The Evolving F Word
“Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates…Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on Earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The Harvard University scholar and devout Mormon’s latter phrase was ironically intended to celebrate the unsung heroism of the ordinary–“not to lament their oppression, but to give them a history” (Ulrich). What was initially an observation of New England women, nestled within an article for the American Quarterly in the spring of 1976, has since become the championed slogan of a vast array of self-proclaimed liberty crusaders: everyone from ‘Hillary 2016’ campaign managers to Miley Cyrus twerking aficionados– from Saudi Arabian women daring to steer the wheel to Queen Bee fans relishing their sexual freedom as “single ladies.”
A historical analysis of women who defied the hegemonic tradition of their time periods upholds the validity of Ulrich’s sage axiom. With their prescient vision of gender equity, such progressives transcended socially inculcated roles that were determined by misogynists. In the process, they conceived the f-word: defined and redefined during ongoing debates between Fox News and MSNBC enthusiasts, feminism has become a polarized term, causing divisions within both red and blue factions.
History as a Vehicle to Examine Heteronormativity
In 1776, Abigail Adams advised the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” during its drafting of The Declaration of Independence. John Adams’ failure to heed his wife’s suggestion underscored the hypocrisy that typified the colonists’ vie for political emancipation from the tyrannical King George III. The keepers of democracy during the rebellion, women were coerced to remain in separate spheres of domesticity. By asserting the possibility of rebellion to enable female representation in legislation, Adams disseminated a universal cognizance among females of the dissent necessary to galvanize remembrance of their liberties. Feminism, as implied through Adams’ adage, emerged as a belief in the self-evident truth that all men and women were entitled to protection of their inalienable rights: a priori knowledge that seemed to elude our nation’s founders. What constituted these rights, however, remained (and still remains) as ambiguous as the Constitution’s role as a living, breathing document.
Hailed as the “mother of feminism”, Mary Wollstonecraft debunked the issue of women’s inherent inferiority–an inferiority that ‘justified’ the colonial government’s refusal to address women’s rights in their iconic document. Through A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Wollstonecraft introduced the concept that female superficiality and the apparent gender disparity in intelligence were results of unequal access to education and a sexualizing culture that espoused beauty over brain. Feminism, as implied through Wollstonecraft’s scathing critique, expanded into a demand for educational and cultural reform.
While both Adams and Wollstonecraft demonstrated misbehavior through their advocacy of revised gender roles in which women were companions to men rather than subservient objects, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony allowed female misbehavior to progress as a movement. The former’s convention at Seneca Falls and the latter’s lobbying for the Nineteenth Amendment initiated the First Wave of feminism: emerging from the abolitionist and temperance campaigns, the First Wave, through its demands for female suffrage, solidified the politicization of feminism, adding an absolute right to the list of inalienable rights introduced by Adams’s century-old suggestion.
Though the First Wave assumed a ‘liberal’ connotation due to President Woodrow Wilson’s (reluctant) appeal that the Senate ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave irrevocably linked feminism to the donkey and conflated the feminist lines between recognizing entitled liberties and vilifying any individual with a Y chromosome. Embodying the reproductive freedom upheld by Planned Parenthood creator, Margaret Sanger, as well as the radical self-consciousness of the anti-war and civil rights agendas, the Second Wave addressed de facto inequalities–exemplified by the pro-choice ruling in Roe v. Wade. Feminism, as implied through Betty Friedan’s concern with the “problem that has no name,” became the bastion of women seeking socio-economic autonomy and self-fulfillment through careers while maintaining their sexuality:
Our current, implicit Third Wave of feminism has transcended blatantly egregious legal discrepancies–as if defeating the patriarchy were akin to rising on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs–and arrived at an examination of high-achieving women.
To #BanBossy or #EmbraceBossiness: Our Generation’s Question
Sheryl Sandberg is essentially the child of every misbehaving woman throughout history. The Harvard College and Harvard Business School graduate, former chief of staff for the United States Secretary of Treasury, former Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, and current COO of Facebook has become the archetype for modern feminism. Sandberg recently joined forces with political and cultural icons such as Condoleezza Rice, Beyonce, and Jennifer Garner to launch the #BanBossy campaign.
“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.” -BanBossy.com
It’s true that girls are more likely to face discrimination through the designation of “bossy.” Yet it’s also true that girls have the capacity to overcome this arbitrary branding and attain the role of “boss” rather than succumb to socially-induced fears and silence themselves. As an aggressive, ambitious,“bossy” feminist who dares emulate Sandberg by inflicting cracks on the stifling glass ceiling, I wonder if #BanBossy is the wrong hashtag that is trending: a skewed axiom of the Third Wave. I wonder if we should instead #EmbraceBossiness.
To truly surpass heteronormativity and rectify the confidence gap that prevents women from attaining executive positions, we should ban the succession of “likes” used by girls in their syntax to deliberately undermine their assertions. We should ban the insecurity that causes girls to silently mouth the answer to the geometry question rather than proudly proclaim it to their teacher and classmates. We should ban the frame of mind that proliferates the disparate treatment towards educated, aspiring girls.
This banning–this reform–this empowerment– will not occur by erasing an adjective from our lexicon, but from the culmination of every girl’s actualization of Gandhi’s creed of internal progress; the Third-Wave will sustain itself through women who lean in to their ambitions and accept the challenge described by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals: change the system more than it changes ourselves.
By becoming what society deems “bossy”–confident, determined, enterprising, forceful–girls will imbue the label with a connotation of ‘assertive leader’ rather than ‘misbehaving tyrant’, just as Hester Prynne revitalized the A on her chest to mean ‘Able,’ encompassing her strength.
The #BanBossy discussion has fostered much-needed awareness of the ambition gap, signifying feminism’s evolution from Adams’s rally for external governmental remembrance to Sandberg’s firm contention for internal emancipation from the thralls of societal classification. Egalitarianism will arise once girls overcome inhibitions by choosing to embrace bossiness rather than adopt the egregious view of ‘inadequacies’ associated with their genetic coding. This nurturing of leadership facilitates transcendence of nature’s chromosomal distribution, breeding a revolution in outlook that produces a world in which fifty percent of legislators and CEO’s represent fifty percent of the global population.
The question remains whether this workplace equality will propel women to stand up for their bodies by vocalizing opposition to sexual assault, ultimately shattering the silence once ensconced by the glass ceiling and leaving mere traces of the gender dichotomy in its wake.
[Image Attribute: PixalBay]