Lately, it seems the news is plagued by stories of sexism and violence related to young women and girls globablly and in the U.S. While I think we all need to express collective outrage at such blatant and systemic acts of gender-based oppression and violence, we also need to see the daily impact of sexism all girls lives. Similar to what Jennifer Harvey recently wrote about “girls” vs. “boys” items and gender policing in young children, we need to quit thinking little things don’t matter. They are what keep sexism and gender-based violence in place as a systemic force of evil in all our lives with radically varied impacts.
As a young girl, I was often called bossy. I hated that label. Even today, I try to reframe comments in a positive light that alude to being bossy. “Yes, I’m organized.” Or “If no one takes charge, we won’t ever finish this.”
Reframing aside, what I know is that girls who embody the qualities of “bossy” are better off. “Bossy” is sexist shorthand for a girl who is outspoken, a leader, organized, and self-confident. So, why does being “bossy” still seem like a bad thing?
Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook, recently launched the “Ban Bossy” campaign. Last year, she released her book “Lean In” which took on issues of women’s success and empowerment in the work force as well as critiqued the feminist movements’ shortcomings. As blogger and Christian ethicist Natalie Williams writes on this blog, Sandberg says feminism . . .
as a movement for women’s social, political, and economic equality, is stalled. Her argument is that the stall is as much the fault of women’s personal and internal choices about their lives as it is the fault of institutional sexism. Sandberg describes these two as going hand in hand – an issue that feminists have long described in the language of “internalized sexism” where women both downplay and sabotage their own ability/talent/work and the ability/talent/work of other women.
With the #BanBossy Campaign, Sandberg takes on institutional sexism and the internalized effects on behalf of girls. As the media campaign has taken off, twitter abounds with #banbossy comments. Partners like Girl Scouts, Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch have joined in the campaign. On a related storyline, last month, The Atlantic dedicated its feature article to “Closing the Confidence Gap” related to the growing body of research on how women’s workplace success is affected by self-esteem and confidence issues.
As a mother of a 12 year old girl, a Christian ethics professor who writes and teaches on children and youth related issues, and a “bossy” woman myself, this caught my attention. Especially related to sexuality issues, I am deeply concerned that “being bossy” is seen as negative. Girls are often given a dual sexuality message under the guise of patriarchal Christian beliefs that they need to be the “protectors” of their sexuality while also fitting into a docile, subservient female gender role. How exactly is one to “fight off advances” while being “subservient”? When it comes to helping girls (and boys) grow into sexually healthy adults, we know that self-esteem is an important factor. Especially for girls, low self-esteem often correlates with early, increased, and riskier sexual behaviors. If scientific fact doesn’t communicate the message, how about one of the core Christian teachings? Even Jesus reminded us that we are to love our neighbor AS OURSELVES (Mt 22: 39).
In Sex + Faith: Talking with your Child from Birth to Adolescence, I discuss five life skills I think every child needs to develop to be a sexually healthy young person. #1 is self-confidence. In order to make sexual decisions (really any moral decision) based one’s own values and beliefs, we need self-confidence and support. Mixed messages about sexual and gender roles and decreasing self-confidence in tween and teen girls makes for a very unhealthy combination. This mix feeds the heterosexist stereotype that a girl’s value is determined by her relationship to a boy(friend) and if she were to become too indpendent (read: bossy) she would lose that value.
Bossy carries specific connotations when applied to women. However, being a “boss” or a “leader” should be about building up the people around you, not making yourself seem better than others. Yet, in a highly competitive, sexist world, girls are taught early to put each other down. Feminists have labled such behavior as internalized sexism. Girls do not tend to use overt physical bullying tactics like boys (again socially acceptable norms!); instead they rely on relational retaliation like name calling, withholding friendship, or creating cliques. It is often girls who call each other bossy or women teachers, coaches, etc who label girls. Might we reclaim the term “bossy” with pride in leadership and confidence so long as we aren’t using that to harm others? I tend toward reclaiming the word with the likes of Tina Fey whose autobiography is titled “Bossypants.”
Whether you decide to join #banbossy or find your own ways to ignite girls’ leadership, let my “bossy” self, close with a few pieces of advice for those of us who interact with girls and young women:
- Stop critiquing girls when they take charge, and tell girls to stop listening to others who do the same. Instead encourage girls and help them distinguish the difference between self-confident and arrogant.
- Talk about the women leaders in history who took great risks in living out their faith, while also speaking plainly about the sexism that remains in our faith communities.
- Tell girls that NO ONE but her gets to decide how she will use her body or what sexual behaviors she will engage in.
- In Christian contexts, like my own, remind her that Jesus doesn’t require us to give ourselves away, sacrificing our own needs for everyone else’s. He said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
- As for boys, tell them the same things. And remind boys that many girls are not valued as equal human beings and they can change that by treating all people well regardless of gender.
- Redefine and reclaim the word “bossy” by pairing it with these words: audacious, bold, leader, organized, knowledgeable, outspoken, self-assured, and confident.
Version of this blog reposted from Gathering Voices: Conversations from TheThoughtfulChristian.com.