TIME ban bossy

‘Bossy’ Women: 16 Leaders Who’ve Overcome That Label (and Worse)

3 world leaders, 2 Supreme Court Justices, 2 presidential candidates, 2 members of Congress, and a TV host, not to mention a CEO, a First Lady, and Anna Wintour

Updated: March 10, 2014

A year after the publication of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg is back with another initiative to promote female leadership. This time, the Facebook exec takes aim at the language we use to describe women and girls who take charge. Her “Ban Bossy” campaign hopes to change a culture in which men are bosses, but women are “bossy.” Along with her co-sponsors, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Ana Maria Chávez, Sandberg is asking people to stop referring to women as “bossy,” especially when they’re talking to little girls because of its negative connotations.

“When I was in junior high and running for class vice president,” Sandberg explains in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example: ‘Nobody likes a bossy girl,’ the teacher warned.” The Facebook exec and billionaire is of course not the only powerful woman to rise above that label. Here are 16 incredibly successful women, from Margaret Thatcher to Marissa Mayer, all of whom were called “bossy” at one point or another, and some of them have been called much worse (poor Angela Merkel).

  • Sonia Sotomayor

    Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Metro State University in Denver, on May 2, 2013.
    Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at Metro State University in Denver, on May 2, 2013. Brennan Linsley—AP

    One former Second Circuit clerk for a rival judge called Sotomayor “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench,” and the New York Times reported that some lawyers call her “difficult” and “nasty” in a piece titled Sotomayor’s Blunt Style Raises Issue of Temperment. RNC Chairman Michael Steele called Sotomayor “abrasive” and said the Supreme Court is “not a place for abrasive personalities.” Right, Antonin Scalia?

  • Janet Yellen

    Janet Yellen testifies before the Senate Banking Committee during a hearing on her nomination to become Chair of the Federal Reserve on Nov. 14, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
    Kris Tripplaar—SIPA USA

    When Janet Yellen was confirmed as the first woman Federal Reserve Board Chair, people wrote blog posts with titles like “Janet Yellen: the Bitch of the Fed.”

  • Madeleine Albright

    Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attends a combined naturalization and donation ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2012.
    Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attends a combined naturalization and donation ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2012. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

    Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s cousins recall her as “very bright, very bossy” when she was growing up. “As I began to climb the ladder, I had to cope with the different vocabulary used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional,) ” she said in her memoir. She also noticed how men behaved in ways that would be dismissed if they had been women. “If women leaders had acted the way Arafat and Barak did during Camp David,” she wrote, “they would have been dismissed as menopausal.”

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

    Bossy Ginsburg
    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrated her 20th anniversary on the bench in 2013. Nikki Kahn--The Washington Post/Getty Images

    When the Supreme Court justice found out that her male law school classmates had a habit of calling her “bitch,” Ginsburg said “better bitch than mouse.”

  • Hillary Clinton

    Hillary Clinton
    Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks to the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Gerald Herbert—ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Australian feminist Germaine Greer called Hillary Clinton ” bossy and cold and manipulative” during the 2008 Presidential campaign when she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination. A female supporter of the Republican nominee, John McCain, elicited chuckles from the candidate when she asked “how do we beat the bitch?” And in 2007, Glenn Beck called Hillary a “stereotypical bitch” and said that the “range in her voice” was like “fingernails on a blackboard.”

  • Geraldine Ferraro

    Bossy Ferraro
    Geraldine Ferraro, Vice-Presidential nominee, speaks at the Democratic National Convention, Juy 1984. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

    Barbara Bush once delicately declined to get catty about the late Geraldine Ferraro: “I can’t say it,” she said, “but it rhymes with ‘rich.'” In 1984, Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated for Vice President by a major political party when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate on the Democratic ticket.

  • Susan E. Rice

    Bossy Rice
    Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks at the White House in 2011 Jim Young--Reuters

    Fellow diplomats called Susan Rice “bossy” when she was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the French U.N. Ambassador even whined, “we are not the 14 dwarves, and she is not Snow White.” Other U.N. Security Council Ambassadors have called her “the bulldozer” or “the headmistress.”

  • Elizabeth Warren

    Bossy Warren
    Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in Washington D.C. in November, 2013 Alex Wong--Getty Images

    One pundit advised Senator Warren to “stop the finger wagging; it adds to her strict schoolmarm appearance and bossy manner.” After Warren said that if she didn’t create a strong consumer protection agency there would be “no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor,” GOP attack adds called her rhetoric “unnecessarily aggressive.”

  • Michelle Obama

    U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, 2014.
    U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, 2014. Charles Dharapak—AP

    The First Lady says it’s not just her opponents who’ve cast her as “bossy:” even the President says so. “This year, I have to say, the president actually put most of the ornaments on the tree because he says I’m bossy,” she said about the White House Christmas decorations, “So I just sat back and let them do it.” She says she’d like to turn the page on the idea that she’s bossy, angry, or bullying. “That’s been the image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced [his candidacy]– that I’m some angry black woman.”

  • Indira Gandhi

    Bossy Gandhi
    Indira Gandhi (1917 - 1984), Prime Minister of India. Fox Photos/Getty Images

    Richard Nixon called the Indian Prime Minister an “old witch,” and national security advisor Henry Kissinger had some nice words about their diplomatic relationship: “While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted,” he said.

    Correction: The original version of this post misspelled Indira Gandhi’s surname.

  • Angela Merkel

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Trinity College in Dublin on March 7, 2014.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Trinity College in Dublin on March 7, 2014. Kifah Ajamia—AP

    As if anything could be worse than being called the “iron frau,” former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called her an “unf**kable lard-ass.”

  • Anna Wintour

    Anna Wintour at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, on Feb. 12, 2014 in New York City.
    Anna Wintour at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, on Feb. 12, 2014 in New York City. Timur Emek—Getty Images

    In a 60 Minutes segment about the Vogue editor, Morly Safer said Anna Wintour was “a name that strikes terror in some, loathing in others, and transforms some into obsequious toadies.” Safer reminded viewers that Wintour has been “portrayed as Darth Vader in a frock,” and asked her whether she is, in fact, a bitch. “I hope not,” she said, “I try not to be. But I like people who represent the best of what they do, and if that turns you into a perfectionist, then yes, I am.”

  • Shirley Chisolm

    Bossy Chisholm
    Three-quarter profile portrait of American Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924 - 2005), Washington DC, 1970 Bob Peterson—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

    Shirley Chisolm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and she wrote that black men “were running me down as a bossy female, a would-be matriarch.” Her mantra was “unbought and unbossed,” and she’s famous for saying, “the emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: It’s a girl.”

  • Katie Couric

    Katie Couric at The Variety Studio: Sundance Edition Presented By Dawn Levy on Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah.
    Katie Couric at The Variety Studio: Sundance Edition Presented By Dawn Levy on Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. Jonathan Leibson—Getty Images

    The TV anchor has been regularly called a “bitch” in the blogosphere, and stories about her slapping colleagues seem to be greatly exaggerated (she’s accused of slapping a news editor, when really she slapped his arm). And she’s been talking about the “boss/bossy” distinction for a while:

  • Marissa Mayer

    Bossy Mayer
    Marissa Mayer appears on NBC News' "Today" show Peter Kramer—NBC/Getty Images

    A 2012 Business Insider article about the Yahoo CEO described her “bullying managerial style” and quoted a former colleague who said she “doesn’t understand managing any other way than intimidation or humiliation.” Another former colleague said she was “a nightmare of a human being, but she gets things done.”

  • Barbara Walters

    Barbara Walters anchors ABC's 20/20.
    Barbara Walters anchors ABC's 20/20. Lou Rocco—ABC/Getty Images

    When the legendary television journalist was hospitalized after bad fall, blogs said she was “still bossy from bed,” and a spokesman from ABC News said she was “alert (and telling everyone what to to), which we all take as a very positive sign.” As rumors swirl about Walter’s possible retirement, TMZ’s headline read “Barbara Walters Bitches About Retirement Plans.”

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