Saturday, March 15, 2014

Leaning In On A Word

Perhaps I'm a little slow to pick up on this particular topic, but have you heard of this? Sheryl Sandberg, of Lean In fame, first a book, now a nationwide if not worldwide, philosophy for women, has started a new campaign.

Lean In, a "nonprofit organization empower all women to achieve their ambitions" now offers "support through online communities, free expert lectures, and Lean In circles" which are peer groups who meet regularly. Sandberg wants women to recognize that the corporate structure, traditionally male, has to be navigated differently by women. There is extra scrutiny of women, and there is sexism. While it's not surprising that much of this is levelled by men, a great deal is unfortunately from women, too, both at work and at home.

Women need to help one another, obviously, but her new campaign focuses on vocabulary. This campaign, called Ban Bossy, maintains that "bossy" is a term used almost exclusively for girls. When a little girl speaks up, takes charge, and leads, she is termed "bossy." When a little boy does that, he is called a leader. "Words like bossy send a message:" the website says, "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."

That's the pitch. It then asks if you will help girls become leaders by Banning Bossy.

Partnered mainly with Girl Scouts of America, as well as lots of other respected organizations/businesses, (and celebrities), Ban Bossy has a good pedigree. Lots of organizations and sites have taken up the cause.  And why not?  Who could possibly be against helping young girls find their voice and take on a leadership role?

Sigh.  No one.  But, as we all know, banning--or pretending to ban--a pejorative term isn't going to get it done.  I get what Lean In is doing.  It's the whole Raising Awareness/Heightening Sensitivity thing. And I don't fault them one bit.  Take it from me, a girl who was called Bossy most of her life.  Until it morphed into the more adult Bitchy.

Because that's all Bossy is.  It's the Elementary School form of Bitchy.  I spent my entire life wearing that term--both of them, really--because I was a leader and because I spoke out and because I did not sit in the back and shut my mouth.  I don't think the answer lies in banning the word; I think it lies in teaching girls how to ignore the word.  It lies in empowerment.  If you ban a word, you have given the word the power, not the girl.  What are you saying then?

When I taught Creative Writing II, students often complained about the poetry assignments that had specific meter, especially sonnets.  There was so much crabbing and moaning about finding the right word.  Finally, I stood at the front of the room with a dictionary and said, "Who is the master here, you or the words?  Who is in charge?  Your job, always, is to make words your bitch.  They work for you.  They do what you say, not the other way around.  Now stop being such a pushover and whip them into shape."

I grew up knowing that I was smart, capable, and valuable.  My voice counted, so I used it.  If someone ignored me, I spoke again.  If I was still ignored, I shoved my way toward the front and spoke again.  If I still didn't get recognized, I spoke more loudly and more forcefully, using all the biggest words I knew.  I don't need to get my way, but if it is important to me, I want to be heard.

In my thirty years of teaching, I made sure to tell my female students all of this.  That they should never give up their power, ever.  That a label like Bitch means nothing if they don't believe it themselves.  That being a woman means fighting harder, but if you have integrity, other women will help you.

I think banning words is silly.  I wonder if this campaign isn't misguided although I appreciate its message.  I do know that women, in general, need to be more helpful to other women and less judgmental in general.  And I, for one, will be more mindful when I use the term Bossy, if I haven't been already.


  1. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Embrace bossy, don't ban it. Seems ludicrous to try and stop the whole world from using a word. But that hasn't slowed down Ms. Sandberg, who, not to put too fine of a point on it, is being bossy in her request. Just saying…

  2. Fascinating. I had not heard of the ban on bossy. It sounds like an offshoot of political correctness, which I abhor, although, like you, I agree that the intention is certainly a good one.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that banning the word only gives the word the power, and not the girl. I consider that there's more than one take on bossy--- there's "good" bossy, which might also be described as just being forthright and speaking your mind, and there's "bad" bossy, which might be defined as being overbearing and trying to force one's wishes on another/others. It depends, in short, on who's doing the bossing and what they're being “bossy” about.

    There's a whole new negative culture surrounding the word bossy nowadays, something that I don't think existed before to the same degree. Think of the expression: "You're not the boss of ME!" This goes far beyond the implications for girls growing up and being unafraid to be assertive; in many cases, the speaker is not trying to "stand their ground" as much as they are making a pathetic attempt at saying "I'm just as powerful as you." Too many things have gotten sucked into a power struggle in which the combatants lose sight of the original point they were trying to make. Think of the filibuster: sometimes it’s "good bossy", i.e., "I am going to expound on this topic with the hopes that you can eventually see its merits, and at the same time, prevent you from passing a bill that would have catastrophic, negative and unfair consequences." (Thank you Wendy Davis for standing there in your Bossy Pink Tennis Shoes for 11 hours.) Then there's the "bad bossy"--- "I am going to rant and rave and shove my empty rhetoric down your throats to prevent you from passing a bill that would make you look more powerful than me." (Enter Ted Cruz: "Let's shut the government down and show 'em who's boss around here! Since I have nothing of any real value to say, I'll just show you what a great dad I am and read Dr. Seuss to my kids, throwing in some nice, bossy overtones to get my pointless message across.")

    O.K.--- That’s probably extrapolating far too much. (Read: Getting Off Topic, lol.)

  3. I totally agree with everything you ever say, lol...Well, most of it anyway...
    Many years ago, I had a teacher who basically taught me the same thing, you've said here; keep your power to yourself and don't give it away to anyone, or anything.
    Over the years, I have been called bossy, bitchy, a no-it-all, and my great accomplished and acknowledge nickname - Mrs. F*^king walking encyclopedia...I love the last one the best. Oh yes, I own those names, but they are my power, not anyone else's.

  4. Ortizzle--There is also a phrase that is (maybe now "was") used in pop culture to describe dominance or expertise. I might say, "I parallel parked that car like a boss." Someone might say, "I crushed that case of beer last night like a boss."

    "Boss" by itself used to be a desirable term. Remember Way Back when "boss" used to mean "cool" or "awesome"?

    Bossy, though, has always meant pushy, and I don't remember anyone using it for boys. And you're exactly right--I can't tell you how many times I've heard in my childhood and that of my boys, "You're not the boss of me."

    Banning bossy is at least a place to start, I guess. It is tangible, memorable, and starts the discussion.

    I'm just so disappointed that we need something this late in the game.

    Unknown--Welcome to the Dept., and thanks for adding your comments here.

    Know-It-All was another one I used to hear, and until I remembered that knowledge is a gift, I almost started to pretend not to know so much. Glad to know you own your brain and your confidence. One day, the rest of the world will figure out what to do with all of us. In the meantime, hang out here. You'll find a great deal of company.

    Ally Bean--Sandberg's book is dealing with ideas that are not new, in my opinion. And that's not a criticism. These ideas are possibly rediscovered by her and her generation, but they are the same sort of thing that Gloria Steinem and others have been talking about forever, well, at least since the earliest days of the Feminist Movement. Those of us who had sisters and moms in the Movement have been talking about this and trying to stress to later generations the importance of everything in Lean In--before it was in a book.

    It's like they always say, "Everything Old Is New Again."

  5. I don't really care if they "ban" words. A word only has power over you if you let it. I appreciate the idea but shut up already and just DO something realistic to empower girls and women. Teach them as much as you can about everything because knowledge is power, and then practice using power with grace and poise.

    Here's what I do. I teach horseback riding lessons, which entails not only the riding part, but everyday handling and care of horses. Horses are generally in the 1,000 pound range, and evolved as a prey species. They tend to be more aware and pay a lot of attention to their surroundings, and they look to a source of confidence on which to base their behavior. If you don't direct the horse, he can and will walk all over you, figuratively, if not in actual fact, and, if a horse gets seriously out of hand, he can injure you, or even kill you. Therefore, you MUST project some type of confidence in order to be safe when you handle or ride a horse. Most horses are, by nature, good animals and eminently directable, but even the best will take advantage if you're really not paying attention or won't insist on having your way.

    The vast majority of riders and horse people in this country are women and girls. Countless riders have come to me with low self-esteem or no sense of their own power, and early on in the lesson program complain during lessons that they can't make the horse do what I'm asking them to do. My response: "Who's in charge here? I don't care what you have the horse do, but YOU'RE THE BOSS and it must be YOUR decision. He will do it if you MAKE him do it. So do it again. Try harder. Be bossier." I'm giving them explicit permission to invoke their sense of power. The sense of accomplishment when a 10 year-old (or 50 year-old) rider realizes that she can make a 1,000 pound animal do what she wants, when she wants, over and over, is tremendous to see. This is learning power, and as they become better horsewomen, they practice and refine the use of power, with thoughtfulness and empathy. It works not only at the barn but in all areas of your life. It isn't a revolution, but it's a step in the right direction.

  6. LaFF--I hear you. I noticed during my everyday viewing of Dr. Phil with Rick, who is a devoted fan of the show (discussed here in a post before) that a couple of the outpatient therapy/rehab places are on working ranches and places with horses.

    The representatives of these centers often stress the fact that working with horses instills a sense of confidence, responsibility, and empathy to individuals who desperately need those traits. It also restores discipline and routine. It shows them that by having another living being dependent upon them for direction and sustenance and care, that they are important, necessary, and yet cannot afford to be selfish. I can readily understand what you are saying.

  7. Did you see this? I haven't had time to read (or listen) to it yet, but it sounds like some of these folks might agree with you:

  8. Bug--No, I didn't. Thanks for the link.


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