The Audacity of Political Women: Why Is Ambition a Bad Thing? | Commentary
The “ambitious” woman in politics is a contrived caricature. Forget the cold, calculating lady stepping on those in her way (in high heels, of course) as she marches to the top, with identifiers such as “bossy,” “aggressive” and “shrill” in cartoonish word bubbles around her.
This is an unfair, broad-brush categorization of women. It is bad for women’s progress. More importantly, it is bad for everyone.
What does it mean for gender parity in politics when we pull the ladder out from under women who have worked so hard to get to the upper rungs? What does it signal to society when a person as accomplished as a former secretary of State, ex-senator and first lady is described as having “extraordinary, irrational, overwhelming ambition”? What is the message to a young woman who gets stellar results but is labeled “too assertive” or “abrasive”? Nothing good.
The message to women who want to take their place as leaders has been: You can sit here, but don’t expect to be at the head of the table. Even for women who have approached the peak, there has been a pit. If you were a woman who did exactly the same things a man in your position would do, you were unfairly seen as overly ambitious, self-serving, a liability to your party.
Effectiveness paired with ambition translates to a healthy determination and drive for men. It translates to over-the-top audacity for women.
The double standard itself pre-dates the contemporary conversation about women in politics, when the concept of a woman in the Oval Office was relegated to a lovely first lady sipping tea. (First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was vilified for her quest to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But she persevered and became a civil rights superhero.)
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is the latest example of this double standard in practice. She has essentially been attacked for doing her job in a way that would be applauded as shrewd and effective for a man.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a national security scholar, was pegged as an ambitious adviser with her eye on the prize — a Cabinet position in the George W. Bush administration.
There is a distinctly sexist difference between the way we talk about women with lofty professional goals (and who meet them) and men who do exactly the same thing. We need to call out that perceptible shift and flip the script.
Let’s allow — even better, let’s embrace — women being honest about their ambition. We’re always pushing our politicians to be authentic, to reveal their whole selves to us. Ambition is part of that. And really, we want to see ourselves in those we elect. We want to believe we are resilient, brave people with the fortitude to push forward and reach for our goals.
We reward that kind of behavior in men. It’s about time we do the same for women.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which advances women’s equality in politics through nonpartisan research and partnerships.