The Myth of the Strong Woman

The damage we do when we designate certain women as ‘strong’

Photo: Jyotirmoy Gupta/Unsplash

Apparently, I am a “strong” woman.

This is ironic considering that after two years of consistent weightlifting, I still can’t do a single full-body pushup. I’m also incapable of reading the simplest academic article and remembering the premise five minutes later. I’m a sucker for my kids’ puppy-dog eyes when they beg me for candy. I’m afraid of chickens.

Still, people tell me, “You’re a strong woman,” on the regular. Friends, students, clients, participants at events I facilitate, complete strangers, and my trainer — bless his heart. I am fairly certain that if you were to question a random sampling of people who’ve interacted with me, the vast majority would categorize me as a “strong” woman.

And they have reason: I’ll pick up a mic and boldly guide a group of people — whether 10 or 1,000 — through whatever work needs to be done. Organizations hire me to help them think through the complex issues that trip them up. I hold my children to high levels of honesty and accountability. I am utterly unafraid of telling my story.

Okay, I’m strong at certain things. I’ll accept that.

As opposed to… ?

Whenever someone utters the well-meaning compliment, “You’re such a strong woman,” I am left feeling a little cranky. Touched, but cranky.

My inside voice itches to ask: “As opposed to what?”

Obviously, the answer would be weak.

I know women in their teens and women pushing 80. I know women who’ve completed PhDs on topics I can’t pronounce, and I know women who’ve finally learned to fill out a change-of-address form by themselves. I know women who can hold a plank for five minutes, and I know women who, with much effort, can walk up the steps to their apartment. I know women who have five children, and women who’ve lost babies, and women who’ve chosen to terminate pregnancies. I know women who love men, and women who love women, and women who are repositioning the boundaries of romantic relationships. I know women who own businesses and women who are cashiers. I know women who are changing the course of history with their thinking and women who don’t leave their house. I know women who sit on a gazillion boards and committees, and I know women whose highlight of the day is cracking open a beer and a bag of chips. I know women who’ve left and women who’ve been left.

I know women who are just trying to get through the next hour.

None of these are weak women.

Not a one.

Ribbons for everyone then?

“Pffft!” you might want to say to me. “C’mon Elizabeth, I can see you’re about to go into this whole touchy-feely spiel about how all women are strong and amazing and everybody should get a trophy, right?”

No, actually, I’m not.

Strong is not an inherent attribute that someone has or doesn’t have. Women, like men, are not two-dimensional creatures whose essence can be flattened and gauged on the Strong-O-Meter.

All women, like all men (#yesallmen), “and all the nonconforming genders in between” as Lizzo would say, have specific strengths and weaknesses. We all have things we rock at and things we absolutely frigging suck at — in my case speed-reading huge novels (rock) and playing chess (suck). It is simply not a case of being strong or weak in general, but being strong, weak, average, or mediocre at doing particular things.

I am not a strong woman. I am not a weak woman. My life path has been rather more complex than that. And I’ll bet that yours has been too.

A person’s specific level of strength at a particular thing is also not inherent. Rather it is due to a quasi-unreproducible cocktail of ability, experience, opportunity, choices, accessibility, obligation, enjoyment, and how many f**cks each individual gives about that thing their strength is being measured on.

People and their perceptions

Lest you think I’m trying to squeeze all joy out of the compliment, “You’re such a strong woman,” please rest assured, I am not. I love getting compliments (flowers and dark chocolate too), and don’t be fooled by my tendency to deflect them — that’s just an old habit. So compliment away. Just check your intentions and your choice of words.

I believe that in most cases when I am told, “You are a strong woman,” what my interlocutor means is: “I have an inkling of what you’ve overcome in your life, and I want to acknowledge how badass it is that you are even alive. Let alone forming coherent sentences, competent at stuff, and kindhearted to boot.”

Or perhaps they mean: “As our entire society revolves around creating hierarchies of who matters and who doesn’t, I can’t help but want to categorize you. Can you please hold still while I affix this label on you. There. Now I have a box for you! Aren’t you cute lined up with all of the other ‘strong women’? ”

Or more likely they mean: “I’ve marinated in a misogynistic culture my entire life that has me programmed to believe that women are naturally lesser than men and intrinsically weak. You confound these beliefs. You must be special (and kinda scary too)!”

Sometimes they mean: “I don’t feel very good about myself because my life sucks right now, and by telling you that I think you’re strong, I’m actually telling myself that it is possible to be strong and that being strong matters to me.”

When life happens

I am not a strong woman. I am not a weak woman. My life path has been rather more complex than that. And I’ll bet that yours has been too.

I acknowledge, however, that to many people, I appear strong. The fact that I can take the mic or write in coherent sentences immediately gives credibility to whatever I have to say — whether warranted or not. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, the old adage says. And, I’ll be the first to admit that, for better or worse, I’m squeaky AF. But in a confident, self-assured, and articulate way, right? Intimidating, I’ve also been told. Let’s not mistake that for innate strength. Because I certainly don’t feel strong when I’m sobbing in my pillow.

And, what do you make of the quiet women in the back row?

Glossing over a woman’s complexities can build her up or tear her down.

There is the woman who appears meek, but has dealt with horrors you can’t begin to imagine. There is the woman who never shares her painful story because she has chosen to “move on.” There is the woman who has lost all sense of self because she spends her days caring for others. There is the woman who withstands abusive behavior day after day because if she were “strong enough” to leave, she would be putting others at risk.

We don’t designate these women as “strong” because we don’t know the battles they’ve fought (or are fighting). And we never will — bar the occasional human-interest story. These women don’t display the trappings of strength, so they are easy to dismiss.

I am not a strong woman. I am not a weak woman. My life path has been rather more complex than that. And I’ll bet that yours has been too.

There is also a whole slice of regular women who aren’t in the back and aren’t in the front. But who just are. Living and loving and being with normal-sized victories and losses. Many lovely women have come to believe that since they haven’t overcome anything that society deems “exceptional,” they are not strong — or worse, that they are the opposite: weak.

Glossing over a woman’s complexities can build her up or tear her down. Both are dangerous, unfounded, and limit our access to the full human experience. Whatever goes up must come down.

Strong is not something we are, it is something we develop and apply.

Then there are the women in between: My friend Nalini is an intellectual powerhouse that lives in a tiny body with a delicate, hesitant voice. She giggles and wears pretty scarves and could rip her students’ ideas to shreds if she weren’t so kind, curious, and considerate. Working against personal and systemic odds, she earned a PhD and a teaching position without losing an ounce of her gentleness.

Strong is not something we are, it is something we develop and apply.

“Don’t forget the ‘Strong Black Woman,’ ” my friend Daniel reminded me. “The woman who holds it together for everyone else, who smiles and jokes even when dealing with insensitive people. The woman who just absorbs other people’s stress and still keeps going until one day she keels over and dies, à la John Henry.”

“Ouuff,” I exhaled.

I don’t always get Daniel’s American references, steeped in a cultural context that my French Canadian experience doesn’t allow me to fully grasp — we have our own damaging stereotypes here.

I recognize his point, however, in friends who’ve been typecast in the role of “Strong Black Woman” or “Strong Indigenous Woman,” as if this were some natural attribute rather than the accumulated practice of surviving dehumanizing circumstances and developing resilience. As if strong is a permanent state and they don’t need tenderness, nurturing, and to be able to let their guard down at times.

The damage ‘strong-casting’ does

“I can’t do it anymore,” Adriana cried onto my shoulder one night. My friend is the epitome of a “strong woman.” She takes care of everyone around her. She guides, teaches, mentors, and nurtures. She’s funny, witty, creative, and brilliant. She’s been my rock of patience and understanding when the undertow of a swirling life threatens to pull me under. She is the “strong woman” that other “strong women” rely on.

There is a darker message behind the “You’re such a strong woman,” compliment: “Believing you are a strong woman exonerates me from having to worry about you, take care of you, or consider your feelings.

And sometimes Adriana just needs a frigging good cry. And a hug. And to be cared for. Because she is not strong. And she is not weak. She is a human being.

The worst thing I can do is let my friends believe the “strong woman” hype — or believe it myself. I can’t afford to think of myself as strong. It is not some God-given trait — like my brown eyes — and it undermines the actual work I put into my life. I can now bench-press 65 pounds if someone spots me. I trained two to three times per week for 15 months from the time I nearly flattened my nose lifting a bare barbell.

Being strong at stuff takes a whole lot of work.

There is a darker message behind the “You’re such a strong woman” compliment: “Believing you are a strong woman exonerates me from having to worry about you, take care of you, or consider your feelings. If I put you up on a pedestal, you are conveniently out of the way doing your ‘strong woman’ things and I don’t have to be bothered with the idea that you might need me.”

Y’know what? I do need you. More than you can even imagine.

And that woman you are thinking about? She needs you too.

Elizabeth, a Montreal-based facilitator, has been developing and co-creating participatory learning spaces for the past two decades.

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