Should We Ban Bossy?

My (firstborn) sister, left, and me.

My sister and me in 1968. She, the firstborn, was not bossy. I was. Think I was pushing that snack on that poor calf?

A year (two? three?) ago, I wrote an article for called How Birth Order Affects Your Relationships. That piece was picked up by MSN recently, and suddenly received a flutter of attention. What happened in the intervening years that suddenly got this article — which, let’s face it, and apologies to my editor, wasn’t meant to change the world, after all — a lot of eyeballs?

Sheryl Sandberg happened, that’s what.

Shortly after her book Lean In was published, Sandberg launched a campaign to ban the word “bossy” as it’s used to describe little girls. You know the argument: Why is a demanding, opinionated, take-charge little boy trumpeted as a once and future leader, while his equally demanding, opinionated, take-charge sister might be given the scarlet B for bossy?

The ban-bossy folks are right, in this sense: words matter. One would expect me, a writer, to stand behind that. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me? Pshaw. Words have the ultimate power in my book. Then again, is bossy something we should be getting in a swirl of activism about, or should we, collectively, be frying much larger fish, such as agitating for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (which, unfortunately, was voted down by Congress just last week)?

I know what some of you are thinking: Can’t we do both?

Sure, we can. You bet we can, and we should. But is part of what we should do to accomplish those aims be to send nasty emails and Tweets to the writer of a fluff piece in an online woman’s magazine? One Twitter commenter, early on, engaged in a discussion with me briefly (after calling me out for my sexist language) when I told her more or less what I wrote above: That I do agree that words are powerful and should be wielded with care. But I also tried to get across to her that I wrote that article a long while ago and can’t recall if that was my phrase or my editor’s, not to shift blame but to point out, as gently as I could, that this wasn’t an opinion piece, a personal diatribe that reveals my true feelings about the relative merits of firstborn boys or girls. It was a bullet-pointed service article.

But today a personal attack came into my email inbox, calling me a “stupid, stupid sow” for writing what I did. This commenter said she hoped I “suffered the wrath of the millions of women [I’ve] ignorantly offended.” Apparently I live in my mommy-blogger bubble and should, let’s see… crawl back to the 1940s hole I came out of.

Hmm. Words, they are powerful, yes?

I’m the mother of boys who, I know, would be smiled upon if they took charge and confidently expressed their opinions. (As it happens, my little guy is rather opinionated, which I love deep down even as I sigh in frustration at his “Mom. This is just my opinion. I’m allowed to have an opinion.”) Bossy, however, does have negative connotations, if it’s used to refer to someone who can’t get along with his friends. There’s being bossy = being a leader, and being bossy = being an autocrat. I used the word “confidently” above, and it occurs to me that therein lies the difference. If my kids (or yours) loudly or insistently or without listening expressed their opinions, well, that’s not very nice. But confidently? That’s admirable. The question is, which do we assign the adjective “bossy” to?

But I remain confused about two things:

1. Are we trying to ban bossy from the language, or would we prefer to reframe it as a good thing when girls do it? Or to call take-charge boys bossy, too? As one firstborn female friend of mine wrote to me: “I sanction your use of the word ‘bossy.’ I have reclaimed that word as a positive thing, and I have no issue whatsoever with being bossy — as a child and an adult.” I, too, was a bossy kid (though I’m not a firstborn). I can’t recall anyone calling me bossy, however. I really only remember being expected to be polite, especially to my elders, but I was never asked to turn off my talk-a-blue-streak switch or reverse or tone down my opinions. (My family probably were happy I channeled my brand of bossy into writing, now that I think of it.)

2. Is it okay, would it be okay with Sheryl Sandburg, to call another woman a stupid, stupid sow? You can bet if my son called someone something so insulting he’d be bossed right up to his room to contemplate his newly electronics-free life for a while, and same goes for my imaginary daughter.

I deeply wanted a daughter, a longing I’m never quite over. What’s interesting is that I wanted her to be, like I was, talkative and opinionated, focused. And (ask my mom) stubborn as a mule.

But not a sow.