Ambition: A Taboo Term for Women?

The concept of an ambitious woman seems to always conjure up the negative: a power- dressing female striding through corridors, stepping over everyone and everything to get to what she wants. I don’t think this description is limited to those who believe a woman shouldn’t leave their kitchens; I think we’re all conditioned to believe that the words “ambition” and “woman” do not naturally go together. When a woman describes herself as having ambition, alarm bells sound.

Late last year half way through touring, The Civil Wars announced they were cutting their tour short and going hiatus due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambitions.” As a fan I was saddened by the fact that such an immensely talented band had fallen apart, but I was also curious about what their statement actually meant. This week, despite their hiatus, marks the release of their second album with only one half of the band, Joy Williams, doing interviews.

It was in one of these interviews with NPR that caught my attention and had me nodding my head furiously in agreement. When asked what their statement actually meant, particularly the part about “irreconcilable differences of ambition,” Joy gave a sensitive and completely unguarded answer by saying, “I felt as a woman I couldn’t say I had a lot of ambition because different adjectives come to mind when you think about that.”


As soon as the words came out of her mouth I felt like she’d spoken to the unspoken, the thing everyone had been thinking, not just about the band but about ambition in relation to women. I think we’re all guilty of thinking all sorts of adjectives when the words “ambitious woman” is put into a room. Whenever I hear the phrase being used to describe a woman, my mind conjures up hundreds of images, all negative, of what that phrase looks like.

What is terrifying is that all those images don’t actually exist in reality but are fashioned into something of our worst fears in much the same way that mythological tales about monsters are created and embedded into our collective mindsets. The monsters don’t exist, but we have been conditioned to fear them anyway.

In school and college we are told to always try our best, reach for the stars, and open our minds to all possibilities, but for some reason this optimism and ambition isn’t transcending into the adult world, particularly if you’re a woman and want to be the best you can be.

At the end of the day, what is so wrong with wanting to have ambition or life goals? Nothing at all. If we all decided that we were going to reach for our own personal stars, would we be any less happy or, in this case, any less feminine? What is wrong, however, is thinking that as woman and girls we can’t say we’re ambitious for fear of being seen as scary mythological monsters. Joy Williams is not one to be scared, because later on she says, “the reality is I do have a lot of ambition, I’ve got great goals and great passion, and I love music.”

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