Sexism, it happens early

For the first time in her life, my 19-months old daughter has been called "bossy" by a woman we just met in a restaurant. This is what I would have wanted to be able to answer to her if I didn't mind the awkwardness after.

Dear madam,

I don't know you and you don't know me, but please bear with me for an instant while I reflect on what you just said to my daughter. Yes, you lent one of the toy cars you brought along with your twin two-years old sons to my daughter and believe me, I'm grateful for that. But nothing, including her reaching for another car one of your sons was playing with, warranted the use of "bossy" to describe her.

My problem with "bossy" is that it is a loaded word. It is almost exclusively used to describe females showing initiative and leadership. It wouldn't be a problem if the word was also unequivocally negative. As in "a woman should not show such behavior". And assuming specific behavior for a specific gender is, I can't put it more mildly, sexist.

Oh, I don't think you are a more sexist being than most people. Sadly, you currently are on par for the course, but that's not a reason not to try to score a few birdies now and then, don't you think? Well, not calling my daughter "bossy" would have been a great start.

The thing is, I'm kind of sexist too. When I heard you utter the dreaded word, my immediate reaction was to excuse her behavior. I was telling myself that she was too young to have any idea of what she was doing, and she was probably trying to reach the other car your son was playing with because it was different from the one she had. And then I realized that I didn't have to excuse her behavior when it was actually yours that was reprehensible. Granted, she shouldn't reach for things that other people are holding on, but it has nothing to do with you calling her "bossy".

Let me help you there, you could have said "rude", "unfair", even "greedy" for what I know, and I wouldn't have reacted nearly as much, and I probably would have agreed with you. Because none of those words are specifically used to put down women.

With that said, please enjoy the rest of your meal and here's your toy car back, thank you.

(Thumbnail is Little Miss Bossy by Roger Hargreaves. Banner is shamelessly taken from Curiosities: A sexist kids book)

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  • When a girl a l'air cruche whereas a guy a l'air benêt is it sexism or is it an history-rich language ?

  • I'm not an expert, but I don't think it is sexism since they are equivalent, even used for their specific gender. Plus, french language has a clear distinction between genders, whereas english is way more neutral past the pronouns. Which means that any adjective can be used interchangeably between genders. Thus, when an adjective is only used to describe females, it stands out much more than it would in french.

  • Hadn't I read this article, I would have found my daughter called "bossy" amusing, but now I realize how such words could put guilt into small kids into behaving the way we want their gender to behave.
    However, maybe the woman who called your daughter this way was being ironical or whatever ? Because she's a woman herself, or maybe she's feeling a bit of frustration herself not conditioning people the way she might have been conditioned ?
    There are a lot of interpretations, this is very interesting actually.

  • Yes, she could have said it ironically. But the truth is, it doesn't really matter, the word is still used, and it is a form of conditioning through priming. The more your hear a term, whatever the meaning to use it was, the more you'll be prone to use it or to expect it from other people. The list of words she could have used instead would have worked with any initial intention, either literal or ironic.

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