Philobiblon: Me, ambitious? ... nervous giggle

Monday, March 21, 2005

Me, ambitious? ... nervous giggle

Towards the end of True North, the second volume of her memoirs, Jill Ker Conway gets to her research work on American women who pioneered access to tertiary education and the professions, which was later published as The First Generation of American Women Graduates.

My post on the first part of the memoir is here.

She writes of her subjects, who include Jane Addams, Florence Kelley and Ellen Gates Starr:

"Every one ... had been a rebel, either refusing marriage or insisting on a very unconventional union. They had all founded institutions or professions for women, and ... they had all been powerful social critics. ... Some were privately conscious of a drive to power. ...
In real life their language was pungent, their schedules were enough to daunt a professional athlete, and, for those who worked with them, their force of character was something of primal dimensions.
... but when time came for each of these women to write her memoirs, each presented herself as the ultimate romantic female, all intuition and emotion, tugged by the heartstrings to random encounters with the important causes, which, in reality, this group of women had discovered and led."

She looked to other periods and found the same pattern. In the 1960s, she says, the explanation she devised was that "the social system operated not merely to repress libido (as Freud thought), but to repress other powerful human feelings, and to prevent them from being brought to consciousness. That would mean that a woman could live her whole life seeking power and influence for the causes she favored, but not be conscious of any but the approved spectrum of emotions allocated her in the patterning of gendered temperaments."

Later, she says, educated by her own experience, "I also learned that in American society, a woman who does not fit the romantic stereotype of the female has difficulty mustering public support. Then I understood that it was possible my subjects told their story the way they did because they didn't want to damage the public response to their reforms." (p. 151-2)

After all of that, how does she describe her entry into public life, as vice-president of the University of Toronto? "Although I thought of myself as a mature professional, with aspirations to make a difference in the scholarly profession in whish I had worked. it had never entered my mind that I had any talent for running things." (p. 205)

As she takes on the role, "I was startled to discover that I was also a symbol for legions of other women ... Without planning to I'd become a public person." (p. 215)

Again, when she goes to Smith College, it is because a friend nominates her, and so out of politeness she goes to see the "Search Committee". Then, what do you know, she has the job.

You'd think an academic would see the pattern, but then again maybe I am being too hard on her. Maybe it was her Freudian explanation, maybe it was because even in 1994, when she was writing True North - and maybe still in 2005 - it is unacceptable for a woman to declare ambition, for fear it might harm her cause.


In my posts on Ker Conway I may not have provided an overall coherent biography - my aim was rather to speak of the elements of her life that interested me most; there's a good summary overview here. And I discover from this there is a third, relatively recent (2002) volume, A Woman's Education covering the Smith years. Standby for a commentary.


Blogger bitchphd said...

Interesting dichotomy (and I like Conway too). A friend and I were talking about this once, w/r/t our own academic neuroses: how, to yourself, you see the insecurity, the angst, and you think that all the good things that come along are "luck," but to an outsider, it's clear that you are accomplished, ambitious, and very good at running your life. So we end up checking each other: "oh no, what if...?" and then the other person says, "look, it really will be okay and you'll do the right thing, b/c you always do."

I do think this is more of a problem for women than men, but not being a man, I can't say for sure.

3/22/2005 05:48:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think it is more of a problem for women because being ambitious about the job, wanting to get ahread, and making the effort to do so, is still much more problematic for them. It gets labelled with adjectives like "pushy", "loud" or indeed just "ambitious", when the same behaviour from a man draws approbation.

3/26/2005 11:05:00 pm  

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