A Gathering Voices Post by Kate Ott
As a young girl, I was often called bossy. I hated that label. Even today, I try to reframe comments in a positive light. “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 good 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, 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 Ban Bossy 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. The Atlantic this month 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, and a “bossy” woman myself, this caught my attention. I began to wonder what message the church is teaching about girls “being bossy.” Many faith Protestant communities have women pastors and priests, and yet they face overwhelming incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. I am proud that the community I attend currently has two women pastoral leaders. However, murmurings can be heard from other members about the need for a male voice to preach the word and lead the church. To that I only remark during this Easter season, it was the women who stuck around and who have kept the church going for centuries. So many girls and women in our faith communities do not know the stories of powerful, women leaders in Christian history. That would be one place we could start to re-educate our communities about women leaders.
As a sexuality educator in faith communities, 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. 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 be a sexually healthy and faithful 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. One we all need to take responsibility for preventing. Girls need to be taught God created them in God’s image and they are valuable, unique, and powerful. As co-creators with God in this world, they are called to be bold leaders. In fact, their gender matters primarily because others judge them based on it, not because it carries some inherent, natural quality for good or bad. If Christian communities could embrace that fact, we may be more open to a variety of gender and sexual expressions that reflect the lived reality of God’s creation, in addition to helping girls see their self-worth. What positive, empowering messages does your family and faith community provide for girls?
Being 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. 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 adult teachers, coaches, etc. who label girls.
Whether you decide to join #banbossy or find your own ways to ignite girls’ leadership in your community, let my “bossy” self, close with a few pieces of advice:
1. Stop critiquing your daughter when she takes charge, and tell her to stop listening to others who do the same. Instead encourage her and help her distinguish the difference between self-confident and arrogant.
2. Talk about the women leaders in Christian history who took great risks in living out their Christian faith, while also speaking plainly about the sexism that remains in our church communities.
3. Find ways for your daughter to be a leader in your faith community either in worship, Christian education, or service committees.
4. Let your daughter know that NO ONE but her gets to decide how she will use her body or what sexual behaviors she will engage in.
5. 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.
6. If you have a son, tell him the same things. And remind him that many girls are not valued as equal human beings and he can change that by treating all people well regardless of gender.
7. Instead of using the word “bossy” try: audacious, bold, leader, organized, knowledgeable, outspoken, self-assured, and confident.
Together, we can push back on the institutionalized and internalized sexism that harms our girls inside and outside our faith communities. More tips for parents, leaders, and girls can be found at Banbossy.com.