Terry Prone: To call a woman ‘ambitious’ is to accuse and condemn, even now

Ambition in women had emerged as unacceptable and as deeply threatening to men towards the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the typewriter, writes Terry Prone
Terry Prone: To call a woman ‘ambitious’ is to accuse and condemn, even now

US socialite and divorcée Wallis Simpson in 1936, a week before the UK's King Edward VIII abdicated to marry her. Picture: Fayer/Getty Images

WE’RE not supposed to speak ill of the dead. Every now and then, though, it’s difficult to find anything but ill to speak of the dead. Take Wallis Simpson.

Mrs Simpson was the woman for whom the then Prince of Wales fell, hook, line, and crown in 1936. Edward VIII wanted this twice-divorced American to be his queen, and, thwarted by the rules, sat in front of a microphone to tell the plain people of the UK (and of the wider British empire) that, without the support of the woman he loved, he could not continue to be king and was abdicating.

That made him a figure of romance for many people, including quite a few in Ireland who ached with sympathy for the man they called ‘Neidín’ Windsor. The only thing about the romance is that it never added up. It was easy to know what she saw in him: He was a neatly attractive little lad, destined for the throne and destined, also, to be rich. But what he saw in her was a puzzle.

Once Edward VIII had abdicated, the biggest claim to fame Mrs Simpson had was being the one for whom he had done the deed. It wasn’t enough for her. His attractions diminished over time and Wallis marked their diminution by treating him — in public and private — like muck, which he seems to have liked. 

She was vulgar, once photographed in a nightclub with the ex-king wearing paper crowns. She ‘rewarded’ staff with signed photographs of herself rather than money. She stiffed designers for clothes they lent her and never got back. She cosied up to Hitler, along with her husband, and had been excessively close to Joachim von Ribbentrop before she ever met the Prince of Wales, who was suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser. She fired people over nothing in particular.

When Edward, as he was dying, called out repeatedly for her, she ignored him and never went to his bedside during his last hours.

It’s possible to go on about Wallis Simpson, but here’s an oddity. Read back through the biographies of the couple — from the latest, Traitor King, to the earliest — and the recurring word to describe this dislikeable woman is ‘ambitious’. 

Contemporary accounts speak of her as “profligate and ambitious”. Synonyms for ‘profligate’ include extravagant, spendthrift, improvident, prodigal, immoderate, excessive, thriftless, imprudent, reckless, and irresponsible. Nary a positive among them. ‘Profligate’ could not be a more negative term to apply to any woman, and yet it is twinned with a word which — applied to a man — is totally positive.

King Edward VIII became the first British king to abdicate the throne for his American divorcee bride Wallace Warfield Simpson. Picture: Getty Images
King Edward VIII became the first British king to abdicate the throne for his American divorcee bride Wallace Warfield Simpson. Picture: Getty Images

Simpson was repeatedly condemned as having been ambitious, ambition being seen as a lamentable flaw in women. To mention a woman’s ambition was to define and dismiss her, without any accompanying problem. And so, ironically, Wallis Simpson’s own husband used the same term to dismiss the woman who still occupies the throne.

Spies reported in 1940 that, in amidst dinner-table drivel about Edward’s certainty that he would be summoned to return to England to reoccupy the throne, “he also expressed himself with some force about the present Queen of England, whom he termed ‘an ambitious woman’.”

Significantly, Elizabeth had already, accidentally, achieved the ultimate fairy story ambition of becoming queen, so one wonders what her uncle thought she still had ambitions for. Not that it mattered. All that mattered was that this single word, this lone ascribed defect, was, in and of itself, so damaging to her that this unevidenced slur was the specific the spies remembered.

Ambition in women had emerged as unacceptable and as deeply threatening to men towards the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the typewriter, which revolutionised the workplace and gave middle-class women an option other than wife, governess, or spinster aunt. 

The typewriter gave women the capacity to earn their own money, independent of the men in their lives. Women’s hands seemed made for the new machine: They were quicker, more dexterous, less given to error than men’s hands, and so a new profession arose (Women were actually called ‘typewriters’).

The human typewriters set off each morning to the office, where they were valued, trusted, and paid good money for their services. Some men found this so inimical to their sense of what was right and proper that a wave of rape emerged, proving, although it was not realised back then, that rape is more a crime of fury, violence, and subjugation than of sex.

The only place that claimed ambition in women has been a good thing has been on ‘unreality TV’ shows like The Apprentice, in the US, where young women set their jaws and their lips and claimed to want to get right to the top of a largely fictional business world.

The fiction was that maybe, just maybe, if the strong-jawed young women claiming ambition came through the series, they might, if the wind was in the right direction and the force was with them, get an assistant role distinguished by outstanding vagueness somewhere within Donald Trump’s organisation.

 Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor) was banned from making a radio broadcast appealing for public support during the 1936 Abdication Crisis, according to official files released Wednesday, January 29 2003.
 Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor) was banned from making a radio broadcast appealing for public support during the 1936 Abdication Crisis, according to official files released Wednesday, January 29 2003.

Nobody watching interpreted the expressed ambition as anything other than an exercise in branding. The aspirant wouldn’t have made it onto the show if she hadn’t put forward the claim. The lineup had to have one driven female, same as salad nicoise requires a few anchovies: Even if nobody likes them on their own, they give a flavour to the thing. Hundreds of editions of these programmes, on either side of the Atlantic, have produced few outstanding top female executives, despite publicity, time, and stated ambition.

Admittedly, not many men made briefly famous by the same programmes have reached the top, either, but they were expected to be ambitious, even if they subsequently failed. Ambition is a gender-specific ascription when it comes to acceptability: OK for the lads, not nearly OK for the girls.

The accusaton that a woman is ambitious is still as potent a knee-capper as ever it was, and that accusation is never challenged. 

When one member of an organisation’s staff describes a female as ‘ambitious’, nobody asks, “Oh, what has she told you about her ambitions?” The accuser is not queried along the lines of, “Or is that your assumption?” Nobody says, “Oh, the person referred to is always happy to take on extra work, is she? Mighty out.”

Nobody asks the person using the ‘dirty word’ if they regard ambition as a bad trait, because everybody hearing the comment knows that to describe a woman as ambitious is rarely a compliment.

Most of the time, it is a passive-aggressive criticism. Too often, it is damaging to careers.

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