From Publishers Weekly
While a psychiatrist's study of the "vital role of ambition in women's changing lives" hardly sounds like absorbing reading, this book by Fels, an occasional science writer for the New York Times and other popular media, is surprisingly interesting. After introductory comments about how life has changed for modern women, thanks to increased longevity, birth control and other factors, Fels raises a curious question: why do women still feel anxious or evasive about admitting to having ambitions, but men don't? The answer lies in understanding that ambition has two components: the mastery of some specific skills and the recognition of that mastery by others. While many professions have opened to women in the 20th century, allowing them to learn a variety of skills, Fels says, women have still not found a plethora of sources for recognition, or ways of being valued by others for the special skills they've acquired. Lacking "sustaining affirmation," women sometimes settle for mere attentionâ"sexual attention being the easiestâ"or "recognition by proxy," reflected glory from the accomplishments of husband or children. Men, on the other hand, Fels finds, have traditionally had a wide range of sourcesâ"colleagues, mentors, friends, family, spouseâ"for "affirming attention." As Fels examines the mixed messages women get about claiming recognition (especially the taboos on outshining one's husband or appearing less than devoted to child-rearing), women readers may see their own goal problems more clearly. This book isn't sexy, nor is it self-help, but career womenâ"or anyone raising smart daughters to do big thingsâ"will find a lot within its pages to think about and discuss.
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Why is it that women who can talk about anything find it so hard to talk about ambition? In this insightful study, Fels, a psychiatrist, argues that women fear—correctly—that seeking recognition will expose them to attacks on everything from their sexuality to their sanity. Although women now have access to schools and jobs, "social resources" like affirmation, support, and simple encouragement are jealously guarded male preserves. Recognition, Fels writes, is something that makes us better at what we do, and without it ambitions die. She comes down firmly on the side of working mothers, and advises those who choose full-time motherhood to get a "pre-nate" contract. She has no patience for "difference feminists," who she thinks simply rationalize women's subordinate position. According to Fels, the barriers are practical, not innate; the problem isn't the poverty of women's "chimerical" ambitions—"half plan, half dream"—but "the miserable job that they're stuck in."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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