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March 3, 2017

When Did ‘Ambition’ Become a Dirty Word?

Tory Burch’s campaign “Embrace Ambition,” produced by Harbor Picture Company, seeks to reclaim a word that has often been used to vilify women.

NEW YORK TIMES
Published on March 1, 2017 by Jacob Bernstein

There is nothing particularly fiery about Tory Burch. Shortly after the 2004 debut of the fashion company that bears her name, Ms. Burch was profiled in The New York Times, with the reporter noting that if reserve could be bottled, Ms. Burch would probably “have a blockbuster fragrance.”

So it may come as something of a surprise that the campaign she was promoting on Tuesday morning by phone from her office in the Flatiron district does not have a couple of starlet models photographed by the ubiquitous Mario Testino, but is instead a stark, black-and-white video, a public service announcement that takes on a thorny issue that dominated the last presidential campaign and has divided people on the right and left.

Making its debut next Wednesday, on International Women’s Day, the campaign, called “Embrace Ambition,” features Julianne Moore, Melinda Gates, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jamie Lee Curtis, Anna Wintour, Reese Witherspoon and other famous people (both male and female) talking in front of a scrim about reclaiming a word that has often been used to vilify women.

“We embrace ambition,” Ms. Paltrow says.

“I can think of a lot of dirty words,” Ms. Witherspoon says. “Ambition is not one of them.”

All the proceeds from the sale of accompanying bracelets and T-shirts will go toward a foundation Ms. Burch started in 2009 to help female entrepreneurs.

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Nevertheless, she seemed to choose her words carefully as she spoke about the campaign.

Although she designed a T-shirt for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential run and has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians over the last few years, she wanted to get away from the idea that this project was politically motivated, or anti-Trump.

She said repeatedly, almost apologetically, that she would like to do something that unites rather than divides the country. Also, she added, “I have lots of Republican friends,” and “they want their daughters to have the same rights as men.”

But the issue of ambition, and the way it is used to defame women, is nevertheless personal to her.

Ms. Burch grew up in Valley Forge, Pa. Her parents, Buddy and Reva Robinson, were a fashionably iconoclastic pair who vacationed in Morocco; celebrated Christmas, although Reva was Jewish; and rang a bell for dinner, like something out of a Willa Cather novel.

“They taught us that with hard work we could achieve anything,” she said of herself and her three brothers. “It was never about gender.”

Then, Ms. Burch attended the University of Pennsylvania and majored in art history. She moved to New York and became a fashion publicist who was often photographed on the charity circuit, attending benefits for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the American Ballet Theater. After she married a venture capitalist, J. Christopher Burch, who helped bankroll her company, the sniping started. (The couple divorced in 2006.)

This was confusing to Ms. Burch, who never saw herself as being a particularly threatening person.

On one hand, she is constantly telling her female employees not to say “maybe” and “I kind of think.” On the other hand, she often uses those kinds of qualifiers herself.

“I do it, too,” she said. “I’m guilty of all of it.”

In 2009, Ms. Burch started the Tory Burch Foundation and, through a partnership with Bank of America, saw it grow to an organization that ultimately gave more than $25 million to female entrepreneurs around the world.

Many of the recipients of these grants had experienced the same kind of sexism she faced. They were called too hungry, too intent on power, too ambitious — code words used in place of the more vulgar expressions that men (and sometimes women, too) used when they were out of earshot.

“There was a harmful double standard,” she said.

Ms. Burch said she decided to do the public service announcement long before Donald J. Trump was elected president, though the videos were shot in the last few weeks. And the campaign, which is coming out at a time when women’s rights activists seem emboldened by the country’s rightward turn, is intent on reclaiming the very descriptors that are frequently used derisively against them.

In October, Mr. Trump called Mrs. Clinton a “nasty woman” during the third presidential debate, prompting Clinton surrogates like Katy Perry to begin wearing that phrase on T-shirts, inside a heart, during fund-raisers.

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In February, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, got into a dust-up with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, when she tried to give a speech against Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. He shot her down, saying: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Soon, “she persisted” became a hashtag with thousands of reposts on Twitter and Instagram by fans of Ms. Warren, who recast it as a show of strength and resolve. (Fittingly, Ms. Moore, the actress, appears in Ms. Burch’s campaign, imploring young women to “be persistent.”)

And the word “feminist” began to shed its Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan connotations, as women like Madonna went from saying they are “not feminists” but “humanists” to wearing T-shirts at anti-Trump events that had the word “feminist” emblazoned across the center.

Ms. Burch understands where the initial hesitation with that word comes from, too. She once thought she was a little too traditionally feminine to identify that way.

Not anymore.

Told by a reporter that a member of her team had recently used the “humanist not a feminist” argument to describe her inclinations, Ms. Burch sounded almost horrified.

“Who said that?” she said. “I am a feminist.”

Produced by Harbor Picture Company
Director: Sophy Holland
DP: Franklin Stanley & Theo Stanley

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