By Gail Jennes
June 21, 1976 12:00 PM

“Mother, we’ve had a conference and decided you should be realistic, give up your job and go back to teaching and research,” daughter Tia, 12, advised playfully. The mother is Matina Horner, who four years ago at the age of 32 became the youngest president in Radcliffe College history. She tells the story with a wry smile. Matina Horner’s reputation as an experimental psychologist is based on her studies showing that gifted women often fear success. As the American woman becomes too aggressive, competitive, in short, too successful, Dr. Horner says, she is often thought of as “unfeminine”—a failure as a woman. Horner herself is proof to the contrary. Born to Greek immigrant parents and raised in the Roxbury section of Boston, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bryn Mawr and married physicist Joseph Horner, now 40, before getting her Ph.D. at Michigan. The mother of three, Matina Horner combines traditional female roles with her professional life as college president and teacher. Recently she discussed her research on women with Gail Jennes of PEOPLE.

How do you define success?

People have real trouble with the word. I don’t define it the way society has traditionally. To me, a highly successful life integrates personal and professional objectives in a way consistent with one’s talents, aspirations and energies—unconstrained by external stereotypes and irrelevant assumptions. Whether it’s child-rearing or a career, a woman should determine her own goals. The hardest struggle is to achieve a balance.

How do you distinguish fear of success from fear of failure?

Although not mutually exclusive, they are quite different. If possible, people with great fear of failure choose a sure thing, or a task so difficult there is no threat to self-esteem. People who fear success, on the other hand, want to achieve, but are worried about the consequences. For women, this can involve their own definition of femininity, or the price to be paid for pursuing success—such as the loss of time with friends or extracurricular activities.

Are women more fearful of failure and success than men?

There hasn’t been much work on differentiating fear of failure among men and women, but we do know that in the 1960s women scored higher on anxiety tests. The fear of success was more characteristic of women.

Which women are most likely to fear success?

They come from middle- and upper-middle-class, educated families who develop high achievement motivation. At the same time, parents want their daughters to fulfill traditional functions, so a contradictory message emerges. One study found high fear of success in girls whose mothers had careers of their own. They felt distant from their mothers. Fear of success is not neurotic. It’s a realistic appraisal of what society has taught us and how society has responded to women.

How should women resolve the conflict between career and family?

There’s no simple answer. Success lies in implementing self-determined goals. The balance between them can be different for every individual.

How essential are marriage and children to the fulfillment of women?

As a personality psychologist who studies individual differences, I must recognize that needs vary. I don’t think marriage is absolutely essential to anyone’s life.

Do you call yourself a feminist?

If feminist means caring about access to opportunity for women without sex being a relevant variable, yes. If it means rejecting men, no.

How do men make women pay for their success?

I don’t want to say that women are made to pay. We have built into us ideas of what men and women can do. Often women feel guilt when they cross what they define as their appropriate boundary. We learn what those boundaries are by watching what happens to those who cross over.

Why is the myth prevalent that if women pursue intellectual and professional fulfillment they deny their “femininity”?

History and literature have attended to this issue in such a way that the cumulative effect is a misunderstanding: if a woman does pursue success of one kind or another, she risks sacrifice. History and literature have not dealt with women who are successfully combining all these functions.

How alive is the myth at this time?

Since the women’s movement, people are less apt consciously to connect success with loss. Now the concern is reflected in women who feel guilt if their children have trouble at school or have a developmental crisis, which they attribute to their working or pursuing a goal other than motherhood. Those who work because the family needs money don’t have the same guilt.

As women become more successful, what problems do the two sexes face?

Many men who are successful now are coming to grips with the price they’ve had to pay. For both men and women a great price is loneliness—the loneliness of the one at the top. In the ’50s and ’60s, women who followed the achievement route were often rejected in their personal lives. Now successful women fear emasculating those for whom they care. I get anguished letters from women who opt for achievement. Often, even supportive men have negative reactions. It’s very sad.

Why is this so?

Redefining roles involves complex reactions and coping strategies. An example is the husband whose wife decides to make a midlife shift. He often feels he married one woman and now has another. Frequently he must ask himself which he likes better.

How does the fear of success affect some women?

We found that at the point women were closing the gap between the amount of money they made, relative to the significant male in their lives, many of them got pregnant as a coping strategy.

Is there any relation between alcoholism and fear of success?

There haven’t been studies on that, but a study of drug usage revealed that people with a high fear of success used everything from marijuana to hard drugs very heavily. This is not to say that such women are running around using drugs.

Which is more effective in preparing women to fulfill themselves—coeducational or single-sex colleges?

It makes no difference for some women. For others a coeducation environment is considerably more stimulating. Others find a single-sex institution rewarding, because by its very existence it says women are important. It takes women seriously and has high expectations of them. Many women try things out in a single-sex school that they would not attempt in a co-educational setting, like concentrating on physics or taking leadership positions on campus.

What pitfalls should a women’s college avoid in helping success-oriented students cope?

If we raise the hopes of women so that they can walk through doors once closed, but those doors lead to stone walls, we may create major problems. There also is a false sense that on the other side of homemaking lies euphoria, that if you have a career all the problems of the home will disappear. This is simply not the case. We just can’t substitute a new irrelevant false stereotype for an old one.

What of the woman who later wants to find a career?

This is a very important issue—one of the principles behind the Radcliffe Institute, for example. There was a recognition that women had essentially dropped out of the job market in the early ’50s and ’60s. To aid them in reentry, the Institute offered small fellowships plus “a room of one’s own” where they could come and write their books or poetry and develop research. It was enormously successful. Many of those women have gone on to a wide range of activities, including winning Pulitzer Prizes, teaching, research and administration.

When you were offered the job of president at Radcliffe, did you fear success?

I was concerned about not being able to meet the high expectations. But perhaps this was more a fear of failing than of succeeding.

What about family life?

I remember wondering, would there ever be hours enough? I made the decision to deliberately concentrate more on the quality of our time together.

Has being a mother interfered with your demanding work schedule?

Inevitably! There is an interplay between work at home and work in the office. A great deal of energy goes into keeping communications open. At times this has meant waking my daughter late at night so we might have a quiet moment together.