“Ambitious” Has Long Been a Slur for Women

By embracing “ambitious” and proclaiming it proudly, we can change this slur and make it into a positive attribute.

"Ambitious" Has Long Been a Slur for Women Politicians
President Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice president revealed that ambition continues to be a tricky issue for female public figures. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the women that came before us, fought for voting rights, expanded opportunities for women, and broke political, education and social barriers. But while we celebrate these women now, at the time their contemporaries often criticized these women for being too ambitious. At our nation’s founding, there was one preferred way for women to contribute to the nation and public life: motherhood and family life.

This concept was called Republican Motherhood, and it glorified women’s roles in cultivating a virtuous household, while raising and educating civic-minded children to lead the nation in the future. Republican Motherhood emphasized how important women’s work was to fostering civic values, but only this type of women’s work. With few exceptions, women were not welcome in the public or political arenas.

In the 18th century, “Republican Motherhood” argued that the mother is responsible for upholding the morality of her husband and children. Pictured: The Artist and His Family by James Peale. (Wikimedia Commons)

Criticism was quick to follow women who stepped beyond these acceptable roles. For example, in the election of 1800, Democratic-Republicans targeted Abigail Adams and her inappropriate influence over her husband, John Adams. (Remember “Remember the ladies“?) Critics argued that the president was controlled by his wife, implying that he wasn’t man enough to control his family or the nation. But these criticisms also suggested that she engaged in subjects, like politics and diplomacy, which were better left to men.

Abigail Adams may have been the first wife of a president to receive abuse for stepping beyond the traditional hostess roles, but she was not the last. Eleanor Roosevelt carved out her own issue agendas, regularly traveled to visit constituents, penned a near-daily newspaper column and conducted her own press conferences. While her activities earned the admiration of many Americans, others threw vile criticism her way. Westbrook Pegler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote:

“I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs. Roosevelt when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.”

No person has served as more of a lightning rod for ambitious criticism than Hillary Rodham Clinton. As President-Elect Barack Obama ruminated on his choice for secretary of state, one particularly conservative publication, The New American, listed the potential candidates as, “John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Bill Richardson, plus the ambitious wife of Bill Clinton.” Apparently, HRC is so ambitious her name didn’t need to be included. 

"Ambitious" Has Long Been a Slur for Women Politicians
“No person has served as more of a lightning rod for ambitious criticism than Hillary Rodham Clinton,” writes Chervinsky. (Wikimedia)

In the last few decades, women are participating in politics in record numbers. But they are much more likely to enjoy success if they avoid the appearance of ambition and bring the protection of marriage and motherhood. Mothers and wives are less threatening because they don’t challenge the gender expectations that are still prevalent in our society. They also suggest that women are running for office because they want to protect their families, rather than pursuing some sort of separate ambition.


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For example, after Republican presidential candidate John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, she gave a series of remarks introducing herself to the country. She talked about her leadership experience as governor of Alaska, but she also emphasized that she “was just your average ‘hockey mom’ in Alaska.” 

President Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice president revealed that ambition continues to be a tricky issue for female public figures. Last summer, while Biden considered several candidates for his running mate, some of his aids opposed Harris. They worried that she was “too ambitious” to be a loyal subordinate. What does that even mean? No male vice president has ever been accused of being too ambitious.

Harris isn’t the only public figure facing pushback for their ambitions. As President Biden’s Cabinet nominees work their way through Congress, it’s noticeable that women are facing much harsher criticism and more challenging votes than their male counterparts. Former Office of Management and Budget nominee, Neera Tanden, faced pushback from senators for her mean tweets, when past male nominees, like Ric Grenell, have not faced the same objections. As a proud representative for Native American interests, Secretary of Interior nominee Deb Haaland deftly handled much tougher questions than those posed to past secretaries of interior.

Then-Rep. Deb Haaland on July 11, 2019, at the U.S. Capitol for the Moms Clean Air Force’s sixth annual “Play-In” for Climate Action. Kalita Conley / Moms Clean Air Force)

There is no doubt that these nominees face unusual treatment from the senate because they are outspoken, ambitious women. In response to Haaland’s testimony, one Republican senator called her a “whack job” before ultimately apologizing for his language. But actually, he first apologized to Tanden for the statement, because he forgot which “ambitious” woman he had insulted. 

There are plenty of reasons for despair that women are still slammed for boldly pursuing their ambitions, but there are glimmers of hope. More women are running for office and serving in powerful positions than ever and there is a deliberate movement to change how we think about ambitious women.

After the criticism of Vice President Harris, many women adopted “ambitious” as a badge of honor. By embracing “ambitious” and proclaiming it proudly, we can change this slur and make it into a positive attribute. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Women’s History Month and honor those that came before us.

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About

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.