For ambitious women, similar labels but divergent perspectives

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 23, 2012

Are we really so different?

No. And yes.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Black women in America have long endured labels and categories — living up to them, fighting against them, busting them down.

And they’ve got to do that with a smile, of course, because you don’t want to seem too angry while proving you’re smart and ambitious.

You don’t think this is what African American women face?

Then take a look at first lady Michelle Obama, whose popularity is sky-high, on television explaining that she is not “some angry black woman.”

It’s embarrassing that a woman who has handled one of the nation’s most daunting, complicated jobs with utter poise and grace thinks she has to defend herself. But that’s so often what you get when you are black, female, ambitious and hardworking.

“You’ve gotta run twice as hard, be twice as smart,” said psychologist Maia Coleman King, 38, who recently opened a practice with another African American woman in downtown Washington. “You always feel as though you’re representing your race.”

It’s what I see in the offices I’ve worked in, it’s what I hear among my friends and it’s what a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a sweeping survey of black women across the country.

The focus on success is especially true in Washington, the epicenter of striving no matter what color you are. And for women of all hues, being openly ambitious still brings out the haters.

Remember 1984, when Democratic Rep. Geraldine Ferraro was making history as the country’s first female major-party vice presidential candidate? It was second lady Barbara Bush who took a swipe at her, describing her like this: “I can’t say it but it rhymes with rich.”

More than a decade later, in 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s mom spilled the beans that her son called first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton a “b----.”

You’ve got to wonder: What is everyone so afraid of? The Senate is still only 17 percent female. It will be a long time before there’s an angry-woman takeover.

The noise surrounding successful women of all races can sound similar. But what goes on inside our heads and how we see ourselves? That’s where our poll found genuine differences.

Black women place a higher value on career achievement, religion, coming to the aid of a family member and wealth than white women do.

The white women polled put more emphasis on getting married, being in romantic relationships and having kids. They also reported higher levels of stress than black women, despite the fact that more black women are worried about paying the bills and being a victim of violent crime.

I was immediately intrigued by the stress gap.

Isn’t “I’m so stressssed out!” the battle hymn of the white woman? So I asked a bunch of black women what might account for that divide.

“It’s all about perspective. It’s how you cope,” said King, who learned how to handle stress from the strong, capable women in her family. She still marvels at how her 93-year-old grandmother fixes the sink without asking for help and how her mother endures cancer treatments without kvetching.

“It’s the culture,” King said. “You do not complain.”

I learned that lesson from Renisha Ricks. On Saturdays last fall, we’d sit at a picnic table while our 7-year-olds played touch football on a neighborhood team.

In the course of our conversations, I’d gripe about the bills, the cat, the husband. I assumed she was another busy but poised mom who was earning a graduate degree while working as a government consultant and raising a child. Impressive but not that unusual in the nation’s capital.

Then I learned that Joshua is not her son. He is her little brother.

When their mother died suddenly in New Orleans in 2009, and Ricks was headed to the District to take her first big job, she also became the legal guardian for her pre-kindergarten-age brother.

She’s 26, but she doesn’t get to do happy hours or spend her weekends socializing with her upwardly mobile peers. She’s too busy raising Joshua. And she doesn’t voice a word of complaint about it.

“It’s what we do,” she said. “And I know my mother wouldn’t be proud of me if I didn’t.”

Labels? I have one for Ricks and a lot of black women like her: extraordinary.

Dvorak will be responding at noon Tuesday to your comments about this column. Use the field below to share your thoughts.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Local