Bossy. adjective. According to Dictionary.com, “Given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering.”
We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming for this important news bulletin.
I’m not a huge current events girl. By the time anything noteworthy infiltrates my college bubble and my opinion about it can actually be verbalized, the trendy topic is old news. But I think this one is important. And timely, for once in my life.
Maybe you’ve heard. Some powerful ladies are trying to end the use of the word bossy.
This campaign, headed by Sheryl Sandburg, the author of Lean In, and the Girl Scouts, focuses on empowering girls to be leaders. The movement’s website, Banbossy.com, claims “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”
At first, this campaign made me a little giddy. A few months ago, I devoured Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist, which is, according to the tagline, about ”exploring God’s radical notion that women are people, too.” Since completing it, I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s roles in society and the church, and I have been envisioning women using their strengths alongside men in powerful ways, not limited by cultural constraints of what a “proper” woman should be. I thought this “Ban Bossy” movement lined up perfectly with that. But I’ve been thinking more about it, and there’s something that makes me a little uncomfortable.
It’s not that I don’t think girls should be leaders. For heavens sake, I’m the oldest child and the oldest female in my family. I’ve been naturally leading things since there was another kid to boss around, and I’ve been (fondly – I think) called the “controlling one” of my siblings. In high school, my organized, keep-everyone-focused personality made me class president of my tiny class for a few years. According to the results of my freshman year StrengthsQuest personality test, some of my strengths are Discipline, Focus, and Achiever, all of which fall into the Executive (i.e. get-stuff-done) category. However, I wasn’t always comfortable with the spotlight of leadership. I asked questions and offered answers in moderation, always tempering my hand-raising because I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all. (I don’t think it worked, but that’s beside the point.) I get intense when I’m working hard on a project or passionate about a topic, which I worry makes me awkward and intimidating. If girls could avoid those insecurities, not hiding their smarts or watering down their passionate intensity, I think we would raise some powerful, authentic, game-changing women.
But I also hesitate to say that banning the word bossy is going to do it. For one thing, I feel like that alienates a whole sector of the female population who have never been accused of being bossy and who aren’t natural-born leaders.
My dear sister would be one of these chicas. She is a delightful and brainy middle child, a nerdy princess who loves glitter and lace and who used to read math books by hallway light she should have been sleeping. However, she would not describe herself as a stand-out leader. She does not generally plan in advance, have strong opinions, or make decisions. This is not due to cultural limitations telling her she should sit down and be quiet. This is just who my sister is.
I worry that this campaign is forgetting women like my sister, identifying only one of the negative terms women hear as a problem and lifting up leadership as the trait girls should have. I agree that we need to encourage girls in the challenging task of being a leader, that we should teach them not to be held back by labels like bossy. But there are so many other negative labels pinned on girls, too, like wimpy and weepy and sensitive. Women hearing these labels need to be empowered, too. I want all girls, whether they are take-charge ones or not, to realize that they are too important and beautiful to be stuffed into one label or diluted for less potency and passion. I want the sweet girls who cry at tender movie endings and sad commercials and sunny days to see the beauty in their tears and their deep, feeling hearts. I want the girls who stay hidden behind the scenes, running props and helping with costume changes, to realize that their work deserves applause just as much as the on-stage actresses. I want the girls who wear twirly dresses and pink nail polish to feel just as tough and empowered as the ones doing sweaty bench presses in the weight room or the ones calling the shots in a corner office. Maybe banning bossy is a great place to start. But if we want all girls to live authentic, whole-hearted lives, we can’t stop there.
The creators of this movement may hate me for saying this, but I also believe that some women actually are bossy, negative connotations and all. So are some men. And regardless of the labeling issue, that’s not okay. Being bossy and controlling and aggressive to get your way and make your voice heard should not be acceptable for either gender.
We all know people who act like this. I just worked with one in my kindergarten placement. This girl had no problem telling people what to do. She knew and did not hesitate to proclaim what she thought and what she wanted. Sure, this girl had leadership potential, and these traits alone are not a bad thing. But she was also straight-up bossy. She tried to control other kids, marching from her place in the recess line to rile them up and pushing them out of “her” spot on the carpet. Frankly, she made me want to pull my (or her) hair out.
We could quibble over the fact that I’m calling her bossy and pointing out the negatives of her powerful personality. Or we could recognize that her behavior is not okay, and that if she is going to be a leader who affects the world in positive ways, there need to be some changes in the ways that she leads. If she was a boy, my issues with her behavior would not be any different.
If we’re going to ban bossy, I think it’s essential to teach kids that leadership is not about loud mouths and power grabs. I believe that all kids, boys and girls, need to know that effective leadership is not always loud and forceful. It can be kind, a compliment slipped to the girl with off-brand clothes and heavy shame. It can be quiet, a solitary refusing of a beer at a boozy party. It is not just commanding ways, and being a leader is not an excuse for being hurtfully aggressive and demanding. Girls should absolutely have powerful personalities and state their opinions, but they should not be excused from being decent human beings because we want more female leaders.
For followers of Christ, I think reinforcing positive leadership is especially important. Jesus was arguably the most influential leader ever. But he did not get to the top by trampling on toes or demanding people follow him. He invited people to be with him, and when people saw his love, his servant heart, his way of making invisible people feel seen, they actually wanted to. He could be an aggressive table-flipper when necessary, but it wasn’t his primary method of getting his point across. Instead, he washed dirty feet and healed diseased bodies and looked deep into hurting eyes. He started a quiet revolution that cracked the heavy marble foundation of empires and scared sword-wielding government officials stiff.
If we raised leaders who were not bossy but instead breathed Christ, imagine the empires and glass ceilings we could shake.
So for my fellow ladies (and gentlemen, too): sure, we can ban bossy and let women be heard and be in control. But may we strive for more than that. May we celebrate the wholehearted, beautiful personalities of the women around us, whether or not they steal the spotlight or direct the show. May we lead in love, in the most powerful and revolutionary way possible.
We now resume our regularly scheduled broadcast.
All images in this post via Pinterest. Bonus link: Check out Sarah Bessey’s board Wise Women for more girl-power pins.