Ruth Ann Dailey: Ban 'bossy' but be a boss? What's a girl to do?

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As a woman whom feminists do not think of (sadly) as one of their own, I must say I find the push-back to the "Ban Bossy" campaign pretty surprising.

You may have seen its creator, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in a recent Parade magazine, alongside former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez, all three wearing "Ban Bossy" pins on their jewel-toned suits.

The incident at the heart of their campaign was a junior high teacher's warning to a female classmate to avoid the young Ms. Sandberg:

"Nobody likes a bossy girl," the teacher said. "You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you."

Obviously, Ms. Sandberg didn't let that pejorative description bother her, and her detractors are asserting they aren't hurt by it either. "I don't mind being called bossy," "I am bossy," and "I won't stop using the word" -- those are the comments from self-described feminists.

In league with them are brave conservatives like National Review's Jim Geraghty, who have risked observing that the "Ban Bossy" effort makes women look a bit ... whiny. Their collective message: Women are stronger than this.

Yes, women are, but 12-year-old girls usually are not. And it's quite clear that the thrust of this campaign is not about what we adults call each other; it's about the gender stereotypes we're still foisting on impressionable children and tweens.

What teens and adults call each other makes "bossy" look quaint. I don't think I've heard the word used, at all, since junior high. By high school circa 1978, kids had graduated to cruder or more sophisticated vocabulary.

And so it is now: No adult describes a female as "bossy." We use another b-word or -- if we're not angry or linguistically challenged -- adjectives such as "manipulative," "bullying" and "self-promoting."

We use these words for men, too -- because by now most of us have had terrible bosses of both sexes. We realize that a toxic mix of ambition, shamelessness and insensitivity -- instead of true leadership -- propels some jerks to upper management, where they can ruin our lives.

They're not bossy. They're annihilators. Their destructiveness has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with poor character.

And at the risk of playing "Captain Obvious," I'll assert that whether you think the "Ban Bossy" campaign is counterproductive, or helpful, or redolent of the "thought police," probably depends less on your gender than on your temperament and experience.

It may also depend on where you come from. Ms. Sandberg was raised in Florida, Ms. Rice in a segregated Alabama and Ms. Chavez in Arizona.

I don't know what these particular women heard, but I doubt their Northern critics have been admonished -- as so many Southern women have -- to "be sweet."

Bossy and sweet can't coexist. Grace is for leaders; sweetness is for tea -- and for someone who's destined to be subservient.

My Texan mother is the one who urged us girls to "be sweet," but when anchorwoman Christine Craft sued Kansas City's ABC affiliate after her bosses demoted her because she was "too old, too unattractive and wouldn't defer to men," I heard my mom say, "I hope she takes those old goats for every penny they've got."

That's what sweetness gets you: no voice, and anger.

Whether you value more sensitivity training may also depend on whether you've been kicked under the table by a male peer or boss. I have.

The man who kicked me apologized; we agreed that I was revealing too much in a meeting and that he (the most experienced in our group) needed a better way to signal me (the least experienced but ostensible leader) that I might be doing harm.

Despite this, as a "sweet" Southern-Midwesterner and mother of three, I can tell you the only thing worse than being a girl who's "too bossy" is being a boy who isn't tough enough.

In short, life is complicated, and so is leadership.

I'd say, "Let's encourage one another to use all our gifts and respect every individual's unique experience to make life in this awesome republic better for all" -- but that doesn't fit on a button.

Campaigns rely on slogans, which are by definition simplifications. So "Ban Bossy" or "Be Bossy" or both. Just ... do it!


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.

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