Fels's view, is a setup for depression.

Fels, a mother herself, clearly supports the endeavor. But women who pursue this option while abandoning careers, she believes, face not only economic risk but also emotional peril. "If recognition is what you're looking for, motherhood is not the place to find it." Women may be bad at claiming their share of acclaim. But at least in the workplace, Fels argues, they have a shot at getting it.

Not all of Fels's material is persuasive. For example, some of the research on gender and early education she reports has been called into question. Contrary to the author's assertions, overwhelming sociological data show that boys are now the second sex in American secondary education.

Moreover, the definition of leadership in the global information economy is becoming more feminized. Chief executives who share credit, solicit advice, and conduct postmortems without blame -- which would all fall under Fels's rubric of femininity -- are the kinds of leaders who are getting more applause these days.

Still, it seems that women could learn a lot from men about how to enjoy recognition and reap the rewards for doing so. Rather than parroting the masculine strut, though, perhaps there's a third -- and better -- way.

By Michelle Conlin

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