Jettisoning Women's Ambitions: The New Protectionism

05/28/2010 10:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A feminist friend from my old days in academia forwarded me Chris Brogan's "Women in the Workplace" blog post as soon as she read it. All she wrote: "Wasn't sure what to make of this."

Indeed. What to make of several hundred words by a social media celebrity who purports to understand "what women want" (I swear, thems his words) and to defend our "choice" (again, from the horse's mouth) not to advance into leadership roles. Thanks, Chris, that's just the choice we've been hankering for.

The big news here seems to be that not all working women share the same goal. Although the same truism applies to men, it's hard to imagine anyone considering that newsworthy. Does anyone worry that men are being oppressed into taking unwanted leadership opportunities, as Brogan implies women are?

Why does this matter, and why have I been roused back into the feminist arena? ("Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in.") Because unless we start doing some clear and present thinking about what feminism means in the 21st century, Sarah Palin will hijack the word and annex the movement into the Tea Party.

It's a very old, very familiar protectionist narrative (women need protecting, don't they?) that's operating here: a perverse logic that jettisons women's ambitions in the name of protecting her choice to lack ambition. Can you imagine a coach giving this pep talk to a locker room of men in football uniforms? "Not everyone wants to win, or can win. It's your choice if you want to win the Super Bowl."

To ask "what women want" is really to aim to control what women will want. To be surprised that different women want different things bespeaks the persistence of a basic patriarchal impulse: to essentialize all women into a single, predictable, controllable Woman.

To call out as noteworthy that not all women aspire to the corner office becomes the kernel of justification to revert to discriminatory workplace practices (why bother developing and promoting her?) and low expectations for our daughters. "Honey, you don't have to be a doctor. You can be a nurse." "Honey, you don't have to be an executive. You can be a secretary." "Honey, you don't have to be president. You can be First Lady."

At end, Brogan reveals the not-so-hidden agenda with his closing line: "And men, what do you see around you [original emphasis] as this environment supposedly shifts?" That italics says it all: what women want or don't want only matters as far as it affects men. The fewer women aiming for the top, in fact, the more room there for the boys.