Who’s the Boss?

Photography by Libby Williams

By Kinsey Gidick

I can’t stand the term “girl boss.” “Lady boss” is just as insufferable. “How about just boss?!” I’d shudder when anyone so much as whispered the words in my presence while I was editor of Charleston City Paper.

I know, I know, “girl boss” is derived from the book “#GirlBoss” by Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal retailer. And, yes, I know that her book was a New York Times best-seller. I know that the Washington Post called it “Lean In for misfits.” But I also know that Lena Dunham called it “more than a book . . . #GIRLBOSS is a movement.” Hard pass.

And hard pass to the notion that for a woman to be the boss of anything her title has to be preceded by the name for her prepubescent state. If that’s the idea we’re subscribing to, then by all means, let’s get our anatomy all up in there and be super specific about our boss biology. How about PregnancyStretchMarksBoss? Or OvulatingBoss? Or BreastfeedingBoss?

Too much? Fine. Let’s talk about “lady boss”. Now here’s a title with more problems than a Michael Cohen hearing. If the Oxford Dictionaries blog is to be believed, to understand the word “lady” we have to don a bodice and dive back into the Middle Ages. A lord was considered the “bread-keeper” or person “providing food for his dependents.” A lady, therefore, was the “bread-kneader,” expected to supply food for those living under her roof. Now, I don’t know about you, but as boss, I wasn’t baking my staff bread. And that might be part of the reason “lady” has undergone what academics call semantic derogation, aka a negative connotation shift.

Much like “mistress,” which, once the respectable counterpoint to mister, became the shorthand for a cheat, “lady” became infantilized and debased. As women entered the workforce in greater numbers, the word “lady” began to be applied to jobs. Ann Friedman writes in The New Republic that at this time, suddenly we get “sales lady” and “cleaning lady.” Of course feminists in the ‘60s and ‘70s objected to this use with linguistics professor Robin Lakoff writing in a 1973 academic paper, “[T]he more demeaning the job, the more the person holding it (if female, of course) is likely to be described as a lady.” And while I’ll be the first to admit I greet my friends with a “Hey, ladies!”, the demeaning sound of the term applied to my job title still rings true.

Oh, sure, some are trying to reclaim “girl boss” and “lady boss” as positives, applying them in rah-rah fashion to the “go-girl” movement. But no matter whose mouth it escapes, I hear “lady boss” tinged with a dismissive inflection. It’s like a verbal pat on the head: “Isn’t that cute, you’re a little lady boss.”

But don’t just take it from me. Look at Tina Fey. When her book “Bossypants” was released, I don’t think it was lost on any of her fans what she was saying with the title. The comedian says she chose “Bossypants” because so many people asked her, “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” “Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?” Folks, they asked a five-time Emmy Award winner if it was hard for her to be in charge? Can you imagine such a question being lobbed at the three male writers of “VEEP” who took the Emmy in 2015? Hell no.

And why should it be? The very nature of being boss is that it’s hard. Look at the requirements: Managing workers — hard. Making tough decisions — hard. Being the one who has to answer for all of the hard decisions — hard. But, BUT, being a woman is not what makes any of that hard.

And the sooner we get people to understand that, the better. Right, ladies?

Kinsey Gidick is the former editor of Charleston City Paper. She left last year to become her own boss. Read her work at kinseygidick.com.