Lara Bazelon on the Knife’s Edge That Ambitious Women Must Navigate
“Instinctive self-diminishment isn’t a biologically determined female trait; it is a learned and rewarded behavior.”
Perhaps no celebrity, on or off the screen, reflects the knife’s edge that ambitious women must navigate more powerfully than the Academy Award-winning actor Reese Witherspoon. Reflected in the characters Witherspoon has played over the course of her career, her turn to producing films, and her frank public comments are not only the maddening stereotypes but also her determination, using her ambition, to turn them on their head.
In 1999, at the age of twenty-three, Witherspoon starred in the indie classic film Election, where she played the lead, Tracy Flick, a straight-A striver competing for class president against a likable but dim-witted jock and, later, his rebellious gay sister, who ran as a lark but ended up with a significant fan base. Flick’s naked, unapologetic ambition—“You can’t interfere with destiny, that’s why it’s destiny,” she proclaims about her soon-to-be-storied career—was viewed by peers and teachers alike as off-putting and threatening. So threatening, in fact, that Mr. McAllister, a beloved social studies teacher played by Matthew Broderick, goes to elaborate lengths to ensure her defeat.
Election is a dark comedy. Mr. McAllister’s ham-handed scheming and blatant hypocrisy is played for laughs. (Even as he cheats on his wife, McAllister judges Tracy for having an affair with his married coworker, who gets fired as a result. It never occurs to Mc Allister to question the age imbalance or gross abuse of authority that student-teacher relationship necessarily involves, essentially what we now all recognize as a form of sexual abuse.) In the end, McAllister and the jock end up on the losing side, but few people watching the movie walk away thinking, Gee, I want to be just like Tracy.
Early on, women are socialized to explain away or diminish their accomplishments so as not to threaten men, who have no such behavioral limitations. In a widely reported 2003 experiment, Frank Flynn, a Columbia Business School professor, presented half his students with the professional biography of Heidi Roizen, a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. The other half of the class received the identical materials, but Flynn changed Heidi’s name to Howard. All of the students then filled out a survey with their impressions of Howard or Heidi.
Flynn reported that “students were much harsher on Heidi than Howard across the board. Although they think she is just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her.” The fictional Howard wore his “aggressive personality” and “assertiveness” like a fine cologne; attributed to real-life Heidi, these same qualities stank like skunk spray.
Likable ambitious women are women who don’t appear to be ambitious at all. In a November 2020 New York Times profile of rising CNN star Abby Phillip, a thirty-one-year-old Black woman, John Harris, her former boss at Politico, described her approvingly as “very quiet and ambitious, but she doesn’t present in a flamboyant way like some ambitious people do.” While Harris used genderneutral language—“some ambitious people”—it isn’t the kind of qualified praise typically used to describe men looking to advance in the same profession.
Two years after Election, Witherspoon demonstrated this “quiet” type of ambition in the box-office smash Legally Blonde. Witherspoon played Elle Woods, perhaps the most unlikely admit in the storied three-hundred-year history of Harvard Law School. Elle, who loves nothing more than primping, preening, and shopping, astounds her sorority sisters by acing the LSAT and getting into law school on her own merit. But her purpose isn’t to get a prestigious graduate degree; it is to win back the cad who unceremoniously dumped her on the night she thought he would propose.By hiding her smarts behind a veneer of coquettishness and inanity, Elle Woods was far more desirable and less threatening—to men and women alike—than Tracy Flick.
Throughout Elle’s sojourn at Harvard, we watch as she is continually humiliated and dismissed as an empty-headed fool by professors and classmates, only to prove everyone wrong with her razor-sharp intellect and canny insights. But all of Elle’s rhetorical blows are delivered with a sweet smile and profession of humility; even in triumph, she never abandons her Easter egg–colored outfits, perfectly blown-out blond hair, and adorable demeanor.
Her sharp-wittedness, cloaked in eyelash-batting winsomeness, is the punch line. Indeed, Elle’s skill in the courtroom is so unexpected that it provides much of the fodder for the comedy. By hiding her smarts behind a veneer of coquettishness and inanity, Elle Woods was far more desirable and less threatening—to men and women alike—than Tracy Flick, who climbed the ladder to success with a dogged single-minded determination, utterly convinced of her deservingness. Just like a man.
Legally Blonde was playing in movie theaters when I was in my second year at NYU School of Law. I was no Elle Woods by any stretch of the imagination, but I shared her reticence about proclaiming my intelligence. I had always excelled in school; I attended an Ivy League college and graduated with honors. NYU is an elite law school, consistently ranking in the top five in the nation.
I went to law school to become a great lawyer. In pursuit of that goal, I racked up coveted prizes: top grades, a spot on the Law Review, a federal clerkship. But publicly, I instinctively shrank from owning any of it. I was so intimidated by the interrogation methods of my professors, almost all of whom were white males, and the humiliations heaped upon students who got the wrong answer that I remained silent for the entire first year unless I was “cold-called,” in which case I had no choice but to answer.
I noticed that many of my female classmates felt similarly, while our male classmates generally shrugged it off. Being wrong and shamed for it didn’t stop them from trying again and again. I was also afraid that other people—particularly the men I wanted to like me—would think I was full of myself. Who would want to date, much less marry, someone who proudly owned these achievements?
It is embarrassing to admit that I worried being outwardly ambitious would have a negative effect on my dating life, but the data bears out my concern. Just pause for a moment and consider this present-day statistic: More than a quarter of all Americans believe that the children of full-time working mothers are worse off than the children of mothers who stay at home, according to an analysis by the AP-NORC Center at the University of Chicago.
“Even in the 21st century, men prefer female partners who are less professionally ambitious than they are,” wrote economics professors Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais in their 2017 empirical study “‘Acting Wife’: Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments.” They continued, “Men tend to avoid female partners with characteristics usually associated with professional ambition, such as high levels of education. It is relatively unlikely that a woman will earn more than her husband, and when she does, marital satisfaction is lower and divorce is more likely.”
Women who are loud and proud about what psychiatrist Anna Fels calls their “mastery of a special skill” and the professional status they have attained as a result of it risk the perception that they are less “feminine” and therefore less attractive to potential male partners. Studies have demonstrated that “the daily texture of women’s lives from childhood on is infiltrated with microencounters in which quiet withdrawal, the ceding of available attention to others, is expected, particularly in the presence of men,” she wrote. “They refuse to claim a central, purposeful place in their own stories, eagerly shifting the credit elsewhere and shunning recognition.” Instinctive self-diminishment isn’t a biologically determined female trait; it is a learned and rewarded behavior.
Subconsciously, I was always aware that owning my ambition would be toxic. After graduating from law school with honors, I moved to California for my clerkship with the Honorable Harry Pregerson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Inside, I was bursting with pride; externally, I made sure to remain modest and self-deprecating whenever I was congratulated. That year was wonderful. Judge Pregerson was a fervent feminist and my three co-clerks were women; two of them remain my closest friends. But we labored in the background, working to support the judge. I remember the feeling of pride when, during oral arguments, Judge Pregerson would ask the lawyers one of my questions. But the words were coming out of his mouth, not mine.Instinctive self-diminishment isn’t a biologically determined female trait; it is a learned and rewarded behavior.
The following year, I got my dream job as a trial lawyer in the federal public defender’s office in Los Angeles. Now all the words were mine. But to be a trial lawyer as a young woman, particularly in one’s early years, is to exist under a harsh spotlight: my stumbles were glaringly public and everything I said, wore, and did was examined under a microscope. Suddenly, the implicit was explicit. It was a rude awakening to what the late scholar Deborah Rhode famously characterized as “the double standard and the double bind.” Professional women, she warned, had to be careful not to come across as “too ‘soft’ or too ‘strident,’ too ‘aggressive’ or ‘not aggressive enough.’”
The double standard and the double bind are not solely enforced by men. Later in my career, after I had had two children and barely had time to sleep, much less drop by a salon for a regular blowout, I had a female supervisor who told me in no uncertain terms that I should wear makeup and color my hair when it started turning gray. In fact, she told me I needed a total makeover and offered to pay for it, leading to my first trip to Sephora. “Do you need help with anything?” the sales assistant inquired politely. “I need help with everything,” I told her.
Now I’m a rewards member.
I have given a lot of thought to the demand that professional women cultivate a certain kind of appearance. My feelings about it are conflicted. On the one hand, it is unfair that I pay these costs while my male colleagues do not. On the other hand, there is a part of me that enjoys turning into a more polished and stylish version of my actual self. It can feel empowering. And I associate the fashion piece of it with my mother, who loves to take me shopping when I come back to Philadelphia once a year with my children. She always encourages me to pick bolder colors and edgier designs than I ever would on my own. I treasure those yearly afternoons; we have so much fun and always have lunch together afterward. Inevitably, when someone compliments me on what I am wearing — a leopard-print wrap dress, a sweater with a keyhole cutout, a turquoise blouse — I smile sheepishly and say, “Thank you, my mom got it for me.”
But my positive associations are a happy coincidence, not an endorsement of the mandate that women must invest time, money, and energy in the pursuit of a certain look, especially after they reach a certain age. And when I add up the time, money, and energy I have spent on “upkeep” — cosmetics, skin-care products, manicures, pedicures, eyebrow waxing, hair coloring — the cost is significant, not only to my wallet, but to my time.
The gendered nature of societal expectations around appearance can be jarring. Recently, I watched a Netflix documentary featuring an older, quite famous male attorney. When the camera zoomed in, his nose hair stood out. How many women in his position would ever “let themselves go” to the point where a shot like that would even be possible? I am guessing the number is close to zero. And yet, in a man, this laissez-faire attitude toward physical appearance is a given.
Excerpted from Ambitious Like a Mother. Used with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown. © 2022 by Lara Bazelon.