Photo courtesy of Bonnie van Kessel
Are you a strong woman?
If I were to ask you unexpectedly, how would you answer?
For some women, the answer is automatic: “Of course, I am strong.” For others, the answer is “no” or “I am not sure.” The truth is that how you answer the question is not what determines whether you are strong or weak. Many women who have been labeled as weak (which is common in our culture) – are incredibly strong.
So why have women been considered “weak”?
For many years, women have been viewed as “weak,” and men have been viewed as strong. Historically, men have been portrayed as strong because they are physically strong. And for the most part, they are brave, smart, and non-emotional – especially in difficult situations. Over time, these highly valued traits have become the hallmark of being strong in our culture.
Unfortunately, this shortsighted (and androcentric) description of strength has been extended to women, but it is considerably problematic.
Let’s start with the physically strong. Since men are generally stronger than women, women have an unfair disadvantage. Nonetheless, women have been relegated to a position of weakness and men as strong. But how accurate is this old cultural conclusion? Does physical strength make you strong? Well, I suppose it does in ONE area of life, but a strong body will only take you so far, and – truthfully – some women are stronger than a lot of men. But even if men are generally stronger than women, that doesn’t lay a foundation for strong men and weak women. Besides, strong in body and weak in heart can be the makings of an inconsiderate bully. Surely, a strong body cannot be indicative of strength!
Next is bravery. I think of Braveheart and Wallace’s passion to fight for freedom. I would have to agree with the concept of bravery and strength. But, how are we defining bravery? Is the timid woman automatically excluded from being a strong woman? If we have two women – one timid and one who likes to assert herself through challenging sports such as rock-climbing; is the latter stronger? Not necessarily. If the timid woman is fearful of rock-climbing, but she faces her trials (and personal short-comings) with boldness, and the risk-taker boldly tackles the mountainside, but she denies her personal shortcomings and refuses to be accountable – which is stronger?
The next trait that portrays men as strong is intelligence. For many centuries, it was assumed that men were intellectually superior to women.[i] Some male researchers believed that men were smarter because they had bigger brains even though their body size was not a variable in these early studies.[ii] We know now that men and women are equally intelligent even though there are small variances in different types of cognitive processes. Intelligence is not limited to mathematic skills. It is a broad area that includes things like spatial reasoning, reflexive analysis, and emotional intelligence. For women, who grew up in an era that viewed men as “gifted” (with regards to intelligence), the idea of being equal in this area may still be a struggle.
And the final distinguishing characteristic for strength is being non-emotional. This is probably where most women have stumbled in their quest to be strong – myself included. But – again – expressing emotion is an incredibly poor gauge for judging a person’s strength.
It is assumed that women are more emotional that men, but is this true? My first reaction to this statement is: how are we defining emotion? Is being emotional limited to being sensitive, fearful, timid, and/or tearful? This description is so short-sighted, yet it still exists today – sometimes at a subconscious level. The truth is that men and women are both emotional, and they can express their emotions differently – sometimes through more assertive styles of relating – but they are emotional.
So how rational is it to judge strength on emotionality? Consider this scenario: Two women train for a duet in the Olympics. One is fairly non-emotional, and the other is very emotionally charged; she is continually being moved to tears. Now, after three years of training, and a devastating fall, the team fails. The emotional woman displays her devastation through sobbing and a stream of questions concerning the fall-out. She cries, dwells on the experience for a short time and then moves on to become a successful Olympian. The non-emotional woman appears intact and non-emotional, but she is shackled by the failure and unable to move forward. Which is stronger?
My point is that our culture is bombarded by perceptions of being weak that simply are not true, and in a quest to be culturally accepted as strong, many women believe that they have to portray characteristics of strength that are associated with male dominance. But strength in women has nothing to do with leaky tear ducts or strong emotions. These expressions may signify things like disappointment, shock, or a broken-heart, but they are not a measurement for strength.
Strength is resilience and the ability to press through adversity and overcome. How many times do women devalue themselves – and scold themselves – for being weak even though they learn, grow, and refuse to be stopped by intimidation and fear. Pressing through adversity takes incredible courage. We need to get this straight: the woman who overcomes by bravely facing her fears, shame, insecurities, addictions, or passivity (or any kind of hindrance) is strong.
So what makes a woman strong? Although the following list is not exhaustive, it is a great start.
- Strong women do not quit. They press onwards even in the midst of great adversity.
- Strong women are resilient. They have learned resiliency from their experiences, and they will not be stopped by negative opinions or feedback from others.
- Strong women have a healthy sense of self. They consider themselves worthy, and they value their life as purposeful. Their identity is not conditionally based on the approval or disapproval of others.
- Strong women value others. They respect women and value all people.
- Strong women are humble and willing to learn. They seek knowledge and wisdom, and they use their life experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Strong women are not afraid to be alone. They are not against companionship, but they are not willing to compromise their self to be in an unhealthy relationship.
- Strong women say they are sorry. They refuse self-pity and take accountability for their choices.
- Strong women do not envy other women. On the contrary, they support their friends even if their friends are surpassing them in life.
- Strong women recognize and accept their vulnerability in life.
- Strong women set clear boundaries for themselves and their family.
- Strong women believe in them selves, and they believe in others.
- Strong women stand up for them selves and, and they will not tolerate disrespect and demeaning behaviors from others.
- Strong women are independent, but they also recognize the need for help and will ask for help when it is needed. Strong women will never be overly dependent on another person’s help.
- Strong women face their fears and refuse to be shackled by fear.
- Strong women walk strongly even when they feel weak inside.
Where do we go from here?
Well, you can start with this list. If you notice some areas that you need to work on, take an inside look, and be honest with your self. If you have never said sorry, then don’t be afraid to ask yourself some tough questions. Why do you dislike saying your are sorry? Do you feel that you have to be right all of the time to be strong? Is saying sorry indicative of weakness.
None of us have it all right, but all of us have strength inside. Sometimes, we just need to believe in ourselves a bit more (January’s topic).
Take some time to celebrate strong women this month – and start with yourself!
You are a strong woman: you can do this!
- Denmark, F. L., Klara, M., Baron, E., & Cambareri-Fernandez, L. (2008). Historical development of the psychology of women. In F. L. Denmark, & M. A. Paludi (Eds.), Psychology of women: A handbook of issues and theories, 2nd ed. (pp.3-39). Westport, London: Praeger.
- Hyde, S. S., & Grabe, S. (2008). Meta-analysis in the psychology of women. In F. L. Denmark, & M. A. Paludi (Eds.), Psychology of women: A handbook of issues and theories, 2nd ed. (pp.142-173). Westport, London: Praeger.