Ambition, That “Dirty” Word

by Naomi Watkins

In the months leading up to the launch of Aspiring Mormon Women, we agonized over the name of this organization. We brainstormed lists of possibilities—most of them not-so-great. We had conversations with people about our mission and our plans, asking for opinions about a name. And as we articulated our vision and mission to others, we often described our target audience as “ambitious Mormon women.” We quickly discovered, however, that the descriptor “ambitious” made many women uncomfortable. Women either did not view themselves as ambitious or viewed the word with negative connotations. Or as one friend put it, “I’m not ambitious in the same way that you are ambitious.”

Clearly, in the end, we did not decide on Ambitious Mormon Women as the organization’s name.

There are numerous articles and books that discuss the complicated relationship women have with ambition—women don’t have enough of it, women are scared of it, women’s ambitions are different and less than men’s. Earlier this year, I read a book entitled Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. This book was a game-changer for me—even as an ENTJ, red/yellow woman where “ambitious” is almost always one of the descriptors listed on these personality tests. I saw myself in the women Fels researched and described and saw many of her points reflected in the women of the LDS community.

Fels interviewed hundreds of successful women about their childhood ambitions and their current successes and endeavors. She outlines the two components of ambition as 1) a practicable plan that involves a real accomplishment requiring work and skill, and 2) an expectation of approval: fame, status, acclaim, praise, honor. She continues, “If we are to pursue an ambition, we must have both the wish for mastery and a potential audience, along with the expectation that we can reach the desired end point” and adds that “ambitions assume participation in and recognition from a community larger than one’s intimate social circle.”

She also explores why ambition is such a dirty word for women: “Ambition has a bad name because it includes within it an acknowledgement of this need, this dependence on the approval of others, which makes us all feel vulnerable.” Additionally, for many women ambition “necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends.” Fels acknowledges that “women have greater opportunities for forming and pursuing their own goals now than at any time in history. But doing so is socially condoned only if they have first satisfied the needs of all their family members: husbands, children, elderly parents, and others. If this requirement isn’t met, women’s ambitions as well as their femininity will be called into question.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that “ambitious” was lobbed at me in LDS circles as a dirty word—a word often used to describe those women—you know, the women who apparently want a career above a family or who prioritize themselves above marriage or their children. These are the women who decide to attend graduate school or pursue a “man’s job” or who work because they want to and not because they have to. The “ambitious” label is often reserved for the women on the career track. Rarely have I seen the word used to describe women who dedicate lots of time and energy, for example, to creating the best Primary program ever or to homeschooling all eight children—both of which are ambitious endeavors.

As a LDS community, we do a decent job of encouraging girls to get their educations—even though this education-getting is often framed as a just-in-case plan. However, as a community, we provide practically no support or encouragement for women’s ambitions outside of getting that education and beyond marriage and motherhood (a subject that’s been recently discussed here and here at AMW). We most definitely don’t praise or honor those women who do work—particularly those who do so because they want to do so. And as Fels notes, it’s difficult to continue pursuing a goal or endeavor when there’s little approval of that goal or endeavor within your community. It’s a refrain frequently repeated by women who come to AMW; they don’t feel supported in their outside-of-the-house endeavors. As a community, we reserve our praise and honor for the saintly mother. We see many women abandon all of their outside-the-home passions and pursuits and direct that focus and zeal to super mom and church service feats.

But when women are supported in all of their ambitions, these women are unstoppable. It’s been amazing to watch; it’s been amazing to notice the change within myself, too.

How do you feel about the label “ambitious” being applied to you? What stands out to you about Fels points? How have you seen the lack of or the presence of praise and support direct your ambitions?

17 Comments on “Ambition, That “Dirty” Word

  1. I often note that very few people, especially men, ask me about my job. The most I ever get is “You work at ____, right?” I enjoy talking about my children and grandchildren and their accomplishments, but I spend 40 + hours a week at my job, and I enjoy it. I attended 10 years of school through BYU-BGS on-line to finish my undergrad degree, and certification programs thereafter. I did a lot of hard work to get where I am, and feel like it is quite an accomplishment. Not only do I not receive praise/support/encouragement for my working endeavors, but they are almost ignored.

  2. Thank you for this post. I just graduated with my PhD (literally last week!), and I had the good fortune of finding a full-time teaching job at a small community college. I’ve lately been thinking about that word–“ambitious.” How ambitious do I want to be in my career? Do I want to stay at a teaching school and dedicate myself to being an excellent teacher? Or do I want to spend my spare time/personal time getting my research ready to publish, so I can “move on” to a research university and be more involved in my field? What do I want to do? What does the Lord want me to do? I’ve always felt out of place because of my career ambitions, in part because, similar to what Fels says, I feel like Mormon culture wants us to excel at whatever we do (whether it be putting on a great Young Women’s camp or graduating from college with honors), but we aren’t supposed to be recognized for it (because that’s “prideful,” and pride is “evil”). For that reason, I’ve always downplayed my accomplishments, my ambitions. But last week I decided to make a special (1,600-mile) trip to my graduation ceremony to be hooded. I wanted that recognition, and I deserved it. I worked really hard for many years to get a PhD, and it was a divinely guided journey. Anyways, I’m still trying to find my place as an LDS woman with ambitions outside of marriage and motherhood. I’m single, so I’m sure some think I’m “putting off” marriage, when I just haven’t had the option to marry yet. I worry that my ambitions have limited my dating opportunities because of the negative attitude towards career-minded women. By the way, I really like “Aspiring Mormon Women”; perhaps because of the negative connotations associated with “ambitious,” “aspiring” fits Mormon theology better. We all aspire to do great things, whatever sphere those aspirations may be in, and, ultimately, we aspire to eternal greatness (godhood).

  3. I remember being in a new area on my mission and pulling my own suitcase out of the trunk of the car. I was a young missionary myself and had a greenie companion. I had spent most of two days traveling only to learn that my comp spoke very little English (it was an English speaking country). I was tired. Hot. Nervous. Disoriented. I wanted nothing more than to get my wide-eyed greenie into our apartment and try to regroup in time to be effective the next morning. The elders scrambled to help with the heavy suitcases and seemed to think I shouldn’t be doing it on my own while they stood around talking.

    Later, I became very good friends with these two fine men. One of them admitted, with some degree of chagrin, that he thought I was one of “those” sisters when I pulled that suitcase from the boot. When I asked him what that even meant, he just kind of shrugged. I think it means all the stuff you allude to here. I was glad that through my friendship with these kind (naive) elders that I was able to show them that women can work hard, pull their weight, carry their own luggage, ride bikes every day up and down hills, preach the gospel and change lives. I am glad that they were able to see another side of femininity.

    As a mother of only boys, they are the ones I will influence the most, despite how much I write about framing our conversation for young women. Not too long ago, my oldest gave a prayer of gratitude one night thanking God for parents who served missions and have great jobs and are such good examples to him and his brothers. And while I might have had times when my ambition hasn’t always made me able to blend in with others, in that moment, I didn’t care one bit what others thought. As that boy’s AMBITIOUS mother I’m shaping his life too.

  4. I am now in my early 50s and feel really really bad at the way I stifled ambition, telling myself that my first “career” was as a mother, and so the other was always secondary and not important. I wonder what I could have achieved if I had embraced ambition. At the same time, I do believe that I am a fuller, more confident person for having raised two sons, one with severe special needs. Fortunately life begins at 50 for me, and I still have twenty good working years, at least, to fulfill my not so hidden ambitions.

  5. For years, as I struggled to find a career that I was “forced” to have (aka I wasn’t married), I’d say to myself and others, I’m just not ambitious. I was so focused on getting married that I didn’t care about creating a satisfying career for myself, yet I wasn’t married and raising a family so I felt a disturbing lack of achievement and ambition (though I didn’t call it that) in my life.

    Once I found a career path that I liked enough to really invest myself in, I discovered that having a career is awesome! I love feeling like I’m good at my job; I love the challenge of doing things I didn’t think I could do; I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with providing value to a team or organization. I’ve also found that having a career has brought me closer the Lord. I’ve learned that Heavenly Father really meant it when he asked us to counsel with Him in all things. I try to use principles of charity as I navigate my professional relationships. I absolutely depend on revelation and the influence of the Spirit as I make career-related decisions.

    Like you said, we’re really good at encouraging girls/women to get an education, but we don’t do as well at encouraging them to consider what they will DO with that education or to prompt them to consider what they would LIKE to do for work, rather than what they can do in “just in case” situations.

    Finally, I LOVE how you pointed that women exercise ambition all of the time outside of work situations, we just don’t use that word. Once we get rid of the negative connotation associated with “ambition,” maybe we can work on making “feminist” a non-dirty or even unnecessary word!

  6. Thank you for this post! I have had a successful career as a single adult and now as a married mother of one. I used to say that I have more in common with the men in my ward than the women. I can only think of two instances when other LDS women (SAHM’s) have pointed out how positive it is that I am able to provide the financial support for my family. I think we need a paradigm in the LDS community that is not black and white (staying home is good, working is bad) but that helps us to fulfill our divine destiny even though our paths may be very different.

  7. I have found the same thing. Whenever my husband and I meet someone new within the LDS faith they always ask what he does for work they never ask what I do. On occasion when they do ask they never know quite what to say when I tell them I’m an Architect. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t share that freely now with people I don’t know very well because of the strange or negative reactions I’ve received. There are lots of people at church who have known me for a few years now who have no idea that I work or what I do for a career.

  8. Great post, Naomi! This really hits home. I’ve invested a lot of time and thought this last year redefining my relationship with the word “ambition.” I realized that in my mind, “ambition” had become synonymous with “objectionable methods people use to satisfy their ambitions,” and immediately conjured to mind the “ambitious” colleague who invests more in promoting him/herself than in improving skills and contributing. Part of being able to own my own ambitions was to disconnect these notions, and to realize there are ways I can position myself for career advancement without jeopardizing my values.

    The other big key to owning my ambition was to spend some time really thinking about what I want from my life, professionally and personally. It’s hard to get excited about someone else’s goals, however laudable they are in themselves. But spending some time thinking about the particular type of projects I want to work on at work has made me much more motivated and excited about opportunities for advancement.

  9. This is beautiful.

    I often feel because I’m not playing the role of martyr mother, that I am seen as not loving my kids enough. People only ask about my kids. Not about what book I am reading, or what I thought about X event that day or what I did. I adore my children. I love my career. I accidentally ended up as the primary income, and sometimes I may as well be the wicked witch as I’ve committed the dual sin of working AND enjoying it.

    Here’s the truth. Because I worked hard and was ambitious, I get to spend more, quality time with my kids than if I toiled in a ho hum job. my career brings far greater flexibility and comforts than a job to pay the bills would. But a job that pays the bills and isn’t fulfilling would dump me in the martyr category, so it would be ok.

  10. Thank you for conversations like this! I’d love to hang out at a coffee shop with you all and have some hot chocolate! The term ambitious has been applied to me in the past. I often get the “How do you do it all . . .?” Reality is I don’t, but I’m a happier wife, mother, and church member when I get to feed that ambition. For me, it is learning and applying the skills and talents I have. I find it more socially acceptable in LDS circles when my ambitions are tied with personal revelation on what Heavevly Father’s path might be and a little easier to talk about volunteering, conferences, inspiring nature interaction, blogging, my work, etc. My PB talks about supporting my little ones. It was easier to say yes to the full time flexible job after reading that and being set apart at one point that my education (doctorate) would help provide for my family. And, no, beyond “you work, right?” Few if any at church ask me about my job.

  11. Congratulations from another doctor! 🙂 I chose teaching online leaving me more flexibility with my family yet volunteer plenty due to the lack of that personal contact. While online I often get comments that I’m the best teacher/instructor/professor they have had.

  12. What wonderful and sincere comments from you all! And one day, I do hope we’re all in the same physical place so we can have these conversations in person.

    In the meantime, reading your stories about your hard work, grit, determination, tenacity, and resilience is inspiring. Such a great celebration of what we have accomplished and have yet to do!

  13. I am a 62 year old Mormon mother of 5, grandmother of 15. I consider myself to be an ambitious Mormon woman, yet I have not worked outside of my home since my first child was born 40 years ago. I get the impression here that only those of you with careers can be considered to be ambitious. Not so, my dear sisters. Please do not label me unambitious because I chose to be a stay-at-home mom. In the past 40 years, besides raising my 5 children pretty much solo while my husband traveled extensively for his work, I have put in hundreds, no probably thousands, of volunteer hours. In church, yes, but also in my community. I have lobbied at the United Nations for the rights of families and children. I have volunteered for the American Red Cross, including going out help those who are displaced by fires or other natural disasters. I have taught enrichment classes for the gifted and talented in our schools, run anti-drug programs in our local schools. I volunteered at our local children’s hospital once a week, where I worked with kids on the cancer and transplant wards, as well as those with simple, easy to treat illnesses. I have attended political conventions as a delegate, worked in my local PTA, worked on opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics, served meals at the local soup kitchen….the list goes on. I just happen to enjoy doing all of that without getting a paycheck for it. I loved being a full-time mom, but I had other “ambitions”, as well. And they were fulfilled by one simple word. Volunteer.

  14. My impression from these women is that they totally relate to your drive and ambition to do down thing outside their family to create positive change in the world. I also hear them saying that they would equate their levels of ambition to yours but because yours has been “volunteer” work and theirs has been been “paid” work, it is treated very differently in the LDS community.

  15. Geri,

    I do not believe that I did claim volunteer efforts are not ambitious. The OP clearly states otherwise. I’m actually arguing that the label should be more widely applied.

  16. I love all the comments and Natalie’s words. One question I have for us all is how do we help get past the “what do you do?” question, especially in church settings. I, too, have been in that situation where the question is asked of my husband, but not of me. I still haven’t figured out a good approach. We’ve been married for 3.5yrs, at age 29, and have 1 child (23mos.). I do freelance writing and communications work from home sometimes, but mostly I’m trying to survive a day with a toddler while trying to manage some illnesses that have made me sick as a dog the past 2 years. We just moved a few months ago and no one has asked me, and we even spoke in church lasf week and I even skimmed over myself. (I was nervous!) So… do you add in your 2 cents? Do you let it be? When you ask or talk to other women, what do you say?

  17. This is fantastic. When I ask women what they do, this is the kind of activity that I want to hear about. Please don’t think that the only recognized ambition is paid work. You have been incredibly busy and influential in your community and it’s only possible through having the time to do so.

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