“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” –Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
In some ways, I have a great deal in common with Sheryl Sandberg, CFO of Facebook, author of “Lean In” and creator of the new #BanBossy initiative. We are both white women who call ourselves feminists, daughters of the middle class, citizens of the United States. We have both been the beneficiaries of extraordinary educational privilege, and are both raising families in affluent technology-focused communities.
Given that we seem to share more commonalities than differences, I might be a natural supporter of both of Sandberg’s feminist efforts, “Lean In” and #BanBossy. However, I couldn’t help but notice that both of these iterations of feminism failed to address parts of my own experience, and even more significantly, that women who were far more marginalized than I were speaking out about how dramatically unrepresented they were by “Lean In” and then #BanBossy.
What do “Lean In” and #BanBossy share in common? Both begin with imperative titles, delivering a charge to women—all women, regardless of age, race, income, culture, location, disability, LGBTQAI identity, even temperament and individual desire—that they adopt a highly, multiply privileged woman’s vision of feminism, in fact, the feminism of one of the most privileged women in the world.
The difficulty I had with the first charge to “Lean In” when applied to my own life was that it was unclear how I could follow Sandberg’s advice—to work harder than I was already, push even harder against sexist and ableist barriers—without additional familial or societal cooperation. I am a writer and feminist neurodiversity activist, as well as the full-time caregiver for my four children, one of whom is Autistic and will need me to homeschool him next year because of educational exclusion. I also work with and around my own “invisible disabilities” (neurological conditions), as do many people. And yet, because of my race, income, education, and other circumstantial factors, I am still more privileged, more supported in my already deep “leaning” than are so many more marginalized women.
The more marginalized a woman is, whether because of employment discrimination due to intersections of race, gender and single parenthood, or the inability to work because of disability interacting with an insufficient “social safety net,” the more she must lean alone. And the further she labors from access to supports (such the largely out-of pocket Autism care upon which my family relies), the more hollow, unconsidered and even callous a charge like “Lean In” is likely to sound issuing from someone with Sandberg’s advantages.
A more robust and less top-down “feminist manifesto” would not have looked away so quickly from the “margins” of womanhood, but would have centered upon them and amplified their voices, their thoughts regarding what they and their families really need in order to be able to thrive. A more robust and indeed less oppressive “manifesto” would not have urged that already overtaxed women “lean in” even more, but rather asked, why must they? No women are leaning as hard already as the most marginalized. So why not instead expect our governments and our employers to lean harder and ease some of the load, especially considering how much they, how much we all, benefit from the hard work these women already do?
More than a year after the publication of “Lean In,” I was newly dismayed to hear about Sheryl Sandberg’s latest initiative, #BanBossy. The history behind #BanBossy is that Sandberg herself was teased for being “bossy” as a girl, and always felt that this word had irredeemably negative connotations. Indeed, one of the claims on the #BanBossy website is that, “Bossy Holds Girls Back,” by associating girls’ or women’s leadership with unlikeable qualities. Instead of being called “bossy,” Sandberg argues, she or any other girl or woman should be praised for her “leadership qualities.”
Maintaining a carefully calibrated not-too-soft-not-too-harsh likeability is one of Sandberg’s principles of women’s career advancement in “Lean In,” so the extension of this argument via #BanBossy might be that one needs to eliminate any words that dim the likeability (and thus effectiveness) of women in the workplace or other contexts. As someone who is passionate about minimizing the use of oppressive language, I don’t at all doubt that the word “bossy” has been personally problematic and harmful for Sandberg and for many other women at work or elsewhere; none of these women should have to consent to being called something that oppresses them.
However, I do question, first, the prioritizing of non-“bossy” likeability as an ideal of women’s leadership. To me, this seems only more concern with how male leadership views us and demands that we behave—as “softer,” less “threatening” versions of ourselves, presumably so that we do not pose too much of a challenge to their authority and are thus allowed to continue working with them, though not equaling them. I cannot speak for other women on this, but continued focus on likeability relative to men does not make me feel or be freer and more powerful, so I must reject that.
Secondly, and most importantly, though, I question Sandberg’s imperative stance as a profoundly privileged woman towards all other women—her insistence that we follow her lead in banning “bossy,” without regard for how we as individuals with varying, intersecting privilege and marginalization might live, think or feel, including what our particular experiences, associations or desires might be regarding this word.
As someone who uses Twitter daily as a tool for feminist and disability activism, I noticed that soon after the announcement of #BanBossy, many were responding negatively to both its explicit and implicit messages. Many (though it’s important to note, not all) Black women took issue with it because, although they agreed that “bossy” was a simultaneously racist and sexist criticism lobbed at them and young Black girls more often than at white women and girls, they preferred to reclaim the word as a positive self-attribute, and not have anyone, particularly a white woman, tell them not to use “bossy” regarding themselves, or worse, by implication, tell them not to be “bossy.”
In other words, a white woman charging Black women to #BanBossy, to comply with a more “likeable” (less self-assertive) version not only of womanhood, but of Black womanhood, reads as a white woman re-establishing her dominance over Black women. There are also parallels here to my earlier exploration of #BanBossy as a less “threatening,” thus less equal women’s leadership model; in this case, #BanBossy becomes a less “threatening,” thus less equal Black women’s leadership model, though even less equal than and so also less threatening to white women’s leadership. The former is sexist, while the latter intersects both racism and sexism.
As a feminist disability rights activist, I also disliked the wording of #BanBossy, which sounded to me too much like “Ban the Bossy [People].” In my part of the social justice world, disabled people sometimes hear that we sound too angry or too demanding when we are advocating for basic human rights such as education, accessibility, or healthcare. And yet, when we ask quietly and obsequiously for our rights, they are most definitely not granted, so “bossy” is clearly not the problem; continued disregard for people’s rights is the problem.
As the mother of a disabled son and three neurotypical daughters, I do actually want them to learn, at times, to be “bossy” and spirited, to raise a bit of a ruckus when theirs or other people’s rights are not being upheld. There are times when we must indeed pull on our “Bossypants,” not distract and disempower ourselves with worry about how unseemly we will look in these “pants,” but focus instead on what ultimately we will achieve, the humanity we will realize, by reclaiming them as our own.
As more of the people I follow on Twitter weighed in on Sheryl Sandberg’s latest charge, I noticed that one of my heroes, writer and activist bell hooks had too. Dr. hooks soon followed her announcement of a “counter movement” with her own counter-hashtag, #BossyAndProud (which I recommend you all look up on Twitter), and immediately dozens of her followers were posting exuberant tweets about how individually and creatively they were reclaiming “bossy.” I hope that Ms. Sandberg and her admirers will read and consider some of these tweets, but even if not, thanks to some encouragement from bell hooks, voices that were barely audible from the margins of “Lean In” and on the #BanBossy website, were very much at the center here, loud, proud and bossy.
Heather Ure Dunagan (Utah & Jesus 1995) is a writer, volunteer and mother of four living in Redmond, Washington.