I knew when I set out to write about #nastywomenwriters from Herstory that I wished to restore the voices and inform more people about women of our past and present who were #nasty. Though these women had valuable things to say and had made incredibly important achievements, very few knew about them. What I did not understand at the time is that, hand in hand with restoring women their voices and acknowledging the contributions of disappeared women, goes the issue of Women and Ambition.  

The Women and Ambition category on this site began with the #nastywomanwriters post about Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker was an artist. Since she also wrote letters and journals, I decided she qualified as a #nastywomanwriter. #Nastywomenwriters has now extended its reach to #nastywomen of Literature, Art, STEM and Activism.

To learn that Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first woman to paint a woman nude was astonishing for me. To learn that she had intentionally set out to do that, had ambitions to be first in a lot of areas in the art world, to deliberately go beyond where art had gone, was also astounding to me. Why? Because when women forge new territory it is usually treated as some sort of accident, goes unacknowledged, is disappeared, or even worse, stolen by a man who claims credit.

What of women’s ambitions? What have we been taught about this? How have we been told to think about this? How are ambitious women portrayed? How do we think about our own ambitions?

In an interview with The New Yorker magazine about her book on Modersohn-Becker, Diane Radycki states:

“If I had another subtitle for this book, it would be about ambition. Because, for the most part, these artists, Morisot, Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, maybe—are incredibly ambitious, and nobody writes about that. When I say ambitious, she was measuring herself and she wanted to beat everybody out. She knew she had it in her. When she hit her stride with the nude, she declares, ‘I’m doing it. I’m doing what nobody else had done, I’m seeing it, I’ve got it.’ (4.)” 

Leaving gender aside, what is ambition? A drive to express something one feels inside—to get it out—to create, to actualize a vision, a dream. Ambition is a push from within that utilizes our will forces. We have to work hard to actualize an ambition and yet the ambition itself often makes us willing to do that work. Often ambition can make us feel that we cannot not do the work. In that way it is a gift. It motivates us, makes us strive for the seemingly impossible. Why is it then, that it has and continues to be difficult for a woman to own her own ambition?

Can we begin by stating clearly and confidently that there is nothing at all wrong with ambition?

It took me a long time to embrace my own ambitious nature. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t understand myself to be ambitious. And if I had, I might have thought that was a bad thing to be. But it is time to stop this way of thinking.

As psychiatrist Anna Fels discovered in her research into Women and Ambition:

“I soon came to realize that although the articulate, educated group of women I interviewed could cogently and calmly talk about topics ranging from money to sex, when the subject of ambition arose, the level of intensity took a quantum leap. …For them, ‘ambition’ necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. (HBR 2)”

“It was the first of what were to be many lessons for me on how hidden and emotion laden the subject of ambition is for women. I soon came to realize that although the articulate, educated group of women I interviewed could cogently and calmly talk about topics ranging from money to sex, when the subject of ambition arose, the level of intensity took a quantum leap.” ~Anna Fels (HBR)

Fels goes on to note that research reveals that part of the pursuit of ambition requires that accomplishments be acknowledged. In other words, one who is ambitious also wishes to be seen for what they have done: recognized, affirmed. In fact, studies show that:

“It may be impossible to measure the ‘desire to improve a skill’ independent of the individual’s ‘desire for recognition.’ Without earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance are rarely achieved. Ambitions are both the product of and, later on, the source of affirmation.”

The women interviewed hated the word ambition. “…for them, “ambition” necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of other for one’s own ends.”…clearly these accomplished women were caught up in some sort of fear. But of what?” ~Anna Fels (HBR 4)

This is an interesting conundrum. Ambition requires recognition, recognition encourages more ambition.

The opposite happens to #nastywomen. Not only do they not receive recognition, but as, stated above, their work is often overlooked or they are met with disapproval, disdain and disparagement: they are not encouraged to continue with their ambition.

The data shows that:

“It is difficult for women to confront and address the unspoken mandate that they subordinate needs for recognition to those of others—particularly men. The expectation is so deeply rooted in the culture’s ideals of femininity that it is largely unconscious.(HBR 7.)”

This for me is a missing piece of the puzzle for the advancement of women in any of the modalities in which they long for advancement. There have been plenty of ambitious women through time, of course, but women’s accomplishments have not been sufficiently recognized, affirmed and acknowledged. Women’s efforts and their achievements continue to go unrecognized. Women’s work is mostly trivialized, ignored, silenced and even worse, it is often appropriated.

Take Paula Modersohn-Becker as a shining example.

This sets up a continuous cycle of being disappeared, discouraged and ignored and perpetuates the pattern we now see of so many women starting out ambitious then losing the will to continue.

Women have spent most of their time in the patriarchy acknowledging men’s accomplishments which has ironically helped men achieve even more, because the acknowledgment helps one go on to continue in their pursuit and achieve more.

Far from celebrating their many achievements, women refuse to claim a central, purposeful place in their own stories, eagerly shifting the credit elsewhere and shunning recognition. Furthermore, on close inspection, it emerges that it’s not only women of achievement who anxiously work to relinquish recognition—it’s nearly all women. Studies have demonstrated that the daily texture of women’s lives from childhood on is infiltrated with micro encounters in which quiet withdrawal and the ceding of available attention to others in expected—particularly in the presence of men.”(HBR)

The #nastywomenwriters project seeks to address and put an end to this noxious, ongoing issue.

Women have to begin acknowledging each other’s achievements and accomplishments, as well as their own. We have to do this in order for women to achieve and accomplish. That is the way it works. We have to do this for each other. Here we do it for the #nastywomen of Literature, Art, STEM and Activism both past and present.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2018

Works Cited

Diane Radycki, Paula Modersohn-Becker, The First Modern Woman Artist,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)

Jon Colapinto, Paula Modersohn-Becker: Modern Painting’s Missing Piece.” The New Yorker, October 29, 2013.

Anna Fels, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Harvard Business Review, April, 2004.