© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Plan Bossy Instead Of Ban Bossy?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we're going to head into the Beauty Shop. That's what we call our conversations with a panel of women commentators and journalists. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author of, "...and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man." Keli Goff is back with us. She's a columnist for theroot.com and The Daily Beast. Bridget Johnson is back with us. She's the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media, that's a conservative-libertarian news and commentary site. And new to this shop, but not to NPR is my colleague, Michele Norris. She is a special correspondent for NPR and curator and founder of The Race Card Project. Welcome, everybody. Thank you for joining us.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Great to be here.

KELI GOFF: It's great to be here.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.


MARTIN: So let's start where the previous conversation left off and talk about Sheryl Sandberg's campaign to ban the word bossy when referring to girls. Sandberg says that she wants to change perceptions about assertive girls. And women like Condoleezza Rice, the fashion designer, Diane von Furstenberg and even Beyonce, have endorsed the idea.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Let's ban bossy.

BEYONCE: Be brave. Be you. I'm not bossy. I'm the boss.

MARTIN: Well, we just heard from Margaret Talbot of The New Yorker. She wrote about this - not everybody is jumping on the Ban Bossy bandwagon so we wanted to get a few more ideas about this from this distinguished panel, and you can tell us whether you're bossy or not. So Connie Schultz, let me start with you. You wrote about this for Parade magazine. What's your take?

SCHULTZ: Well, I did because I'm the oldest of four, and I was raised to be in charge of my siblings, so bossy was a positive job review in our family. But I did also quote Lucille Clifton, the poet - the late poet, who said, what they call you is one thing, what you answer to is something else, which I think goes to the heart of this campaign. I'm not as concerned about what women are called. I mean, I've been called far worse than bossy 'cause I'm a female columnist, right? But it is important that you not let it get in your head. You know, figuring out who we are is an inside job. It has to be. And I think that probably is the bigger point. I certainly can hear the pushback, which I wasn't exactly expecting, but it's making sense as I hear it.

MARTIN: So Keli Goff, you also wrote about this. You wrote this for The Daily Beast. Can I just quote just a couple lines?

GOFF: Sure.

MARTIN: When I look at the laundry list of obstacles that women face, particularly those of us who do not come from privileged backgrounds, being called bossy doesn't rank in the top 20. And as - you're kind of co-signing Connie here - for the record, I've been called much, much worse, any female blogger or television pundit has. But I actually credit the fact that I was called bossy, talkative and mouthy regularly as a child and had parents who encouraged me to embrace such labels to playing a key role in the fact that I'm rarely offended by the names I get called when I write a column that someone hates today. So pick it up from there.

GOFF: Well, yeah. It's funny because. as you and a lot of people know 'cause I talk about her so much, my mom is sort of my final editor in that I always sort of run column ideas by her. And when I told her I was planning to write about this, she said, well, I get called bossy all the time. I just always took it as a compliment. And that I think sort of speaks to how I was raised and why I sort of don't relate to the fact that this is the most lethal, deadly, harmful thing that a girl can be called.

I also, though - I want to say that, going back to the larger issue really that I had with this whole campaign, it sort of reminds me, Michel, as a New York voter, if someone were to say to me, what do you think are the most important issues facing New York? I'd say either the housing crisis, education crisis, economic inequality. And if someone said to me, well, what about picking up after your pets? Don't you think that's a big issue, littering and people picking up after their pets? I'd say, well, sure. But if they said, is that what you want the mayor focusing on, I'd probably say not really. And that's what this sort of feels like to me. Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most influential women on the planet, not just our country, but on the planet. And when I think of all the obstacles facing women and girls in this country, it's a bummer to me that this is sort of the one that she picked up as, like, the defining issue when particularly, for low-income girls, that's definitely not the case.

MARTIN: Michele Norris, a lot of women of color who are writing about this have said the word bossy can be a badge of honor for black and brown girls, just like Keli just said. So what are your thoughts about this? And also, if people on your Race Card Project are weighing in on this, too, I'd be interested.

NORRIS: You know, people talk about perceptions of women, sometimes, and how certain words are attached to a woman, like bossy, or the word shrill, which is never really attached to a man. But when I think about this, much like Keli and Connie, I think about the women that I was raised by and how they were bossy. And they owned it. It was a badge of honor for them, and they pass that, I think, onto their daughters and the women in my family. I mean, Sheryl Sandberg has done some wonderful things with "Lean In," particularly speaking up in boardrooms where women are so grossly underrepresented. But this one is curious to me because if you want young women to be bossy or to be bosses, they have to be willing to be bossy, and maybe instead of Ban Bossy, it should be Plan Bossy.


MARTIN: Right on.

NORRIS: If you want to be in a leadership role, you know, you have to use a full palette of leadership skills, and sometimes that calls for grace and sometimes it calls for grit, sometimes a high hand, sometimes a light touch. But trust me, if you want to be the boss, there's going to be a moment where you will have to be bossy.

MARTIN: Are you seeing any racial difference in - center of gravity on this? Sometimes there are. I mean, I've heard from a lot of women of color who say I wish bossy was the worst thing that I've have ever been called, I wish. Whereas, other people are saying that they do feel that, particularly for very young girls, this can really be a crushing thing, and we should take it seriously. Are you seeing any center of gravity...

NORRIS: Well, you know...

MARTIN: ... Around this that has a kind of a racially different feel?

NORRIS: If it's - I think it's cultural, perhaps, that in some places there's an expectation that if you are going to be heard, if you are going to be respected, if you are going to be embraced, you have to speak up because you're not necessarily going to be called on. And so there are young women who are encouraged or who are applauded for speaking up because that's accepted. And Sheryl Sandberg writes about her own experience. She cringes when she thinks about the little bossy girl she used to be, and that's perhaps maybe because it wasn't encouraged in the circle that she grew up in, that someone was maybe looking at her and saying, you don't want to be that bossy. It's my experience that a lot of women grow up in communities where they are expected to amplify their voice, if not necessarily to talk loudly, but to make sure that their presence is felt because otherwise, they might be ignored. Invisible is a word that comes up a lot in The Race Card Project.

GOFF: Michel?

MARTIN: Let me - let's get...


MARTIN: ...Bridget Johnson in this and then we can hear again from you. Bridget Johnson, what are your thoughts about this?

JOHNSON: Well, I really like Keli's piece that actions speak louder than words in this. I can relate to Connie's piece about getting steamrolled in the newsroom if you're not assertive enough, you know, I think back to my first supervisory position, Newsroom - it was when I was 24. And so I was supposed to be telling guys, you know, twice my age what to do, and that didn't go over well. And at first, you know, I was sort of of the mind, let's sort of smooth things out, but then at a point you get to, you know, OK, I'm tired of this.

We have a paper to get out. Cut the attitude, you know, no drama. Let's move on. So I think that it can be a disservice to girls moving up the career ladder if they're not taught some sort of decorum about assertiveness. You think of, like, you know, resumes that might come on your desk where the cover letter just oozes the bossy gene, instead of just applying this assertiveness at the time correct time, and you think, this is a person who, you know, I like an aggressive reporter but not one who's going to fight me on, you know, taking direction every single step of the way.

MARTIN: But that's not - is that male or female? Is that a particular problem with male or female resumes?

JOHNSON: I've seen both.

MARTIN: Seen both?


MARTIN: Right, right. Can I throw one other idea out here? I tell you, the thing that was - I was struggling to figure out what is it that bothers me? You know, you've identified a lot of the things that I was thinking about. But part of what bothers me, well, three things bother me. One is, you know, if this is yet another thing that's going to get kids sent to the principal's office, I know who's going to get sent to the principal's office more often - and it's going to be that black and brown boy, thing one. The other thing that bothers me about it is it implies that the male model of leadership is the one that we're supposed to aspire to, right? That's the part I don't - so maybe men could stand to be less bossy or less jerky or maybe they could stand to learn from things that are traditionally associated with female styles of leadership, which is an appreciation for collaboration and respect. So that's part of what annoys me about it. I can't remember the third at the moment. So Keli, why don't you tell me...

GOFF: Well, no, but I was going to...

MARTIN: ...What else is on your mind.

GOFF: But I was going to jump in, too, and say that I thought...


GOFF: ...Speaking back earlier to the question you asked Margaret about why is this the campaign that everyone's jumping on, and I think part of it is because it seems like the most innocuous sounding, right, that politically speaking, it's like the most - the least dangerous form of sort of, kind of tiptoeing around feminism, right, to say, I want to empower girls and women. It's not exactly a feminist movement, but we're going to ban bossy, and I think that that perhaps was sort of Sheryl's goal, like, how can I look like I'm doing something without doing something that actually does so much that it's controversial. And I think that that's also what's frustrating, right, 'cause she has this amazing - this amazing platform, and it's just like I said, it's a little bit of a disappointment to see it.

But the last thing I wanted to say, too, Michel, is I do think that in addition to culture, there's a real class element here that we're sort of dancing around, in that, in the black community, a lot of women have been heads of households for generations. And so this idea that we have to struggle to find our voice as leaders is a little silly to us. And the fact that that would be our biggest problem is even sillier, and so that's kind of the bit of a disconnect. As I referenced in my piece, you know, they're coaching women at Harvard Business School on how to raise their hands. I wish that was my biggest problem in my life when I was trying to figure out how to finance my education. I wish that was my biggest concern.

MARTIN: What you said about that - you said this in your piece, and I think, you know, why don't we just say what you said, which is, you said, look, if Sheryl Sandberg really wants to impact gender equality, here's a novel idea, write a check. Actually, don't write one or two or three or four. How about putting a post on Facebook asking every single bossy girl who has the grades and ambition to go to college, but isn't sure she can afford it, to message you and then offer to pay for her to go with no loans, particularly if she's pursuing a STEM field. So, you know, so what you're saying is, yeah, let's put some - lets do more than talk. Connie, you had one more thought?

SCHULTZ: What this reminds me of is the other B-word that I won't say, of course, but that we've probably, I suspect all of us if we've been in leadership roles, have been called it on occasion. And it reminds me of my favorite T-shirt, I still own it. It is so threadbare, and it said, simply, That's Ms. B to You.


SCHULTZ: And it was such a wonderful thing to wear until my children could read.

MARTIN: But guess what? Ours could read, too. If you're just joining us, we're in the Beauty Shop. We're catching up on this week's buzzy topics with NPR's Michele Norris, commentators Keli Goff, Connie Schultz and Bridget Johnson. Moving on, I wanted to ask you all about this new documentary called, "Anita" that focuses on Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him in two different positions.

And she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at Thomas' confirmation hearing back in 1991. And this is something that sparked a huge debate about sexual harassment, and it was just top of the news for a minute there. And now it's interesting that it's, you know, we've come full circle. I mean, I remember covering this. I remember the phone call that I got at home from a source telling me that something was happening with this confirmation hearing that was supposed to just kind of sail right through and then - so I wanted to ask - Michele, maybe you want to start this off - did this change the conversation around these issues?

NORRIS: Oh, it changed the conversation in so many ways. I mean, I remember in 1991 that there were a lot of women who were concerned that it would make it harder for women who had experienced sexual harassment to step out of the shadows. They thought it would have a chilling effect. And in fact...


NORRIS: ...Well, that because she was placed, you know, remember the picture - she was sitting at this table facing this phalanx of senators all by herself, that women would think at that and think, how will I ever raise my hand if this is what I might be subjected to? And exactly the opposite happened. I mean, at the EEOC, where Clarence Thomas once worked, the number of sexual harassment claims doubled. Women stepped out of the shadows. Women started talking about it, and laws changed and companies changed. I mean, most of us now, if you work for a corporation, you probably have to go through mandatory sexual harassment training to indemnify the company. The mandatory training that you have to go through, that is a direct result of the conversations that changed. So it changed in lots of different ways. It changed in a personal way. It changed in sort of small, private spaces. But it also changed in the chambers of, you know, where laws are made, and it also changed in the corporate structure. It had a wide ranging effect.

MARTIN: Keli, though, it's interesting, though, I also remember even at the time a kind of a - I don't remember - was it a racial divide or was it a gender divide among African-Americans? I'm not even sure that's even accurate. I know that there was just a lot of really intense debate around whether she was undermining him, whether it was - she was being disloyal, whether she should have kept her mouth shut even if it was true. I don't know. What are your thoughts about this now?

GOFF: Well, I think that it's - I'm not going to say my age, but I don't remember it that well through the eyes of when I was much younger. But here's what I do know, echoing what Michele said, it's completely changed the landscape for women of my generation because I know for a fact that if something was done to my mother, there was not the recourse that those of my generation feel exist, right? And that is a direct result of Anita Hill. The fact that Bob Packwood was sent packing from the Senate, that's a direct result of Anita Hill. So for me, she's a shero because she re-wrote the rules for those of us who are now in the workplace, and I tip my hat to her for that. What I kind of think about, though, and this is a little esoteric, is I do wonder how differently things would've played out in the age of social media and in the age of email, right? Like, how...

NORRIS: That's an interesting observation.

GOFF: ...Because she was so discredited at that time, and yet so much of it was later proved to at least be substantiated, not, you know, whether or not all the allegations, but much of it was this substantiated. We know the bizarre phone call later from Justice Thomas' wife, but I just really wonder how different things would've been had, you know, sort of some of the paper trail and documentation we have today existed.

MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think about this? I know that - I know that conservatives still see a double standard in the way that these kinds of accusations are handled, and I just wonder if you feel that way, too? They feel that, you know, liberals get a pass by and large, although I don't know that you can say that Bill Clinton got a pass. But they think - some people think he did, and they feel that conservatives come in for a sort of particular scrutiny on these issues. What are your thoughts about it?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Anthony Weiner didn't get a pass. But, you know...

GOFF: ...I think he did.

JOHNSON: I was in high school at the time of the hearing, you know, all I remember was the sensational aspect of it. I remember pubic hairs on Coke cans and how we'd laugh about that in my history class. And - but, I think that one of the lessons that needs to come out of looking back on those hearings for girls, for women who at some point want to come forward with a sexual harassment allegation, is to just bear in mind that this is not necessarily indicative of what happens to you in a judicial setting. This was a congressional committee with none of those rules, you know, regarding evidence and witnesses, and there was politics seeping from every single corner. And another lesson is keep every bit of evidence that you can so that you do have a paper trail and it doesn't turn into a he said she said.

MARTIN: Important point. OK. Connie Shultz, what about you?

SCHULTZ: I can't overstate the personal impact it had on me. I will say my age, I'm 56. I'm a year younger, almost to the day, than Anita Hill. And I was a stay-at-home mom working as a freelancer in a very difficult marriage, scared out of my mind about what would come next, heading two years later into a male-dominated newsroom. Watching this young African-American women, and I do think her race was so important, and that when you look at, just look at the images even in the trailer, of this panel of mostly older, well, all men, white males, most of them much older, you know, staring down at her and watching her hold her own through this was so inspiring to me.

And, you know, I think most of us could name a few women we've looked at over the years when we were having those moments, can we do this? Can we step out of this, whatever mess we're in. Watching her, I'm inspired all over again watching her, even in the trailer, and I'll probably be writing about the documentary. I think she's - what saddens me is the beginning of that trailer and all those young women who have never heard of her.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. I mean, they will now. They will now...


MARTIN: ...And I'll be interested what your daughters - once the movie comes out, the film - what your daughters think of it. Michele, final thought from you, just 10 seconds?

NORRIS: Well, I was thinking about daughters, and one of the things that struck me in the film is she talked about the impact of how many daughters tapped on the shoulder of their fathers and said, I have had a similar experience or I'm worried about this, and that had an impact on what actually happened following that testimony.

MARTIN: Or how many women tapped on the shoulders of their bosses to say, oh, by the way, I've had this experience, and you don't know about it and let me tell you. Keli Goff is a columnist for theroot.com and The Daily Beast, with us from our bureau in New York. Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Bridget Johnson is Washington, D.C. editor from PJ Media. She and Michele Norris, special correspondent for NPR, curator and founder of The Race Card Project, both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

NORRIS: Thanks, Michel.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.