The Strong Woman
"I'm tough, I'm ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay." ~Madonna Ciccone
I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a strong woman. What does it look like, sound like, feel like? Does it differ from woman to woman?
Too often feminine stereotyping begins during pregnancy, at the very moment we find out the little life inside us is a female. We wonder what she'll look like. Will she be pretty? Accepted? Will she be talented? Successful? Find a good partner? Have children someday? Most of these questions could apply just as easily to a boy, but the difference comes when we begin to wonder the really taxing questions - will she excel in a society that still, even today, oppresses and objectifies women? Will she demand equality in her relationships? Will she value intelligence and education, despite social pressures to place unrealistic value on physical beauty? Will she be better than me (I, who admittedly typed 'will she be pretty' before 'will she value intelligence'...)?
I am fortunate to know some incredibly strong women. Some are college professors, some are stay-at-home-mothers, some juggle both career and family, and some are single and ambitiously pursuing their goals, and a few are elderly, with a life time of accomplishments, confidence, and perseverance behind them. Each of these women are different in nearly every way possible - age, religious preference, sexual identity, political views, etc., and yet each is a picture of profound womanly strength. What connects them? These were my thoughts.
Self respect - A strong woman doesn't undervalue herself. She recognizes her own abilities and the power she possesses to influence the world around her. She silences the nagging voice inside her head that tells her she lacks what it takes to attain what she desires. In acknowledging her own worth, whether quietly or loudly, she demands the respect of others and does not tolerate the demeaning of herself or other women. A pillar of a strong woman is self respect.
The ability to question and change - A few years ago, I realized the importance of questioning authority. Some would call this rebellion or wayward thinking, I call it bravery. Bravery doesn't necessarily equate to strength. I was terrified and fragile, far from anything resembling a strong woman, but I valued my own worth just enough to recognize that I was being smothered. I needed a way out and I was the only person who could find it for myself. The women I respect the most question and seek answers. They're open to altering their opinions or even making drastic lifestyle changes based on intuition, personal opinion, or what they feel is best for themselves. Possessing the ability to question and change leads to furthering knowledge, and a woman with knowledge is an empowered one.
Finding strength in weakness - Strength doesn't mean always knowing what to do, or what to expect. Nor does it require inhuman stoicism. After making the initial choice to leave the world I knew, I thought the worst was surely over. In my naivety, I failed to see past my immediate predicament (ie, finding an apartment, buying food, completing college classes, the majority of which I was on the verge of failing), and in a matter of days I found myself superbly overwhelmed and lost. Years later, I would come to realize that a strong woman doesn't always follow, but doesn't always lead, either. A strong woman can be lost. Perhaps when we are without direction, when everything we knew to be true has been snatched out from under us and we are left with a handful of lies, it's there, in our darkest hour that we find the most resilience, the strength we couldn't see but that somehow lifted us to our feet and nudged us forward. My grandmother lost her husband of nearly 52 years when I was 13. His cancer diagnosis and rapid decline in health led to a coma and an unexpected death barely 5 months later, it was devastating. My grandmother's sorrow was deep and palpable. In the time since my Papa's death she has shown a strength of spirit that is truly inspiring. At 85 years old she lives life fully and exuberantly, travels to the far corners of the world, cooks delicious, gourmet meals, and loves her family unconditionally. Her strength lives deep within her.
The ability to overcome social stereotyping - A strong woman does what she loves and loves what she does. She makes informed decisions and accepts responsibility for them. Whether it's deciding to pursue her PHD, which birth control method to use, or when the best time to have her 4th child is. I know stay-at-home-mothers that blossom in the role they've chosen for themselves, they find fulfillment in it and their heart is left wanting little more. I'll admit, sometimes I wish I was this woman. I also know women that crave the constant presence of a goal, a win, or a title, they're career driven and thrive the most this way. Then are the few super-women who bring the two together and conquer it like warriors. A very dear friend of mine, who I have such admiration and love for, has 4 children and is a University professor, she's an exquisite cook, a caring mother who nurtures book knowledge and self-sufficiency in her children, works harder than nearly anyone I know, is respected among her colleagues, keeps herself informed on current-events and economic matters, owns the life decisions she has made, makes no excuses, and does it all with grace and poise. I have learned so much from this woman, I'm certain she's influenced me more than she knows. All this said, a woman that possesses the ability to overcome social pressures and stereotyping and stand strong in her life decisions, riding out the miserable and savoring the good, owning it all; she stands above the rest and speaks volumes for the female sex. She is a true pioneer.
The ability to love - Ah, love. What are you? And how can you possibly be achieved? In a culture whose media, marketing, and peers barrage women from every angle with arrows of self-doubt, inadequacy, and incapability, how do we love? Maybe the better question is who do we love? We women have a history of giving ourselves up to our men, our children, or to a role we were 'called to fill'. We're expected to be lovely, soft, and kind, virtues exemplified in many religious circles that over time have bled out and become a large facet of secular expectations as well. Love becomes only something we do for others and to me it seems simply another way for a woman to sell herself short. Who, then, should we first love? If the answer sends me to hell, so be it: OURSELVES. Not a god, not a man or even a child. If we find love and acceptance for ourselves as women, every trait, every body part, every 'fault', doesn't it seem that we can then better love our partner, our children, our job? A decision fueled by the clean energy of love doesn't have the pollutant of a decision fueled by guilt or obligation. Something that sounds so selfish ends up being selfless. I can't make sacrifices for my family or my future if I am filled with resentment and anger toward my situation. If I love myself, my decisions will reflect my self-love and I will be happier and more fulfilled in those decisions, which, in turn, will allow me to commit myself to my life situation unhindered by chains of self loathing or regret. Love, I suppose, is where a strong woman begins.
Writing this may have been a desperate attempt to see myself as a strong woman. I long to lift the veil from my eyes and see myself the way my companion and husband does - strong, powerful, intelligent, and capable. Occasionally, I can step away and see a strong woman where I stood. This woman wears a locket around her neck containing nothing, this nothingness is a picture of her past and her future: her past, which holds no power over her, and her future, which is blank and vast, waiting to be written by her. Her present? Her present is shown in her steady stride, her hopeful eyes, and a choice made each day to love against all odds.