Navigating Womanhood in the era of the “Strong Woman”
(Clara Cassell, Shot by Meskora)
In the growing roar of feminism movements around the world, there seems to be an undertone of marginalization among women ourselves. Who are allies to the movement, and who are enemies? That is a story for another day. Although, in the midst of it all, I find myself constantly reverting to the perspective that; it is okay if a woman wants to be whomever she wants to. That goes from a housewife, to an executive; a pastor, to a stripper; or a basketball player, to a ballet dancer. Although most feminists would probably carry a similar perspective, I sometimes find myself feeling pressured to be the “strong woman” society expects of me, despite carrying the perspective that a woman can and should be however, or whomever she wants. As a result, I am led to wonder how one can navigate life and womanhood in a world that expects us all to be strong women and boss executives.
There is a popular quote that reads; “Here’s to strong women; may we know them. May we be them. May we raise them”. I’ve always loved that quote, but recent wisdom has led me to find it a bit problematic. Here’s why.
I believe I was raised by a mother who society would deem as a strong woman. I watched her strength manifest in a variety of ways – birthing me at a young age and having to take care of virtually her entire family from there on out. I watched her strength manifest in the sacrifices she made, always putting the necessities of others before herself. “Your mother is a strong woman.” “Hope you grow up to be like her.”, people would say to me. I would smile and respond, “of course.”, but in truth, I felt pressured and did not know if I wanted to be labeled a “strong woman”, especially after seeing what my mother had to go through to acquire that label.
Being older, and maybe a little wiser now, I reflect on my mother’s sacrifices, and it is undeniable that there was and is immense strength in it. Although, how I see the label “strong woman” now, is to accept that women are inherently weak in nature, and so, the ones who exhibit drive or a life of sacrifices are the outliers and should be labeled differently.
To put into perspective, rarely are men who exhibit similar qualities as my mother and other women like her, called a “strong man”, unless that man displays exceptional leadership or dictatorial characteristics. In truth, more people label men as “weak” for showing humanly qualities or emotions, as compared to “strong”. This shift in labels as compared to that for women gives the notion that men are inherently strong in nature, and so those of them who do not exhibit the characteristics expected of them are the outliers, and should be labeled differently.
Nevertheless, some strains of feminism go totally against labeling women – that is unless it is to tell her how strong she is. Those strains of feminism tell us to not attach sexually charged labels to women; like whore, slut, thot, or even freak. They tell us those labels can carry negative connotations for women and goes against the liberation of women. I wonder, though, what about the negative connotations of the more positive labels we attach to other women, and sometimes attach to ourselves.
Watching my mother be a “strong woman” meant watching her work day in, day out with little time for rest. It meant seeing men’s desire for her and her perceived strength, until it seemed to surpass theirs – then she became “too strong”. It meant an entire congregation of mourners watching her in shock and disbelief as she broke down over her own father’s death. After-all, strong women aren’t expected to show the emotions of regular women.
That is the thing with being labeled a “strong woman”, you see. When you accept that label, life comes with new sets of expectations. You are no longer allowed the same space for moments of weakness, then those moments become disappointing to all those who believe in you. Because of this, some women who carry the “strong woman” label are not as likely to speak up about abuse from their spouses in fear of being viewed as showing weakness, as per my own experience. People look up to these women, as they are the outliers, according to the society; and when people look up to you for your strength, they tend to live through you, and manifest their lives through you – which is unfair. In the case of abuse, any woman can be survivors, “strong”, or otherwise.
Likewise, women with perceived strength over others are not awarded the same care we would for others. The “strong woman” is expected to always have her shit together. She is to have all the answers for everything. She is to be a devoted housewife, a doted mother, all the while taking on the corporate world by a storm. She is to be, and have it all. And so, society grimace at the women who choose fragments of those expectations. A housewife apparently has it “easier” than women who aren’t, as if taking care of children and a home isn’t one of the most difficult tasks there is. Similarly, women who choose career over children are sometimes seen as selfish, as if all women are to bear children, even if they don’t want to.
When we label women as “strong women”, we think it is a compliment, but all we are doing is putting unnecessary pressure on those women, and all women really, to be versions of themselves that aren’t always realistic, or at least healthy. For this reason, we expect our “strong” friends to be there for us in moments of weakness, but are not there for them when they are weak. We envy the ones who seem to “have it all”, but fail to realize the self-sacrifice it takes to keep up such appearances. We want to be strong women, raise strong women, inspire strong women, but do not accept that being a woman period, especially in the world we live in, is strength in itself.
To conclude, I want all women to understand that weakness is not our inherent nature, and so we do not have to strive for what society thinks a strong woman should be – just as strength is not the inherent nature of a man. As such, it is important to see strength in the little everyday things we do as women – as humans, and celebrate those moments. The truth is, there is strength in everyone, and there is weakness in everyone. Showing humanly emotions does not make one weak, and neither is choosing to be an employee over a boss. To navigate this world where women are fighting for our liberation with a focus on the “strong” ones, we have to remember that there is strength in all of us, and we are to be whomever, however, and whatever we choose to be.