Book Notes: Women write about ambition
“Double Bind: Women on Ambition” Edited by Robin Romm. Liveright Publishing Corp./W.W. Norton & Co., 2017. 303 pages. $27.95.
Thank you, Robin Romm, for making “Double Bind: Women on Ambition” happen. For many women, the word ambition is right up there with shrill, driven and aggressive — ugly words that hurt women’s chances of advancement and make them feel bad. Romm’s compilation of engaging essays shows that many women grapple with a familiar shame, the same pressure to camouflage the force of their energies, the same confusion as to how to represent their successes in ways that appear humble or, as one woman writes, “gentle.”
Romm’s book of short anecdotal essays by successful women — playwrights, authors, actors, a psychiatrist, political scientist, history professor and an entrepreneurial butcher — is a captivating read. The essays hurt and infuriate. The contributors — smart, talented, strategic women — have worked hard to achieve success and they’ve sustained grief because of it. These 4,000-word essays demanded an uncomfortable reckoning because the writers had to revisit past outrages, they had to look at how much time they spend managing the way they behave to soften their public personas and they had to rewrite their essays till they found the deepest truth and clearest understanding they could muster.
The essays also thrill and maybe even liberate. By outing women’s predicaments, Romm gives voice to an age-old problem that has caused great harm to women and their careers. Ambition, she says, is now a topic of interest. Some of the essayists referenced Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” one of the newer generation of books that helps women strategically claim their ambition in difficult business environments.
Ambition is more than drive. According to Romm, it’s “the desire to do good work in the world and have that work recognized by people who understand it.” It’s one thing for a woman to work well and work hard, it’s quite another for one’s peers to recognize and acknowledge the quality and success of the effort in ways that are positive and supportive. Romm writes of the “perpetual double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat.”
Stories, says Romm, humanize dilemmas. She offers 24 personal essays from successful women like Pam Houston, Roxane Gay, Ayana Mathis, Francine Prose, Molly Ringwald, and others you might not know, like dogsledder Blair Braverman. Braverman had to work around extreme misogyny to engage in the competitive dogsledding that thrilled and challenged her. When she won her first dogsled race, her male dogsledding partner pulled out.
Pakistani-American Nadia P. Manzoor writes that her culture provided no role models. She was stalled for years before writing “Burq Off!”, her one-woman show. She introduced 21 versions of herself, the young Pakistani girl who wanted to be an astronaut. “My biggest desire was to become myself.” That goal is shared by many American girls caught up in the double bind.
In “Both” by Yael Chatov Schonbrun, the 50-mile drive between daycare and work allowed her to transition from mother to researcher and therapist. “The concepts of ‘ambitious’ and ‘part time’ seem to be a schematic mismatch,” she writes. Her ceaseless, fraught interior dialogue about being a good parent while working will resonate with many. Her solution is to juggle: “I have consistently chosen not to close the door on either world. They each matter too much to me.”
Writer Ayana Mathis sees the heart of the matter as “the legitimization of desires.” She writes, “In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly 40 years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions?”
When Cama Davis, in “Girl with a Knife,” trained to become a butcher in Europe, she got an excellent and rounded education in “meat education” that ranged from the raising of animals to butchering. Back home in Portland, men said, “You’ll never be a butcher.” Motivated by a set of goals having to do with educating others about the larger meaning of eating meat, she started the Portland Meat Collective and began classes in everything from making pate to the slaughtering of animals. Her classes sell out and she is widely known as a butcher.
Work is at the heart of this book. Women find tremendous satisfaction in their work but in order to work, they must adjust themselves, their appearance, their words, the tone of their voice, even the excellence of their output if they are to continue doing what they love. In Romm’s essay, “Reply All,” she writes that “work gave me proximity to the heartbeat of the world.” She describes how she happened to see a man’s email about her that said, “Yeah, she’s good at her job but it makes her less appealing.”
The most disturbing essay in the collection — “What Came Next” — is by playwright and novelist Theresa Rebeck. Steven Spielberg asked her to write a TV series called “Smash” that won good ratings and critical praise. She was fired without cause and men with lesser experience and credentials replaced her the next season. The show was cancelled and she couldn’t find work for three years. Spielberg apologized, saying he should have intervened on her behalf but was too distracted. She concludes, “The boys didn’t want me running that show.”
“The game is rigged,” writes Romm, “and not in women’s favor.”
One way to work at leveling the field is to continue to bring this problem to the fore. “Double Bind” is a lively contribution. If we can’t converse with these women face to face as we would love to do, we can read this book, take a breath and push on a bit more fortified.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.