Why is a witty though biting comment only “bitchy” when it comes from a woman? The “Ban Bossy” campaign strives to bring attention to a double standard that discourages women from pursuing leadership. Critics uncharitably ask, “isn’t it bossy to try to ban a word?” and argue that, as being bossy actually is a bad thing, we should have a word to describe such behavior. I don’t think we should ban words, but I do think we should engage with the spirit of the campaign.
Historically, the world has been run and structured by men. Only recently have women had access to the same level of education and opportunity as that half of the population which happens to be born with a Y chromosome. Furthermore, there are biological differences between men and women that would be senseless to ignore. Women tend to be smaller and shorter than men, who are additionally blessed with lower voices and more aggressive demeanors.
These are generalizations, but that is precisely the point. While justice might not be the advantage of the stronger, physical and verbal dominance play a huge role in the practical distribution of power. We are social animals, defined by the perceptions of those around us. Naturally then, in a debate over the Kingdom of Ends, the more boisterous of two debaters will be perceived as superior, even if the two are in fact intellectual equals. And since men are generally louder, larger, and have deeper voices, I do not need to tell you who loses on that battlefield.
There are a couple ways to understand this current situation. It isn’t simply that women were made slaves to the raising of children and have only been liberated in the modern age by contraception and bra-burning. There is an element of truth to that insofar as modernity, by dramatically reducing the amount of time it takes to maintain a household, has left mothers free to do more with their lives; I have no desire to churn my own butter. However, another element of the picture relates to our idea of the “natural leader.” It was a lack of opportunity, not initiative, that held women back for so many centuries. But even now, after a few decades of equal access to education, men still dominate academia and politics.
It is human to put our trust in the leader that seems most confident and capable. Recall the debate over Kant. Though the two debaters were intellectual equals, the perceived victor was the debater with the deeper, lower voice. He comes off as profound, whereas any attempt by his female rival to match his volume will reduce her voice to a shrill shriek, inviting an accusation of hysteria or being overly emotional, perhaps unable to handle the vigor of the discussion.
Another generalization for the point of clarity: The characteristics that make someone a good political leader are more masculine characteristics. Women are supposed to possess these qualities to succeed in fields that have been shaped by and historically dominated by men, but then are viewed negatively when they do. Some women have lower voices and are more aggressive, more masculine. It should not be surprising that they are more likely to become leaders. Of course, there are different types of leadership. Our culture is overly focused on leadership as its own end and less focused on what leaders actually accomplish. But there do seem to be qualities more conducive to leadership in politics and business, and being demure is not one of them.
It isn’t because they are masculine but because these characteristics that happen to be more common among men are more conducive to being a profound leader. It is similarly unlikely that a small, mousy man with a squeaky voice will be the next president of the United States. We’ve been conditioned by society to see certain behavior as acceptable from men and other behavior as acceptable from women; and while these generalizations are probably informed by physical characteristics, not everyone fits so neatly into the categories of masculine and feminine. For all its humor, there is some truth to the idea that gender is a spectrum. There is a good reason why Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Claire Underwood all have short haircuts, more masculine builds, and booming lower voices. Opponents of “ban bossy” want women to be appreciated for exactly who they are, no matter how demure, diminutive, and petite they are. I agree. But people are born with a variety of characteristics, and a more aggressive woman who is interested in politics should not have to suffer being called “bossy” for displaying the same behavior that would earn a male praise for good leadership.
It’s a fair point that the assertive boys in an elementary school classroom are more frequently the ones sent to the principal’s office. But Ban Bossy focuses on language that develops mostly in middle school and then continues to influence girls’ relationships to leadership through high school and beyond. The core principle of the campaign is that, as being loud and aggressive are qualities necessary for leadership, women should not be criticized for having them (or cultivating/acquiring them). The power structures of our society depend on these traits and, as such, women have to be more “masculine” to be leaders in most professions. This is not to say everyone wants to take these roles in their communities, or that everyone should. But if I intentionally lower my voice (a common practice among almost all female newscasters, broadcasters, show hosts) so that you might actually listen to what I am arguing, forgive me, and listen. If I have cultivated personal and organizational skills and can achieve the same results as the next in line, it should not matter that I am a woman. Some women are good leaders; they might just have something to contribute.
Ban Bossy is not about banning a word as much as highlighting the double standard to which our society holds men and women. I don’t want affirmative action to put women in positions of leadership; there are probably fewer women that would make good leaders than there are men, and it would accordingly be detrimental to artificially balance the number of male and female congresswomen. But if the occasional profound leader happens to be female, she shouldn’t be labeled with an adjective that connotes overstepping the limits of her sex.
Cultivate principled and profound leaders, women and men, but ban bossy.