Kate Quin: In business suit, holding an attaché case that she is quite aware of. The attaché case alternately makes her feel like a successful grown-up, or hand-cuffed. Perhaps, the most handsome of the women, she is composed and has always made a good impression. Like Muffet, she knows the potential of being attractive. Unlike Muffet, she’s not sure it’s nice, or the right image to let people know. Katie always walks with direction and that’s why it’s fun to make her stop and laugh.1
Wendy Wasserstein’s 1977 play Uncommon Women and Others was born as her MFA thesis at Yale University. An exploration of the prospects for educated young women, Wasserstein’s play totters around feminist notions and outdated analyses of individuality and ambition, and while some messages luckily do fall into this outdated category, others undoubtedly remain far too relevant.
Kate Quin, one of the principal women in the play, quickly emerges as an example of ambition, but her success and confidence – both academic and social – place her in a position not only to excel but also to be perceived as a threat. Her impressive performance in her university department at Mount Holyoke, for example, is so intimidating that her friends feel compelled to shift their studies to other departments so that they might also have opportunities to excel. So, too, does the romantic attention she receives serve as a point of contention when Wasserstein lauds Kate’s sole receipt of male attention and intimates jealousy from her friends.
Kate, however, does nothing intentionally to create conflict within the play: it is simply her achievements, her ambition, that place her into a domineering and abrasive trope. The experience of reading this play and imbibing its anti-ambitious messaging was unfortunately all too unsurprising to me. So often have I been advised to soften my words and lead with gentleness in avoidance of the brash reputation that coincides with strength and ambition in women. This play slipped neatly into that harmful narrative.
The play still might be considered a feminist one, though, and perhaps this is why I struggled so much with its problematic messaging surrounding ambition. Wasserstein explores careers for highly educated women in a time before it was the norm for women to prioritize their studies and careers. Uncommon Women and Others also briefly spends some time explicating an understanding of sexuality and what it means to be empowered in a corporeal sense. These moments, to me, were even more shocking than the negative messaging, for their progressivity is striking and somewhat refreshing. Coupled, then, the progressive take on femininity, sexuality, professionalism with the sadly persistent one surrounding gentleness, ambition, and womanly excellence composes a strangely archaic understanding of what it means to be a strong woman and how women should interact with each other.
I was reminded of this play when I listened to Hallie Jackson, Senior Washington Correspondent for NBC News, speak with TWN-Johns Hopkins. Her response to my question about leadership centered on the essentiality of modeling ambition for other women. Although her ambition was identified negatively by men early in her career, she has been able to abandon that negative conception and the misogyny it veils to come into her own as an ambitious woman – proud of her commitment to growth and constantly seeking more opportunities for herself and her mentees. This leadership style not only encourages personal growth and the growth of all women (or any people) around her, but it also directly contradicts the notion that ambition is threatening. Ambition here is a way to connect with someone else: it is a way to come closer with mentors and mentees, share common goals, and discover paths to reach them.
I am encouraged when I remember that women like Jackson are increasingly coming to terms with their own ambition and leading young women to do the same. It is, of course, disheartening to be confronted with an outdated understanding of what it means to be an ambitious woman, but these ideas must simply slip away as ambition takes on a new power in our lexicons and our lives.
1 Wasserstein, Wendy. Uncommon Women and Others. Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1977.