Knowing Your Worth

Book Review and Reflections
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives
Anna Fels (Pantheon 2004)
Rosemary M. Magee, Vice President and Secretary of the University


Vol. 11 No. 1
September 2008

Return to Contents

Knowing Your Worth
Negotiation and the academic marketplace

Recommended reading

Why don’t we have, for the person who’s been at the institution for ten years whose equipment is all ratty, a refresher package?”

“I don’t think Emory should ever concede that it will lose people to better schools. I think it has long done that, has not tried to remain competitive, and sometimes I fear that it is still just trying to be good enough.”

Women and Negotiation
What can underpaid but committed faculty members do?

Book Review and Reflections
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels

Making Academic Writing Unpalatable
Examining violence without sensationalizing or sanitizing


In the musical “My Fair Lady,” Eliza Doolittle transforms from a respectable flower girl with a cockney accent into a princess of dazzling elegance and proper pronunciation. She attends a ball in the triumphant culmination of an experiment that started with a wager between Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering about her fate.

Following the ball, the two men congratulate themselves and each other for this “marvelous victory”: “By George, we did it—as sturdy as Gibraltar, not a second did we falter, there’s not doubt about it, we did it”—an ode to their own brilliance. Eliza, now separated from family and friends, hovers in the background, an object of their work—to use the language of Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex—rather than a subject of her own story.

In Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives (Pantheon 2004), Anna Fels asks why it is that women do not receive the kind of reward for their own accomplishments that men generally do. Let’s start with Fels’s closing quotation from Virginia Woolf:

Even when the path is nominally open—when there is nothing to prevent women from becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant—there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties solved.

There are indeed, even today, phantoms and obstacles looming in our way. Most of them are not overtly institutional in the way they were at one time—one hundred years ago or even just thirty years ago. Woolf suggests that discussing and defining them, as Fels set out to do, can be of great value.

Fels points out, “middle-class women have access to training in virtually every profession. Their rights to education and employment . . . have largely been won. Progress has been made. Yet the availability of these choices has taken women only part of the way—the opportunities as well as the obstacles facing women have become more varied and subtle.” She further suggests, “Women, more than men, need to actively imagine themselves into their futures because so little is mapped out for them at this historical moment.” She argues that women will reach their potential and a more representative place through imagining a desired future, creating a narrative of the future. Without an imagined future, women have a sense of helplessness and passivity about their fate.

Through her psychiatric practice, largely focused on women, Fels has seen that an especially critical moment for women occurs after completing their educations, as they enter the workforce and begin to make decisions about relationships and family. Many of these educated and talented women arrive at this point perplexed and self-doubting. The result is substantial rates of attrition at a time when one might expect their careers to take off. As adults, women—to a much greater degree than men—face continuous pressures to reevaluate and reshape their lives. Fels argues for an overarching view of the process by which women create, realize, reconfigure, and abandon goals.

Dividing her book into four sections, Fels draws on interviews, biographies, autobiographies, case studies, and psychological as well as sociological studies:

Women and Ambition;
• Recognition and Ambition in Women’s Lives;
• Women and Mastery;
• Careers, Marriage, and Family.

Women, we learn, have an ambivalent relationship to the word “ambition”—both its meaning and consequences. As a result, women are likely to undervalue their own abilities or desires for advancement and place inordinate weight on social expectations. For women, according to Fels, “ambition” implies egotism, self-aggrandizement, or manipulation of others for one’s own ends. Men, by contrast, consider ambition a necessary and desirable part of their lives. Yet when asked about their hopes or plans for the future, young girls frequently see themselves as a Supreme Court justice, the president of the U.S., an astronaut, or a famous writer. They believe they can be anything they want to be.

Fels points out that the wish for mastery is key to ambition. And women do achieve such mastery, whether in financial planning or medical school. There is an equally important dimension of achievement, however: recognition. And attention that is specific, accurate, and positive. If the need for approval is a powerfully innate drive in humans, as Fels argues, we know it is especially important for women. Yet how many women have stepped back so that someone else, often a man, can have the full attention and recognition? When we acknowledge an ambition, we are admitting to a desire to act and be appreciated within this larger sphere. The exercise of expertise within a public arena, Fels further demonstrates, has historically been the great divide that separated the ambitions of men from those of women. And until recently virtually all types of work that could garner public recognition were forbidden to women.

Women tend to attribute much of their success to serendipity. And even very accomplished women express fear when they are personally recognized for their work, deflecting attention from themselves. According to Fels, “the daily texture of women’s lives from childhood on is infiltrated with microencounters in which quiet withdrawal and the ceding of available attention to others is expected—particularly in the presence of men.” Feeling silenced or ignored often remains a baffling and frustrating barrier to women’s understanding of how their lives are shaped. We may feel foolish or selfish in asking for appropriate acknowledgement of our contributions.

Moreover, according to Fels, women routinely underestimate their abilities. And here’s the harsh truth: if you don’t think the chances are great that you will reach a career goal, you won’t attempt to reach it. Thus when called upon to re-evaluate the meaning and value of their ambitions, women are more likely to conclude that their goals are not rewarding enough to justify the effort required to reach them. Especially during our twenties and early thirties, often after leaving the educational system, when a choice must be made, women downsize their ambitions or abandon them altogether.

What does this mean for women? Fels recommends “getting ambitious about ambition”: organizing as a political constituency; don’t expect things to fall into place easily: for each woman, life must be a creation of sorts and also an assertion of values; provide for structures of recognition; blow your own horn; and realize it’s never too late.

In my experience, one of the special and challenging parts of being a woman is that we have multiple roles, competing demands, numerous narratives. The novelist Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I have more than one life to live.” Women’s lives, writers or psychologists, firefighters or schoolteachers, librarians or researchers, typically consist of a series of extended episodes of focus. We have more than one life to live.

And more than just sequential narratives, women live many stories at once. I understand that this may be true for many men as well; I would suggest it is almost universally true for women. Finding a way to interweave, to highlight, to act on these narratives—some of which may include traditional, time-honored aspects of both femininity and feminism—is a challenge. There’s hardly time to contemplate ambition.

We must also seek new models, metaphors, and mentors. The pipeline of women in academic careers, especially in the sciences is leaky, we’re told. Perhaps the pipeline is not the right way to describe our multiple lives and roles. How many of us can survive the water pressure when we have everything from aging parents to young children to volunteer activities to demanding careers to Thanksgiving dinner also pressing? And how many of us know how important and meaningful it is to be there when called upon, whether at home or at work?

In the now-famous 2000 UCLA “Study of friendship among women: beyond soothing and supporting,” we learn that friends can actually counteract such stress. Women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. Oxytocin, by buffering the fight or flight response, encourages us to gather with other women, which produces more oxytocin, which counters stress. This calming response does not occur in men because of testosterone production. On the other side of the coin, when one is in an environment without the visible, daily support of other women as peers, one feels isolated and stressed—hence the importance of critical mass.

Don’t all of us have the right to expect, to insist, that our work be not only acknowledged but also recognized? Even at the risk of feeling selfish and foolish, women have something to say. Our voices long to be heard, and so we must be prepared to be bold and true to ourselves and to each other. Can we rewrite Eliza Doolittle’s story? Can she also step forward after the ball and say publicly, “By George, (or Georgina) I did it”?