Necessary Dreams

I was about to say that I’ve been quiet around here lately, but that just isn’t the case — I’ve been totally silent for over a month. I can’t remember a busier time at school. And it’s meant not only not-blogging, but really not reading much, either — something that’s rarely been true all my life, even as a graduate student. I’m looking forward to spring break, because while I do have work to do, I’m also going to set aside some time just to read.

One reason I’ve been so busy at school is that I unexpectedly had to teach a class for a colleague who was unable to teach it for personal reasons. This is a Women’s and Gender Studies capstone course, and I am using the syllabus my colleague had prepared. Naturally, I hadn’t read most of the books on the syllabus (!) and so I am reading them as we go along, staying ahead of the students so we can keep up with discussion in class.

necessary dreamsNecessary Dreams, by Anna Fels, was the first book we discussed. Fels discusses the topic of ambition, which she defines in two pieces: mastery of a skill, and appropriate recognition for that mastery. In other words, you can be a wonderful cook or data analyst or hurdle-jumper, but if no one who matters tells you that you are, in any way that counts, you’re not satisfying ambition. (Fels’s contention is that doing something for yourself is certainly laudable but not ambitious.) Fels then goes on to point out that, while women have many more opportunities for mastery of various skills than we did, say, fifty or a hundred years ago, we are socially influenced against saying we want recognition, either in its most impersonal forms (money, promotion) or in its more visible and personal forms (awards, highly visible positions, plaudits from those in the know, etc.) Women, even very ambitious women, have a strong tendency to say, “Oh, it was a group effort,” or “I don’t do it for myself, I do it for the children,” or “I only ran for office because I thought I’d lose,” or “Don’t take a picture of me, I’ll stay in the background here.” Men rarely do this.

Fels’s book has some interesting things to say. It was written a decade ago, in 2003, and I think my students would probably make some good links to Lean In if they read the two books side by side. But the book is extremely limited in scope. Fels is writing for a narrow demographic: white, middle-class to upper-middle-class American women. She addresses race in perhaps two or three brief paragraphs in the book: once to say that African-American teenagers have better self-esteem than their peers (! I’ve rarely seen such a poor use of statistics) and once to say that slave narratives were really great for white women: “The stories of such self-reliant women helped provide a template for white, middle-class women to imagine their own lives as distinct from those of men.” Yes. Because I’m pretty sure that’s what those narratives were all about. Fels also fails to distinguish any other ethnicity than African-American when she does talk about race, despite the fact that interesting ideas about Asian or Latina or other groups’ notions about ambition might be teased out from the big lump of “women” she keeps referring to. It’s a similar story with class, which I believe is addressed twice. And what about women around the world who may have no ambitions for the corporate ladder at all? Ambition would be a much more interesting and complicated subject if we took some of these other things into account.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to introduce my class of Women’s and Gender Studies students to any of these questions. After a thorough critique of the book’s narrow focus, we were able to take Fels’s rather narrow questions for what they were. We explored how these students might face their own healthy ambition, and how they might protect themselves from some of the risks, in the workplace and at home, that face ambitious women of whatever race or class.

I won’t, unless there’s a giant clamor for it, do a thorough review of Gayle Letherby’s Feminist Research and Practice. That book is a practical take on feminist social-science research and epistemology, and while I liked it and learned quite a bit from it, I’m not sure my readers would be riveted by a review of it. But if this is something you think might be worth your while to read, I’d recommend it; my students got quite a bit out of it, even though none of them are social scientists (they are all English majors except one who is in math.)

And that, along with Anthony Trollope, is what has been keeping me so busy! Another review of The Way We Live Now coming soon…

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4 Responses to Necessary Dreams

  1. Hullo Proper Jenny!! I miss you!

  2. litlove says:

    I do like that distinction between the laudable goal of doing things for oneself and the ambitious goal of doing them for recognition. Yes! I do get fed up of people telling me I should just enjoy something for itself – why shouldn’t there be recognition too? See, even saying that sounds bad and unworthy… I’ve been just the same as you lately – too busy to blog! I still have hopes of catching up….

    • Elle says:

      But why can’t seeking recognition and seeking mastery both be types of ambition? I don’t think recognition is inherently bad but pursuing it can signal lack of confidence and a reliance on other people to determine your value (not talking about you here, just in general).

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