August 18, 2007
The Canberra Times

When one man’s ambition is another woman’s evil curse

Ambition is not a bad thing. The Prime Minister said so this week. Just a day after Peter Costello awoke to local radio birthday ditties – ”he’s destined to be the bridesmaid never the bride” – John Howard was extolling the virtues of ambition in his political nemesis wannabe. ”He’s an ambitious man, there’s nothing wrong with ambition,” Howard told journalists.

Nothing wrong indeed. We know John Winston Howard was born with the silver spoon of ambition. And it would seem his wife Janette is keen to keep the cutlery well-polished. But what about Costello?

This week’s revelations of a hungry and naked ambition to seize control of the leadership, the party, and the prime ministership come as no surprise. But when caught in the media spotlight, on the awkward outside of a journalistic menage a trois, Costello all but batted his eyelashes as he protested his honour and his servitude. ”I will serve in whatever capacity I can make a positive contribution,” he said.

It may have been a feeble protestation of innocence in the face of alleged treason, but it had a stench to it. And the stench had nothing to do with lying – or not. Instead it had everything to do with manliness. Or more to the point – girlieness.

Men – real men – have ambition. So where’s the public evidence of Peter Costello’s? If he has been happy to spend the prime of his life in servitude to Howard, well then, that’s fine. But it seems a bit limp doesn’t it? After all, isn’t self-sacrifice for the better good, and servitude to the master the domain of women? Particularly when it comes to politics. (Just ask the young woman in Wilson Tuckey’s office, who this week pressed the wrong fax button and got her boss in trouble. Wilson put up a manly defence and blamed the ”girlie”).

While ambition in men is applauded, even desired, ambition in women is seen as some kind of evil curse in need of excising. And the Federal Government seemed thrilled to reinforce that notion when their latest research on Julia Gillard showed that voters find her to be ”hugely ambitious”. This was seen as a negative to be exploited.

Apparently voters weren’t only aware of Gillard’s ambition, but they were ”worried” about it. Hence the Government’s ”Get Gillard” campaign was devised with the expressed intent that it be put into action once this current parliamentary session began. But the Coalition attack on Gillard’s ”huge” ambition seems to have been sidelined by news of Costello’s public lack of it. Ironic really.

It nevertheless highlights how ambition is perceived as something quite unnatural for women. Which is odd given most of us know from experience that ambition knows no gender.

Yet that hasn’t helped stop just about every woman in the public eye from copping a verbal thrashing if she is seen to be ”ambitious”. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark laughs off the ”ugly duckling” jibes made at her. But as Gillard pointed out recently, taunts about Clark being ”cranky” and ”bossy” if directed at a man would deem him to be ”invested with authority”.

It’s no wonder then that when asked to speak this week at a forum titled Women with Ambition, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja expressed her delight at the subject. ”I love the title,” she said. ”I like the idea of women appropriating that word so often used to describe women in a derogatory sense.”

As Stott Despoja went on to tell her audience, ”For years I was the ambitious deputy, the ambitious leader. Some commentators never understood that I was unashamed about that fact that I think women seeking power is a good thing.”

They’re brave words coming from someone who during her 12 years in the Parliament has endured perhaps the most relentless attack on her ambition. But Stott Despoja has always been an easy target, thanks to her youth and her blonde beauty.

Is it any wonder many women put a lid on their ambition? American psychiatrist Anna Fels has long railed against women who ”forfeit recognition”. But she knows female ambition can also be a curse. According to Fels, when women speak up and compete with men for ”high-visibility positions” in the workplace, their femininity is attacked and their sexuality is questioned. ”They are caricatured as either asexual and unattractive or promiscuous and seductive.”

Which brings a roll-call of taunted but ambitious women politicians to mind: Joan Kirner, Amanda Vanstone, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Cheryl Kernot, as well as Clark and Stott Despoja, and the list certainly could – and will – go on.

And in the Parliament we have another favourite descriptor for a highly ambitious wench – ”barren”. Which is quite a ripper, given you can’t stigmatise a woman more acutely than by attacking her ”unnatural” failure to procreate.

Whatever the state of their womb, men have an innate fear of ambitious women who lurk around the corridors of power. Which is perhaps why ambition is eagerly encouraged and richly rewarded in men.

So what do we make of a man whose fierce ambition has got him to the threshold of the Lodge, only to see him back off? Repeatedly. Is he perhaps a modest man? Or in Iron Bar Tuckey parlance, is he behaving like a ”girlie”?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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