Too often, gender equity pursues a masculine success of domination and pointless ambition, ironically making ‘equal rights’ offensively anti-egalitarian.
An Ambitious Lack
The meme at right has been around for a while. If the operative words are ‘women’, ‘men’, and ‘equal’, I like it.
If the operative word is ‘ambition,’ then I reject it wholesale.
Here’s my complaint: ‘ambition’, particularly pointless ambition, is a decidedly male characteristic. That doesn’t mean women can’t have ambition. I’ve spent a couple of recent posts1)Sexual Genetics, Lebanese Genetics. talking about that; we should each be able to choose for ourselves.
My concern is that society has simply swapped one masculo-centric definition for women with another.
Ambition modified by an action verb can be powerful: “My ambition is to visit the south of France.” “My ambition is to serve in public office.” “My ambition is to practice medicine.” “My ambition is to play baseball.”
The problem lies with pointless ambition; ambition with a passive/non-action verb, particularly the verb ‘to be’: “My ambition is to be the foremost authority on the south of France.” “My ambition is to be President of the United States.” “My ambition is to be a doctor.” “My ambition is to be a Major Leaguer.”
Or to our purposes here, “My ambition is to be equal to men.”
Granted, we often swap the two versions, but it should be clear why the first set of examples is more powerful, and healthier, than the latter. Few of us associate static, pointless ambition with wisdom or character, in men or women.
Male Definitions of Women
As for Marilyn Monroe, perhaps she is not the best icon for rough-and-tumble ambition. She was certainly no dummy, and could play hardball when necessary. But she still represented women as sexual objects, and as victims of stereotypes within a man’s world. Her sad and untimely death certainly contributes to that image.
The larger problem is the meme itself: Monroe didn’t say that. Timothy Leary, the psychologist who achieved brief notoriety for his work with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, said it.
Which makes the meme a metaphor for the problem: we have a man foisting his idea of success off on women. Granted, Leary was insisting that women could be superior to men. I agree entirely. I just disagree with a male definition of ‘superiority.’
Ambition is what Hitler, Mao and Stalin had.
I started thinking about this problem while working in the clinic at our local university. A grad student came in, a single mother who was outspoken on feminist issues. At the time Title IX, the law which mandated, among other things, that men’s and women’s sports should be funded equally was coming into bloom. I assumed she would approve.
She gave me a disgusted look, and said, “What good does it do women if 100 of us get to play sports? That money could have gone into reproductive healthcare for female students, or daycare and scholarships for single mothers.”
Having it All
Her comments came back to me when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.’ Slaughter decided to leave the U.S. State Department to devote time to her family. Female colleagues were aghast; where was her ambition? It goes to the masculine, puerile, and narcissistic problem with our concepts of gender equity: before Slaughter wrote her book, did women really think they could have it all?
Because her article was mis-titled. It should have been, ‘Why No One Can Have it All’, because it’s true for men, too. As an M.D. I frequently run into colleagues who are puzzled that I want to spend my time as a parent, a writer, a scientist, and a civic activist. They can’t imagine wanting ‘to be’ anything more than a doctor. Many of these doctors have few outside interests and no other passions. They often neglect their children, and often, they even neglect their own intellectual development. Not surprisingly, they are narrowly trained, and often narrow-minded: they understand very little outside of their circumscribed field. I think of the doctor who told his children, “There is nothing worth doing outside of medicine. But if you can’t make it there, you could always go into business.”
Such a rigid approach to medicine, and to life, is not wisdom. It certainly does not reflect real character.
So my rigid medical colleagues think they are successful, and that I am a failure. I, on the other hand think that I am a success, and that at least some of them are failures. For the monomaniacal ones, even their medical practices suffer from their narrowness: when I think back on the very best clinicians I have known, they all had interests outside of medicine. My guess is that a rigid mindset prevents deep consideration of the problems and contradictions in medicine and in life.
This is the problem in our approach to gender equity, it confuses democratic protections with mathematics. ‘To be equal’ in mathematics means to be exactly the same, interchangeable. When carried into social activities, ‘being the same’ implies that we must all be alike.
Which means we must all conform to a masculine ideal. Which, in turn, means that women are not free to do what they choose. It means that to be successful, women must be men.
Which misses the point entirely. To be equal in a democracy simply means to be equal to choose. Yes, if the work is equal, in the same workplace, then the pay should be the same. But remember, comparing pay is yet another masculine definition of success, it is another expression of superiority and narcissism. The women (and men) who bypass money and prestige out of deference to their personal priorities, are the admirable people.
Those who chase money and pointless ambition are regrettable.
In response to a masculine ‘to be,’ I propose a more feminine approach, ‘to do.’ Such divisions between the sexes aren’t hard and fast, of course, all men and all women don’t break out that simply, these are only tendencies. But ‘to be’ often reflects masculine narcissism, while to my mind ‘to do,’ ‘to learn,’ or ‘to experience’ are feminine wisdom.
This is more than abstract argument, it is of existential importance to me, because I have a daughter. My wife and I go through great lengths to keep her, and our son, away from the ugliness of schools, insulated from the institutionalized, masculine narcissism, where “Who are you?” doesn’t address your interests, your abilities, or the content of your character. Rather, “Who are you?” means “Where do you rank?”— in athletics, in looks, in fashion sense, and in vulgar popularity; and overarching them all, “Where does your family rank in society?” I don’t want my children to be ranked below others.
Nor do I wish them to be ranked above others. I don’t want pathological, male-dominated, social constructs of pointless ambition telling my daughter either who she cannot be, nor who she must be; and most of all I don’t want my daughter to think that her personal value is defined by how she ranks against others. That’s the contradiction in so many of these masculine applications of gender equity: it is, ironically, an equality that is anti-egalitarian. It insists that one’s worth is one’s ranking in relation to others, when obviously, ranking itself contradicts equality. Pointless ambition in a democracy is hypocritical. And it is a miserable, needy, grasping, and arrogant self-definition.
I want my children to have a life of fullness, of self-direction, of passion and compassion, and of wisdom. If my daughter wants to pursue her life as a mother or a neurosurgeon, a potter or a President, single or married, childless or with a dozen kids, or whether she decides to juggle several of these at once, it’s none of my damned business.
And it’s no one else’s business, either.
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