• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Speaking Up

The debate over "bossy."


March 13, 2014

In math, we have symbols that give meaning to the difference between two values. If the difference between the first variable and the second is positive, we denote the first as being greater than the second with the symbol “>”. If, however the first is less than the second, we write the symbol “<” between the two values. I found myself reflecting on this when I read an article in the magazine Parade this past weekend, in which several very successful women were promoting a campaign to ban the word “Bossy." I began to wonder, just how did being bossy become a quality that is less respected in our society, especially when applied to girls?

As I read the article, I recalled a story I had heard about a young girl I know. When she was very young, her teachers decided that she might be “neurologically atypical” and should be evaluated by a neurologist. Reluctantly, her parents took their daughter to the recommended doctor for what was referred to as “testing” but what really consisted of giving the teachers and parents questionnaires about the little girl’s behavior. When the family met with the doctor, he read from the responses from the teachers. At one point, the doctor quoted from what one teacher had written, saying that the girl was bossy. As he read this, he read it as “bossssy,” by drawing out the word for emphasis. The girl’s mother glanced around the room to see several calendars and pencil holders obviously given to this doctor by drug companies, and he began to discuss the option of medicating the little girl. Her parents dug their heels in and refused. Today she is an athletic young teenager who regularly makes the honor roll. She has never been medicated.   

I mentioned the article to a woman I know who is a generation older than I am. As a young girl, she went to a Catholic High school for girls. When I told her about the article, she said that no one in her school would have ever called anyone “bossy.” That was the beauty of going to a girl’s school, she said. Speaking up was expected, and not frowned upon.

The article reminded me of the several conversations I have had with my students about the advantages of attending a women’s college. As much as I loved my college, I tell them stories of sometimes feeling like a second-class citizen at a college that had been all male until only nine years before I arrived. While women were certainly welcome and a growing segment of the student population, there was always a sense that the college remembered clearly the days when not long before it had been exclusively male. My students are shocked to hear stories of male privilege in regards to access to special seminars taught by the college president or even scholarships that were directed at those considering careers in the Catholic priesthood, a career path closed to the rest of us. Come to think of it, we never even called ourselves “women” but still referred to ourselves as “girls,” even on the eve of our graduation, when most of us had promises of jobs or places in graduate school. That is one reason why I am careful to always refer to my students as women, which correctly reflects the stage in life where they find themselves.

And as I think of the campaign to end the word “bossy,” I also think of the tag line for Ursuline College, the last women’s college in Ohio (and one of only sixty left in the country.) We claim that Ursuline is known for “Values, Voice and Vision.” Note that the idea of “voice” is central to this claim.

Do any readers, especially those who are parents of girls, have thoughts about the use or abuse of the word “bossy”? And, perhaps, is there a way to re-claim the word as one that our daughters might someday use with pride to describe themselves?


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