Why We Need to #BanBossy. For Real.

Have you heard about the #BanBossy campaign? states that “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.” They go on to cite statistics: Girls' self esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys between elementary school and high school (justifying my belief that middle school is truly the armpit of existence); the fact that girls are twice as worried about boys that taking on leadership positions will make them seem “bossy”; and the startling statistic that girls are called on less and interrupted more in class.

This seems like common sense to me. Really, the only thing that has surprised me about any of this is how much ambivalence or downright hostility I've seen toward this campaign. Yes, I know, some girls (and boys) truly are bossy, and need to learn better people skills. “Leader” shouldn't be synonymous with “domineering control freak,” whatever the gender. As the mother of four boys, I am well aware that young men are struggling in our society, and that girls are beginning to outstrip them in many areas. But achievement isn't a zero-sum game, and the solution is to help both genders work and learn better. Still, I have a hard time understanding how anyone who has seen the way so many girls try to shrink themselves, literally and figuratively, during their tween and teen years don't understand the need for this sort of campaign. The self-deprecation (“I'm so fat”) and affected speech (using a high-pitched baby voice and ending on a perpetual upswing, like every thought, comment, and suggestion is a question) are cultural norms girls tend to learn and adopt as they near puberty, and I'm sure I'm not the only girl whose inexplicable shame and embarrassment over her changing body (and middle school boys' comments about it) has made her want to disappear. Girls need to speak up, and adults need to be committed to drawing them out, not shutting them up.

This problem isn't limited to girls, either. My husband has repeatedly taken me to task for focusing my gaze on him when I am in a roomful of men, like I can't hold my own and need him to mediate my words for me. When I sense that I am with people who are uncertain about the idea of women in church leadership, I tend to become very quiet, sweet and accommodating, and (true confession) I've dressed in more girly clothes and swept pink makeup over my usually bare face. I'm not scary or intimidating, see? And oh, the voice! The first time I preached, I could barely get my voice above a whisper. I didn't WANT to get my voice above a whisper, because maybe, if I spoke very softly, in a submissive tone, the people who didn't think a woman should be behind the pulpit would be less upset with me. I didn't want anyone to think I was being–gulp–bossy, or claiming an authority they didn't think I should have. No, just me here, quiet, gentle Jenny, with my whispery voice and peony pink lip gloss. Please don't be mad at me. Please don't think I'm bossy.

All, I STILL have to remind myself not to whisper when I speak. I still have to remind myself to stand up to my full five feet ten inches (I was SO uncomfortable with my height when I was younger–girls are supposed to be small and delicate, right?) and use the full voice God gave me to communicate the insights I have gained from walking with Jesus, studying God's word, and investing thousands of hours and dollars into a theological education. Do you know what I am really trying to do when I preach in a soft tone, when I dress in girly pastels, when I have a hard time meeting people's gaze after preaching? I am trying to–brace yourself–apologize for being female.

Okay, that was way more honest than I planned on being in this post. But there it is.

I'm confident in what I have to say. I'm confident in my calling. I'm confident in both my right and responsibility to speak to God's people, confident that I have important truths to teach and to preach. But I'm petrified of people thinking I'm “bossy,” that I think too highly of myself and am overstepping my bounds. I don't want the relational fallout, and so my temptation is to make myself quiet and small, to shrink, to speak in giggly, self-deprecating tones or else remain silent. Even when I know that the people I am speaking too will be better served by my standing up straight and preaching God's Word with power.

I'm afraid, because I'm female. And women who step into their authority and speak with sobriety and confidence are often called much worse than “bossy.”

And we wonder where the girls learn it from.

So, friends, I am all about “banning bossy,” not only from my speech but from my psyche. Are you with me?

11 Responses to Why We Need to #BanBossy. For Real.

  1. Eric KH March 18, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. When I was in high school, I noticed this leader vs. bossy dichotomy very clearly. I was a drum major, making me the de facto student leader of the band. In the two years I had this position I had three female co-drum majors. When I gave an order or suggestion to a band member, I rarely had anyone talk back to me or complain openly about me, and I am not by nature an authoritative person or natural leader. However, band member constantly disrespected the female leaders, actively defying them, undermining them, and regularly complaining that they were bossy or calling them much worse than that. They were just doing their jobs and weren’t doing them any differently than I did. I believe in at least one case (perhaps in all of them) it had a profound negative effect. As a teacher, I have seen this play out in the professional world countless times, but I think I was more deeply affected by seeing it so blatantly at a young age. It is very destructive and really does need to stop.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong March 26, 2014 at 11:37 am #

      Thanks Erik. I think the sort of thing you described, the way kids are treated in school, is a huge part of all this. We police each other’s behavior in such an unhealthy way, especially during adolescence, it seems. Although we do it as adults too. Maybe we just don’t take it to heart as much when we are older.

  2. thatmom March 18, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Jenny, such good counsel here.

    I struggled with this same thing years ago when I first represented our local crisis pregnancy center in various churches. Most of them were very conservative and were not used to having any women speak from behind the pulpit. (Neither was I!) I joined Toastmasters where the club members were clueless about all the gender stuff that is in the evangelical culture and it made all the difference for me! To them I was just a speaker and they honed any natural gifts I have and over the years have really helped me be assertive and confident with my message without feeling bossy. Oh, yeah, I have had a few patriarchal men and women try to lay this sort of guilt trip on me but I have eliminated them from my evaluation pool! I often wonder if anyone thought the Marys were bossy when they proclaimed the most important message in the history of the world to a group of men…He is Alive!!!!

  3. fiddlrts March 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    Definitely with you. I love strong women who use a strong voice. (Squeaky voices are like nails on a chalkboard to me.) Count me among the growing number of men who find strong female leaders inspiring rather than threatening.

  4. Virginia Knowles March 18, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Several years ago, I wrote a firm but friendly email to a man in our church who had really crossed boundaries with his disrespect toward me in a Bible study. A family member who found out about this was horrified and furious at me. Apparently I was supposed to have my husband deal with the problem for me? What would I do next? Correct the pastors, too? (Yes, it eventually got to that before we finally left the church over multiple issues.) All told, though, the man apologized and took my words to heart. I have been told he has changed much since then. :-)

    Two of my related articles – one about women speaking up and the other about authentic leadership…

    Women’s Voices Rising

    If You Expect Real Respect

    • Dani March 24, 2014 at 7:51 am #

      Wow, Virginia! I really like what you wrote about respect! Just last night I was talking with my husband and trying to flesh out the difference between different forms of respect–treating people with basic dignity, respecting someone’s authority, and truly admiring or respecting someone. You put my thoughts into words!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong March 26, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      It is interesting–we are so afraid of stepping on people’s toes, but honesty and respect are such a crucial part of building healthy relationships. I’m looking forward to reading your posts!

  5. Elena August 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    Well said. I am one of those “girls” who learned to be comfortable with myself, even before getting married. I and my husband were ok with “me”, but the traditional “know your place” folk around us, found it hard to accept me as a person.

    So, it was time to forge new friendships and attract people who were ok with me being me. Sadly, living in a country that calls itself progressive, I find that women are still viewed as second class citizens and servants. No wonder that the women who are in the world, do not want to come to churches where such sexism is still embraced.

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