Friday, March 14, 2014

Things I Wish Would End #2: The Approachable Feminist Movement

While perusing my favorite feminist blogs this morning over coffee, I noticed an update concerning the “Ban Bossy” campaign, a movement spearheaded by the female trifecta of Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of America Anna Maria Chavez, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As described on the website,, this campaign functions as a call for people to remove words like “bossy” from their vocabularies. Sandberg and others highlight the ways that words like these become derogatory and patronizing in their gender-specific nature, usually applied to strong women in the business world. The campaign argues that the word “bossy” is often used to undermine women of power, differentiating them from men who are simply heralded as “bosses”. The goals of this movement are twofold: creating awareness of the inequality that is facilitated through ascribing certain language to women, and empowering them to assert their authority and pursue leadership roles without facing the resulting negative stereotypes.

Sandberg is quoted as saying, in reference to the campaign, that “what hasn’t changed fast enough [in society] is our acceptance and encouragement of female leadership. That goes for all of us- parents, teachers, managers, society, everyone.” She says elsewhere in her bestselling book, Lean In, that women taking top positions in the business world will benefit the plight of women everywhere, breaking down gendered boundaries in our society and leading the way in the goal for gender equality.

By way of addressing what I see to be a rather pressing issue concerning campaigns like these, I want to begin by saying that I do not disagree with the goals laid out by Sandberg in her literature and political activism. No self-respecting feminist would disagree with the need for greater equality in the workplace, with the abolishment of derogatory, gender-specific language, or with the need for more female leadership in our world…because who runs the world according to Beyoncé? ;)

I do, however, think there could be a problem with women like Sandberg becoming the principal face of the modern feminist movement, as well as with her assertion that her place at the top is somehow bettering someone else’s place at the bottom.

Sandberg represents one kind of woman in the world, and a very specific one at that. A Harvard Business grad from an educated family, it is easy to imagine why, when she “leaned in” to her career, people stopped to listen. Women like Sandberg possess certain social caliber through background, race, and through her obviously heteronormative relationship described in her book. She was born into a place of privilege, and therefore has access to certain rights, and the luxury to be concerned about certain issues; issues like this label assigned to her in elementary school.

However, what about the rest of the world? What about the people to whom the word bossy might only scratch the surface of the derogatory language assigned to their person?

In light of the recent moves to limit reproductive options for women of this country, in light of the incredible violence enacted on individuals of non-normative sexuality around the world (see Russia), and the recent moves towards segregating spaces based on sexual orientation in places like Kansas and Arizona, is “banning bossy” really the issue behind which Sandberg and others should be throwing their highly influential voices?

Or, should we instead be focusing on the larger, more pressing ways that our world today is continuously devaluing certain bodies? Should we not be working to develop concrete ways to decrease prejudice-based violence in any form it comes, rather than constructing another sterile political movement the elite can support without any controversy?

The problem with campaigns like “Ban Bossy” is that they function solely as public cheer leading events that are devoid of real, concrete solutions to make the world a better place. They represent an approachable form of the feminist movement that is a dilution of what the movement should be- an exclusive rather than inclusive conversation about social justice that obscures the plight of individuals outside the privileged center. The Girl Scouts of America will get behind a campaign like this one, but they won’t take a stand against abortion issues, refusing to address a more touchy political issue that is vital to the achievement of equal rights for the empowered women they claim to support. Companies like TEDWomen are similar, as they will lead the cheer leading of the accomplishments of individual women achieving great success, but they won’t touch hot political issues like reproductive justice either.

Empowerment is crucial to the greater success of women in the world. Bossiness (read assertiveness) is directly linked with self-confidence, and empowering women to refuse the devaluation of their bodies and fight to achieve their dreams despite obstacles is definitely something I support. However, empowerment is not enough. There needs to be action and change behind these feelings, and movement towards more inclusive social policies that privilege all women (not just the ones at the top), or the movement is rendered futile. 

I understand that in order to appeal to the masses, there a certain amount of pandering that must be done. However, I think it is a problem to brand the “feminist” movement with campaigns like these hip and trendy ones that refuse to cover any new ground, stating what we already know about the problems of gender in America. I understand that it is uncomfortable to talk about the more difficult issues, to dirty one’s hands by taking a stand in the face of issues that may be politically or ideologically unpopular. I know that it is easier to pretend that people around the world are not fighting for their lives simply for being different. However, we cannot let our discomfort impede our willingness to act.

The problem is not “bossy”, the problem is the systematic devaluing of women through larger social ideologies that confine women to certain spaces. The problem is class and raced based stereotypes that facilitate acts of violence without repercussion.

Let’s stop talking about “bossy”, and start discussing the issues that really matter, providing solutions that will invoke real change in the world today. Let’s expand our vision outside of our own comfort zones and acknowledge the humanity of those different than us, instead of pretending our privileged success has anything to do with their struggles. Let’s reach out a helping hand, instead of another carefully tailored political slogan. Only then will we even begin to make a difference in our shared quest for a better world.

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