Commentary Race

Banning ‘Bossy’ Won’t Help Black Women and Girls Seeking Justice

Amber J. Phillips

Sheryl Sandberg and others want to see us ban the word "bossy" when talking about girls. But for many Black women, being called "bossy" and being bossy have the potential to save and change our lives.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

Recently, Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez, and friends introduced a new campaign, called Ban Bossy, meant to encourage girls to lead by banning the use of the word when talking about girls. The campaign, announced in a Wall Street Journal article, is based on research conducted by social scientists on “how language affects society.” The research found “that even subtle messages can have a big impact on girls’ goals and aspirations. Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her,” explain Sandberg and Chávez.

Instead of just being swift in criticizing Ban Bossy, which I have been in personal conversations, I believe the introduction of this campaign presents us with the opportunity to find an intersectional approach to developing leadership skills in girls and women that could also address some of the most pressing problems facing Black women and girls, specifically issues of gender, as well as race, class, power, and privilege. Black women are often known for being or are called bossy. While it may be said in malice, we have to be bossy if it means taking charge of our lives, protecting our families, and holding down our communities.

While campaigns like Ban Bossy focus on whether or not girls and women are called bossy and how that affects their ability to lead, it’s also important to expand societal notions of leadership to include the ways that women lead outside the board room and classroom, and the ways Black women and girls are systematically inhibited or punished for doing so because our motivations are seen as misplaced anger and spitefulness.

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Black women and girls are not just faced with the fear of how we might be perceived when we raise our hands in class or ask for a major promotion at work. We fear that being assertive will threaten our quality of life. While it may just sound like strong galvanizing rhetoric, Black women are under attack, so despite our fears we know we have to be assertive and aggressive just to have a chance at fighting back. Because the systems—political, judicial, and social—are constructed in such a way that is oppressive for some groups and not for others, when a particular group, such as Black women and girls, break away from being silent or passive to take the lead through expressing justified rage while aggressively fighting to defend ourselves, we can end up facing unreasonable consequences. We saw this in the recent events surrounding CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander.

CeCe McDonald, a transgender Black woman, spent 19 months in a men’s prison after fatally stabbing a man while defending herself during a racist and transphobic attack. For CeCe McDonald, being “bossy” meant implicitly saving her own life by standing up for herself against verbal harassment and a violent attack from her perpetrators. Though this seems like the perfect example of when claiming self-defense under the law should be justified, McDonald was not granted this projection. Her bodily autonomy was further assaulted when she was forced to spend time in a men’s prison despite identifying as a woman. In an interview with Melissa Harris-Perry following her release from prison, McDonald said, “I felt like they [the prison authorities] wanted me to hate myself as a trans woman. They wanted to force me to be someone that I wasn’t. They wanted me to delegitimize myself as a trans woman, and I was not taking that. As a trans woman, as a proud Black trans woman, I was not going to allow the system to delegitimize and hyper-sexualize and take my identity away from me.”

Then there is the case of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida who now faces 60 years in prison—triple her original, repealed sentence because “the judge in the case gave improper jury instructions”—for firing a warning shot at her abusive, estranged husband. (The shot did not harm or kill anyone.) This case is particularly interesting because Alexander is seeking immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. This is the same law that allowed George Zimmerman to be acquitted for pursuing and then murdering an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. For Marissa Alexander, being “bossy” meant defending herself during an ongoing attack by only firing a warning shot in the direction of a man who has a history domestic violence toward her just to get the violence in that moment to stop. Additionally, Alexander had just given birth to a baby before the tumultuous altercation that may result in her being imprisoned for the rest of her life and the lives of her small children. In both cases, claiming self-defense/the right to stand your ground failed to be recognized as a valid defense, which is often how it is for Black women who must use force to defend their bodies against greater force.

These are two examples of what happens when Black women “lean in” to stand up for themselves but are ultimately punished for it. And they show that Black women will lead even despite highly unfavorable consequences. 

In the examples above, these women had no other choice but to be bossy, protect themselves, and demand that their lives be valued. In order to take on transphobic violence, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex’s detrimental effects on the entire Black community regardless of gender or sexuality, we have to be bossy. In order to take on Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who failed to secure murder convictions for the killers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis yet wants to lock away a domestic violence survivor for the rest of her life, we have to be bossy.

I am grateful for CeCe McDonald, Marissa Alexander, and countless other phenomenal Black women leaders and activists who are able to find their voices and strength to lead out of adverse situations. We make sacrifices to our personal lives, risk being viewed as unreasonably angry Black women, and some of us even risk our lives to fight for justice while paving the way for the girls who will follow behind us. I’d like to see the Ban Bossy campaign incorporate leadership development that meets the needs of the women and girls facing (or who will face) these issues.

Though Black women continue to be victims of patriarchy, as displayed by our criminal justice and political system’s inability to protect us, there is always hope and the possibility of actual progress. This is especially true when we take our liberation and the liberation of our communities into our own hands. While our situation is dire, we will proudly take on the bossy characteristics of being assertive and aggressive to forge ahead. Young Black women and young women of color need to be acknowledged and continuously developed as the leaders and experts in advocating on their own behalf without the fear of being seen as too emotional, violent, or angry in addition to this idea of being called “bossy.” This will help to combat the negative connotations Black women face when inserting themselves as leaders that will not undermine their goals, aspirations, or the reasons (often induced by enraging situations) for taking on leadership roles; which is overall what the Ban Bossy Campaign sets out to accomplish.

Developing girls and women to be leaders with this type of intersectional approach will give us the opportunity not only to be CEOs but also to be proactive in fighting to improve our overall quality of life in a system that has historically sought to keep us in a state of despair. We need a campaign that acknowledges that when we fight back or speak up for ourselves, even if it is out of anger, that our feelings and emotional responses are valid. Acknowledging our anger as just volatile instead of taking a moment to realize that our aggressiveness and anger is righteous and justified is silencing. Black girls and women deserve a voice especially in the decisions that impact our lives, because no one knows the issues that we, our families, and our communities face better than us.

I’m a Black woman and organizer who has turned my bossiness into a lifetime of organizing for progressive issues, developing community leaders, and writing to ensure that the voices of young people, people of color, and folks from communities of limited resources are heard. My passion for being “bossy” and being one out of countless people collectively fighting for justice comes from my lived experience as someone who holds the identities of those who often go unheard and victimized in our society. Our families and communities call on us every day to be leaders, whether we’re called bossy or not. Sure you can try to ban the word (thought I must admit, I will never give up having an occasional sing-a-long and private dance party to my favorite Kelis song). However, banning the word will do little if we aren’t also working to remove the systemic barriers in our political system, while doing the cultural work of understanding how Black girls and women exhibit leadership qualities beyond being just being accommodating and accepting.

For starters, women—specifically young women—should find every outlet possible to grow, develop, and execute our capability to lead with the ultimate goal of eradicating our social vulnerabilities. This can include applying to civic engagement leadership programs like the PolitiCorps, which focuses on training young leaders who are ready to commit themselves to working in public service full time; working with the 1 in 3 Campaign, which seeks to develop leaders and campus based student groups to destigmatize abortion by creating a new dialogue that puts people at the center of the conversation about abortion rights and access; or getting involved with Black Women For, which is a leadership development network for professional Black women ages 21 to 34 who are committed to changing the world.

There are countless organizations that are going beyond just addressing rhetoric to develop leadership skills in women and teach them how to make the change they want to see in the world through whatever medium is best for them, such as by showing them how to use their voice to express their frustration toward an oppressive system while also directing their passionate feelings to incite change and having the patience to see their work through to the end. While encouraging young women to apply to leadership development and activism programs, we must also remove the barriers of oppression that stand in their path to success.

Whether young women are bossy or have a less confrontational, more introverted approach to leadership, they are the future leaders we have been waiting for. We should tell them to harness their power, be a leader, and use their voice in order to create the type of change that will create options and equal access within our society for all people. And, we should say: Please be bossy!

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

Commentary Contraception

The Double Standard of Military Pregnancy: What Contraceptive Access Won’t Fix

Stephanie Russell-Kraft

Unique military gender politics that make it hard for some servicewomen to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

At the beginning of May, pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced that, in partnership with nonprofit Medicines360, it would begin offering its new intrauterine device (IUD) Liletta at a reduced price to military treatment facilities and veterans hospitals across the United States. The company would also support “an educational effort to raise contraception awareness among healthcare providers treating U.S. military service women,” according to its press release.

Military personnel and medical professionals agree Allergan’s initiative represents an important step toward expanding access to the IUD, which along with other long-acting reversible contraceptives (like injections) are particularly well suited to the demands of military training and deployment schedules. But this push to increase IUD use can’t be fully understood outside the context of the unique challenges and stigmas facing women of reproductive age in the U.S. military (who numbered just under 200,000 as of 2011, the latest available data obtained via FOIA by Ibis Reproductive Health).

Despite theoretically having access to a wide variety of contraceptive options, women in the military still report higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian peers, and it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly why. What is clear is that the unique military gender politics that make it hard for some women to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability, including Allergan’s, can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

Nearly every time a U.S. military branch changes policies to include more women, critics raise the old argument that allowing women into the service, particularly in combat roles, will lead to sex between soldiers and thereby distract from the mission. Because of that, the military generally prohibits sex during deployments between service members not married to each other (exact policies vary across the branches and across units, and some are less strict). Taken as a whole, the U.S. military’s policy basically amounts to an abstinence-only approach, with women shouldering nearly all of the risk and blame when soldiers do decide to have sex on deployment.

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Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq.

Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.

“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”

Across all branches of service, pregnant women are typically not allowed to serve on deployments, and, though the length of time varies by branch, women are not allowed to deploy in the six to 12 months after they give birth. According to spokespeople from each of the branches, the reasoning behind the policies is to protect servicewomen and give them the time they need to recover from birth. All of the women I spoke with for this piece told me that soldiers—both male and female—often believe a woman who gets pregnant right before or during a deployment is simply trying to avoid her work.

“The first thing someone talked about when a woman got pregnant was that she was trying to get out of a deployment,” said Lauren Zapf, a former Naval officer, mental health clinician, and fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. “Whereas if men announce that they’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of backslapping and congratulations.”

According to Ibis Reproductive Health’s analysis of Department of Defense data, about 11 percent of active-duty military women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2008 and 7 percent reported an unintended pregnancy in 2011—in both years, this was far more than the general population. Younger, less educated, nonwhite women were much more likely to become pregnant unintentionally, as were those who were married or living with a partner, according to Ibis. Contrary to military lore, the pregnancy rates did not differ between those women who had deployed and those who didn’t during that time, the study found.

It remains unclear why exactly military women have higher reported rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian counterparts, but one reason has likely been their inconsistent access to birth control and limited access to abortion services. As with most institutions, there’s a difference between official policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis on military bases and in medical exam rooms. Just because most military branches officially require routine birth control consultations doesn’t mean women will always get them, according to Ibis researcher Kate Grindlay, who is one of very few independent researchers looking into this issue.

“One of the challenges that we found [in our research] was that these things were not being done in a consistent way,” Grindlay said. “Some providers having these conversations in a routine way, some weren’t.”

Access to birth control—and the conversations that lead up to it—has improved greatly for military women in the past 20 years. Elizabeth McCormick, a former Black Hawk pilot who served in the Army from 1994 to 2001, recalled that “no one talked about birth control” in any of her pre-deployment medical events in the 1990s. By contrast, some of the women I spoke with who served more recently said they didn’t have issues getting the care they needed.

However, in a 2010 Ibis survey of deployed women, 59 percent of respondents said they hadn’t discussed contraception with a military health-care provider before deployment and 41 percent said they had difficulty obtaining the birth control refills they needed while away from home. Servicewomen also reported being denied an IUD because they had not yet had children, even though nulliparous women can use the devices.

These inconsistencies are part of the problem Allergan says it hopes to address with its education efforts for military health-care providers. The company hasn’t explicitly said what those efforts will look like.

Another part of the problem, according to former Marine Corps officer and Cobra helicopter pilot Kyleanne Hunter, might be cultural. Conversations with military medical providers likely present another major barrier to proper contraceptive care because most military doctors are not only men, but also officers, who, outside the context of a hospital exam room, can give orders that must be respected.

Young female enlisted service members who have internalized the military’s rigid power structures might be reluctant to speak honestly and openly about reproductive care, posited Hunter, who’s currently a University of Denver PhD candidate studying the national security impact of integrating women into western militaries. She said the same dynamic often prevents women from coming forward after they have been sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.

“It adds one more layer to what’s already an uncomfortable conversation,” Hunter said.

When Bethany Saros returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, after leaving Iraq for her pregnancy, a conversation with a male doctor solidified her decision to quit the Army altogether.

“I had to go through a physical, and there was a Marine doctor, and he said, ‘Was there enough room on the plane for all the pregnant ladies that came back?’” she told me, still taken aback by the incident.

Grindlay said efforts like Allergan’s to increase the use of IUDs in the military are “very beneficial” to servicewomen. She also applauded a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to require standardized clinical guidelines for contraceptive care across the armed forces. Under the new provisions, women in the armed forces must receive counseling on the “full range of methods of contraception provided by health care providers” during pre-deployment health care visits, visits during deployment, and annual physical exams.

But there’s still work to be done in order for the military to provide full access to reproductive health care, particularly when it comes to abortion. Tricare, the military’s health and insurance provider, only covers abortions “if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk,” and certain countries in which the military operates ban the procedure altogether.

In a sampling of 130 online responses for a medication abortion consultation service reviewed by Ibis in 2011, several military women reported considered using “unsafe methods” to try to terminate a pregnancy themselves, according to Grindlay. One of the women, a 23-year-old stationed in Bahrain, said she had been turned away by five clinics and had contemplated taking “drastic measures.”

According to the 2011 Ibis report, many women sought abortions so that they could continue their military tour. Others feared a pregnancy would otherwise ruin their careers.

Virginia Koday, a former Marine Corps electronics technician who left the service in 2013, said in a phone interview that women can face losing their rank or getting charged for violating military policy if they become pregnant overseas. “Getting pregnant in Afghanistan is good cause to terminate your own pregnancy without anyone finding out,” she said.

“The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood,” wrote Bethany Saros in a 2011 Salon piece about her unplanned pregnancy.

For these women, one act of unprotected sex had the potential to derail their career. For the men, it was just a night of fun.

Kyleanne Hunter said that while she doesn’t have a “whole lot of sympathy” for women who become pregnant on deployments (they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place, she argues), she disagrees with the double standard that allows the men involved to escape punishment.

“Both parties need to be held exactly to the same accountability standards,” said Hunter. “If the woman is punished, then whoever she is involved with should be punished a well, because it takes two. She’s not alone in it. There’s no immaculate conception going on there.”

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