Ambition in Women's Changing Lives

By Anna Fels

Pantheon. 297 pp. $24.95The teacher who calls on boys first; the college adviser who favors male proteges; the boss who neglects to reward a female employee's good work with a raise or a promotion; the husband who talks a good game but whose career always comes first: At every stage of a woman's life, someone or something threatens to knock her out of the limelight and into the shadows. That's the grim news delivered by Necessary Dreams, a psychiatrist's examination of the shaping and unmaking of women's aspirations and careers, especially as we move into our prime career- and family-building years.

Anna Fels, who practices in New York City and writes columns for the New York Times and other publications, draws from her patients' lives and from an array of scientific studies to deliver this bitter pill: Despite the advancements and opportunities brought about by feminism and decades of social progress, women's working lives are still nasty, brutish and all too short. As girls and young women, we dare to dream big, only to have our dreams ground out of us by an overpowering combination of cultural and sociological factors. It's damn depressing, this book. Which doesn't mean it's wrong.

What distinguishes Fels's book from other feminist laments is the case it makes for ambition as a basic human impulse, even a need. You don't have to be Donald Trump or Madonna to thrive on being noticed: for a skill, a talent, a job well done. We thrive on "recognition . . . being valued by others for qualities that we experience and value in ourselves."

Which makes Fels's other message even more dispiriting: "Throughout their lives women are subtly discouraged from pursuing their goals by a pervasive lack of recognition for their accomplishments. Parents, peers, teachers, professors, bosses, and institutions all underrate work by females and therefore unwittingly withhold appropriate praise and support. All too often girls and young women incrementally lose their early convictions about their abilities and talents. A belief in the likelihood of achieving their goals slowly fades and is supplanted by aspirations for more socially available types of attention, particularly attention for sexual attractiveness." Goodbye, Marie Curie; hello, Britney. (Oops, bad example: Britney has parlayed her assets into a lucrative and highly visible career.)

In the office, Fels believes, women disproportionately tend to be overlooked and overworked: "Often women professionals are loaded down with committee assignments and other tasks that are time-consuming but provide little opportunity for advancement. . . . Focusing on such small events feels petty, and most women try to get the work done in spite of the handicaps. Yet such gestures reflect how the work community views one's contributions. Does it recognize the efforts as exciting and worthy of support -- or as unremarkable?" Marriage and motherhood, delightful and rewarding as they may be in personal terms, further compromise a woman's chances of realizing her dreams, Fels says. She calls marriage "the keystone of white, middle-class adult female identity."But the woman who slips a wedding ring on her finger "discovers that she has made a complicated bargain." Who's more likely to stay home, sacrificing income and professional opportunities, if and when the kids arrive? Who stands to lose more social and economic capital if there's a divorce? You don't need a degree in psychiatry to guess the answers.

Some women, Fels reports, particularly those who are not white and middle-class, have a fighting chance. They're more likely to come from corners of society in which, to borrow a widow's phrase quoted by Fels, "a man is not a plan." Nor is a man necessarily the overly privileged, sensitivity-challenged, stereotype-burdened figure he sometimes appears in this book; I do, for instance, know men who will ask for directions when they're lost. Although Fels has done her research (or, more accurately, read lots of other people's), she leans too heavily on pop-cultural cliches and icons. When, oh when, will writers stop using Bridget Jones's Diary as evidence in gender-related argument? And while I'm glad that Judy Dench was able to realize her passion for acting, she ain't exactly the feminist next door. Fels could make her points with a little more vim and vigor, too; she writes as if she has a headache, which maybe she does after delivering all that bad news.

Because she does make the case that, for many of us X-chromosomers, the picture remains grim: Take a letter, Miss! And when you're done, get back to the kitchen! Hey, that diaper's not going to change itself. What's a girl to do?

It depends in part on your generation. Necessary Dreams feels very much like the work of someone who lived through '60s and '70s-era feminism and its tribulations and has grown sadder and maybe too pessimistic over the years. The experience of my contemporaries, 10 or 15 or 20 years younger than Fels, has perhaps been more positive -- I say "perhaps" because too many of us have felt the lack of support and encouragement that she documents. How is it for women 10 or 15 or 20 years younger than we are? They seem tougher and more confident, as a group, than we did. How will the world be for my now-2-year-old daughter? Progress may be incremental, but it exists. Doesn't it?

What would Fels have the female majority do? Think carefully. Know the enemy, whether it's cultural bias or a bad employer. Make sure you and your mate are on the same page when it comes to the balance of work and family life. And lobby those retrogrades in Congress to make this country a more family-friendly place, in which working women (and men) can be assured of quality child care and institutional support. "The only way to reduce the conflicts that women now face," Fels writes, "is to alter our government's agenda." Most of all, Fels stresses the need to seek out mentors and peers who acknowledge our accomplishments. Recognition, or its lack, can make or break a career and even a life: "We all need our efforts and accomplishments to be recognized. Without such earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance goals are rarely reached." Without recognition, in other words, ambitions -- a woman's, an artist's, anyone's -- all too easily wither and die like plants deprived of water. It's only human to want to be seen and appreciated for your abilities, whether you're Britney or a PTA volunteer or the most literary of novelists. *

Jennifer Howard, a contributing editor of Book World, can be reached at