In 1873, in the case of Bradwell v. State of Illinois*, in a concurring opinion, three Justices of the American Supreme Court wrote “the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother”.  148 years later and where are we at? Women, now more than ever, are relentlessly working towards accessing education and the job market within spheres that were, in the past, brazenly reserved to men. But truth be told, the expiry to women’s ambitions come much faster than one would expect. Post 26 years of existence, through a very abrupt shift, women are suddenly patrolled by society if the focus of their life is not to settle down, i.e., to be a wife or mother. One cannot help but wonder then, why does society still insist on lamenting this so-called ambition deficit of women that is clearly engineered through a mindset that 148 years after the case of Bradwell, is still focused on the realization of wifehood and motherhood?

Financial independence of women as an ideal, has slowly seeped itself in Mauritian society and this is highly indicative of a nation that is evolving and fluctuating. Statistics speak louder than words; one cannot take for granted the contribution of women to our economy as 38% of our employed population comprises of females (Statistics Mauritius, 2019 report). Interestingly, according to data from 2016, out of a student population of 33,269 in tertiary education, 56.6% are female and 43.4% male (Tertiary Education Commission 2017). And yet, the high accomplishments of girls and young women in schools are not translating to employment prospects. This may be explained by the traditional gender roles that have, for so long established conventional family life. Cultural standards and social patterns apportion to Mauritian women more recognition when it comes to the traditional responsibilities of wifehood and motherhood, which are essentially non-market or domestic activities. The question that begs to be asked then is why are we shifting the burden of the question of ambition on women when in fact truly solving the ambition deficit means exploring our closely held mindsets with the regard that society unconsciously institutes on women when choices are made when they arrive on the job market.

It cannot be denied that women have incredible opportunities for creating and chasing their ambitions now more than any other time in history, but this can only be realistically achieved in a social context where women are expected to put the needs of their family members before themselves otherwise their femininity is distrusted as it does not conform to society’s standards for classic womanhood.  I personally believe that there is no ambition deficit as women definitely and naturally aspire and wish for more. However, these aspirations tend to be limited to the spheres of their lives that society gives the most recognition to and this is the first hurdle that women face when they are planning a family or are advancing to more competitive positions in their workplaces. Defying society’s standards, only inflates women’s insecurities, as they inevitably feel selfish when they do not put the needs of others before theirs.

The most dominant form of social cohesion in relation to womanhood is created through social and institutional structures that have not been set up with the specificities of women in mind. During their twenties and early thirties, after most women are transiting from education to the labour force to attain their ambitions, they are also during the same age gap expected to simultaneously marry or bear children which directly influences their decision to hold on to their ambitions, downsize them and in certain cases completely abandon them. This is because women suffer from the social pressure to adhere to the conventional womanhood perceptions because society gives them most recognition in their roles as mothers or wives.

Psychiatrist Anna Fels, who wrote Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, studied childhood ambitions, of both boys and girls, reached the conclusion that the foundations of ambition are found in mastery and recognition. Mastery is self-explanatory as without any skilled ability there is no real prospect of any successes but this has to be contrasted to recognition, which is a rudimentary human need that drives ambition. The correlation between recognition and ambition cannot be any clearer; women will instinctively alter ambitions to achieve the recognition that society bequeaths to them as mothers and wives. This is unfortunately a very subtle social conditioning and as a collective, it will take a lot of unlearning, introspection and recognition of the boundaries being placed on women’s ambitions.

In our current male designed society, women have had to conform but with a major redesigning of life and norms where choices made are gender blind, women will be free to choose where they wish to shine, whether that be in the home, in the workplace or both! The ambition deficit is a myth created to coerce and perpetuate what society feels comfortable with – the only deficit we are facing is that of composing structures that empower women to make their choices with no guilt as choice is arguably the most elementary ambition anyone can have.

* On April 15, 1873, the U.S Supreme Court decided in Bradwell v. Illinois, to strike down Myra Bradwell’s challenge to the Supreme Court of Illinois’ refusal to grant her a license to practice law. The Illinois Supreme Court in a gesture to honor her, finally granted Bradwell admission to the bar in Illinois in 1890, and the United States Supreme Court two years later, shortly before her death.