09/30/2014 07:41 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Sometimes It Pays to Be a B*tch

I was a nice girl, a people-pleaser -- and I looked the part. California blonde, a ready smile, and soft-spoken: a nice girl. I got good grades, played on the girls' tennis team where I would never, ever argue an umpire's call, and was always pleasant to everyone. The problem was that I never spoke up or voiced my own opinion, no matter how much I may have disagreed with others' politics, beliefs, or ego-driven opinions. I just nodded my head, smiled, and let them think I agreed with them even if I knew they were wrong. Of course, I wanted to be a nice girl and not, heaven forbid, a bitch!

The word "bitch" gets overused quite a lot for women. It seems that whenever a woman asserts any type of authority, there is bound to be someone who doesn't like it, and the title "bitch" gets bandied about. Granted, women as well as men are apt to use the word when referring to a female who has been especially nasty, or one whom they feel has used her position of power in a negative way.

I once worked at a newspaper where people completely avoided, if at all possible, one woman who worked in Human Resources. As a newbie I never had any dealings with her, until one day there was a mistake in the deductions on my pay stub. I asked to see her and went in breeze-y and pleasant, expecting that we would resolve the problem without incident. I came out frazzled, teeth clenched and shocked. I was also mad as hell. She had made the 20 minute session as unpleasant as hell.

"What is her problem?" I asked a colleague who saw me coming back to my desk in a snit.
His response was a simple summation: "Her? She's a bitch" -- and he was right on target.
Alright, it was what it was, and I did kind of accept the use of the word. Certainly I thought that particular woman in HR was a definite bitch. I was the nice girl, remember?

But "bitch" is also a word that is too often used to describe a powerful woman, a competent woman, or a woman of strength. The greatest women of all time have had the title used to describe them, albeit not always to their faces. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, England's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, etc.

Actually, the word bitch can be traced way back to Elizabeth I of England. Incensed by her rejection of his marriage proposal, King Philip II of Spain called her "a power-sated bitch." He was further humiliated when his Spanish Armada was soundly trounced by the petite queen's navy. Her own brilliant military and naval acumen were salt in the wound to his ego.
Very few women are true bitches when the word is used to denote a vicious mean-spirited person.

The vast majority of women who have been called bitches have been women of strength and courage who used their minds to create positions of power in the world and made sane, competent contributions in business, medicine and government. A CEO of anything is still a CEO regardless of gender. They have to make tough decisions that may not be agreeable to all who work for them. Men are not seen as bitches of course; they are seen as tough, strong, leaders. Why can't that appellation be applied to women as well? Is being called a bitch a new type of modern compliment?

Maybe, just maybe, being seen as a bitch can a good thing to be. If being a bitch means that you are a woman who expects respect, who is a force to be reckoned with in business, politics and in life in general; if it means that you can be forceful when needed, make serious decisions and be a leader, then it is a positive affirmation.

I asserted my own authority last week. Having made dinner reservations for four at a swank restaurant, I was annoyed to see that another party of four people, without reservations, had pushed their way to the hostess and was being led to a table. I excused myself through the crowd, walked up to the maitre d' and said, firmly but pleasantly:

"I'm sorry, but that table is for my party. We have reservations for eight o'clock, we've been waiting for thirty minutes. These people just arrived, and I heard them say that they do not have a reservation. I would like you to do the right thing and seat us first."

The maitre d' then told the hostess that those without reservations would have to wait until all parties with reservations were seated. As we were being escorted to our table, I distinctly heard one of the men in the other party say, "What a bitch!"

I took it as a compliment.

© 2014 Copyright Kristen Houghton