Patriarchy wrings young women dry. It tells girls who were raised in households where men were not present that their mother’s ability to thrive in a man’s absence was not a testament to her strength but evidence of his rejection. When a mother internalizes this, her daughters are raised under a specter of spurning. Every action and word they witness is instructive: this is how to act when you are a woman and mother on your own: decisive, assertive, impatient, frustrated and curt, entirely confident and selectively cooperative. This is how to own yourself: be unapologetic; accept that it may mean remaining alone.
But a daughter raised this way may not immediately ascertain the appeal. She may be lured instead by the promise of men’s presence, by the challenge attendant to compelling them to stay. And she may act in all ways opposite her mother’s example to curry their favor.Learn to cook, she might note, not what you love but what he will eat. Learn to let a last male word — even (and perhaps especially) a foolish one — linger in the air. If it is foul, pretend not to notice its stench. Allow him its echo. The last word is a preservation of dignity. Women who shout down humiliate.
(But what of our dignity? What of our own humiliation?)
* * *
I was ten when the only man who ever lived with us moved in. He told me, early and often — whenever I wanted to be heard, whenever I seemed to be more than an ornamental fixture of a marriage he barely wanted — that I was disrespectful or ungrateful for his guidance, provision, and presence. If I said: you are wrong
; if I said: I’ve not done what you’re accusing me of
; if I said: I am not who you’ve convinced yourself I am
, he would take these words to my mother. If I brought the words to my mother first, he accused us of conspiring against him: peasants attempting to overthrow a king.
In marriage, my mother was bossed, her husband a man not given to ceding the final say. Over time, she learned to be meek. If peacekeeping meant to defer — or, as our churches taught wives, to submit — she would. But she had to contort herself to do so, had to twist like wet laundry to be left out in the wind and pretend that being limply pinned, absorbing her husband’s hot air, was a welcome aspiration.And sometimes when we were alone, in the quiet of a house for which he paid, she would tell me to throw the fight. Accept the charge. Nod at the accusation. You know who you are. It does not matter what he calls you. It’s his house. Let him win.
Bossy. Boss. Bossed. None held much appeal. None were winnable.
I was not raised in the manner of girls whose anthems and aspirations instruct them to run things. I would not know where to begin, if I were told I should govern myself as though the world were a corporation and I, its CEO.
I was raised to know who I am but to keep quiet about it.
* * *
My daughter is months away from four. Every day for the past two years, I have watched her struggle to coax words up from her consciousness — where they seem to be quite clear to her — and out through her mouth, where they often sound garbled to the naked ear. Sometimes, she wails in frustration. Sometimes, she barrels through, happily chattering as though she is fully understood. And sometimes her expression clouds because she knows, looking into the face of the listener, that she is not.
I would never have learned the importance of raising my voice if I had not watched her wrestle so with hers. Her language is swimming upstream, but she calls out over the current. I
will be heard
, is what I always hear, whether I understand the words or not.
And I would not have understood being assertive if it had not become so essential to advocate for her. Regularly, I weave in and out of meetings, in and out of conversations, where her development, her hearing, and her cognition are assessed and questioned. It becomes ever clearer that managing someone who cannot manage herself requires an absence of ego, an open ear, a willingness to give oneself over to the study of what best serves her needs and her interests. This kind of leadership hinges not on being acknowledged as a boss but as a confidante, not as a superior intellect but as a constant student. We do not become assertive by telling others what to do; we do it by informing them of what we will and will not abide.
I am an opter out of many discussions. Whether to embrace or repudiate
the term “bossy” is one of them. But I know well the damage that is done when young women and girls are not taught to speak on their own behalf. I know what fighting to own oneself looks like and how terrifying it is to watch a woman go slack under the guise of submission. I have contorted myself for men who’ve seen no need to do the same. And I’ve worked for and with difficult, yet enviably self-possessed, folks of many genders.
It is always the better lot to own yourself, to carry your voice across the current, to insist that you should and will be heard. And it is often the better lot to be gentle — not only with others, but also with yourself. Label this however you will; it is an ideal way to live.
Let every man and woman who wants power pursue it, but not at your expense. Power isn’t the ability to make others bend to your will; it is possessing sole guardianship of your will. If you would be “bossy” about anything, let it be about how you will be addressed and defined. Let it be about who cannot enter your space with the intent to tamp you down. Let it be in the stead of those who have gone limp or shrugged off their wills and thrown them at the feet of someone they love. Let it be for those who have been treated as though they are incapable of governing themselves at all.
Some of us are best off calling ourselves unbossed. Like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, we want history to remember us, not for the professional goals we accomplished or for ascending through ranks often dominated by men, but for the larger feat of holding onto ourselves in the process.