Why Is A Woman Putting Happiness Before Ambition So Revolutionary?

Why are we so shocked when a woman says she's satisfied with 'enough'?

Ruth Davidson ambition

by Alix O'Neill |
Updated on

Decca Aitkenhead’s interview with Ruth Davidson in The Sunday Times Magazine last weekend was remarkable in many ways. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives discussed her experience of self-harm when she was younger, revealing a series of scars on her arms. She chatted openly about the impending birth of her first child with fiancee, Jen Wilson and danced for the camera with a zero-fucks ebullience to Pink’s Raise Your Glass. Davidson is a rare thing in British politics – warm, accessible, human.

What shouldn’t have raised eyebrows was her admission that she has no intention of stepping into Theresa May’s shoes. Ever. “I don’t want to be prime minister…I value my relationship and my mental health too much for it. I will not be a candidate.” Barely a month goes by without speculation that Davidson has her sights set on No. 10. Even Aitkenhead didn’t quite believe her until the interview wrapped and the MP acknowledged how content she was.

It’s baffling that a successful woman prioritising health and happiness over ambition should somehow be considered revolutionary. A number of commentators have expressed disappointment at Davidson’s disinterest in the top job, as though she’s done the sisterhood a disservice by refusing to scale even dizzier heights. Meanwhile, Times journalist Libby Purves claimed Davidson “has endorsed the idea that a history of depression should be a barrier to ambition….That she is a woman adds to the toxicity of the message”.

First, Davidson wasn’t speaking in general terms or suggesting that a history of mental health issues makes you any less capable of running a country. She simply knows what pressures and levels of scrutiny she can withstand. (And frankly, given the mess of British politics right now, who’d want to be PM?)

Second, she’s the leader of a party aged 39. You don’t get there without a strong determination to succeed. I have a friend at the top of her game professionally. As well as her day job she has a number of side hustles and an adorable three-year-old. Recently, she’s been exhausted and says something needs to give. She’d like to ask work if she can go down to four days a week, but is concerned at the message this would send to younger women in the office, namely that motherhood curtails female ambition and advancement. I admire my friend’s commitment to helping other women get ahead. But I can’t help but feel we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves – and each other – to excel. It’s like ambition has become the default setting and being satisfied with “enough” a crime against feminism.

This fixation with “what’s next” when it comes to our careers is understandable. Historically, women who have sought success, power or money were regarded as ruthless, the act of asserting oneself deemed unfeminine. Of course, this trope played neatly into the hands of the patriarchy – demonise the desire for more and they won’t come after our jobs. But in recent years, there’s been a drive to reclaim female ambition. Ever since Sheryl Sandberg told us it was OK to lean in, we’ve seizing opportunities and paving the way for others instead of pulling up the ladder behind us. Then came the inevitable backlash – think pieces condemning our goals-orientated culture and articles featuring high-filers who were packing it all in to teach yoga in Nicaragua.

Why must it be so binary? Is there not something to be said for standing still – being successful without the added stresses that invariably come with being the best? When I went back to work earlier this year after having a baby, I made the decision to switch to part time. We could only afford childcare two days a week, but also, I wanted some semblance of that elusive work-life balance. Then earlier this month, we left London. I’d be lying if I said these moves haven’t impacted my career – and my ambition. When you work fewer hours and from your kitchen table, fewer opportunities come your way. And you know what? That’s fine by me. That’s not to say I want to stop learning or challenging myself. I’m just not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to go all the way.

I’m glad there are women who are, though, because Christ, we need more of us in charge – if that’s what they want. But just because you could achieve great things, doesn’t mean you should. In a world of extremes: views, politics, eating habits, the middle ground isn’t particularly sexy, but it’s a damn comfortable place to be

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