Thursday, July 7, 2011

on strong women

we all know i'm a fairly hardcore feminist. most people who know me would also describe me as a very strong personality. sometimes that's meant as a compliment, sometimes as an insult. our society tends to look down on strength as much as we used to revere it, and far moreso for women then men. when you say the word strength people tend to conjure images of muscles and emotional coldness. they also tend to think of men and not women. somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that the genders truly are equal, even as we are different. some of this is evolutionary and biological (women have a higher pain threshold because we have to deal with childbirth) and some of it is cultural (men are often expected for provide the incomes for their families). as we move more into equal rights truly being the norm, we're starting to reclaim the strengths of women that were once accepted, if never celebrated, that have been pushed to the background or frowned upon for the last few hundred years. so what does it mean to be a strong woman? being a child of the computer age, i turned to google for answers and inspiration and you know what i found? disappointment. google shows you the most popular responses. when you're swimming against the stream it often makes you really mad (try googling "courage to heal", the most groundbreaking book on healing from childhood sexual abuse in our lifetimes. nothing but abuse of the authors who have helped so many).
i never had strong female role models as a child but a few things did get set into my mind: just because something is traditionally done by males is no reason females shouldn't do it too; men aren't any better then women, just different; and if i wanted to be happy with who i am i would have to reinvent myself from the ground up. some of this was taught by positive example (my grandmother was one of the first female doctors in canada) and some by negative example (i sure as hell don't want to be like my mother so what shall i be instead?). skip forward a decade or two of struggle and change and personal evolution and we come to me: still very much a work in progress but someone who could never be called weak. interestingly, all of the things that i think define strong women are also the things that get me into trouble the most, how about you?:
intelligence-whether book smarts, intuition, street smarts, or physical intelligence, you'll never find a strong woman who doesn't have a deep cache of wisdom of some type.
passion-having the emotional drive to pursue your interests with enthusiasm is a very rare trait, to the extent that it tends to scare the hell out of people who lack it. nothing of any value was ever achieved without it. it's also the driving force behind loyalty.
honesty-it's often a lot harder then lying, it's also a large part of what makes someone an honorable person.
originality-anyone can go along with the crowd. it's important to know when the crowd is not where you want to be and do something completely different no matter the consequences.
endurance-this applies more to women then men because it's one of our differences. "the courage of women is different then men, deeper and more enduring." accepting the changes in a tribe, in a community, in the attitudes of acceptable behavior, and surviving anyways; a 48 hour long labor followed by a child who will be attached to your skirts for at least 5 or 6 years nonstop; cooking and cleaning for many more people then yourself; the physical demands of our moon cycles; being the moral and emotional center of a family and leading joy by example. these things train endurance into us from a very young age and most men would be completely overwhelmed by them, just as a woman with no training would be completely overwhelmed on a battlefield or a hunting ground.
morality-it's one thing to know that it's bad to steal from your neighbor and kill for reasons other then sustenance. it's a different thing to make the judgment calls when the lines are gray and fuzzy, or when there are no good options at all. sometimes this is the big decisions like triage at a disaster site, sometimes it's the little decisions that keep the household running smoothly and everyone in it healthy and happy. it's how you spend your time, it's what you accept happening around you, it's your self discipline.
competence-look at the strong women around you. everything they do, they do it well, don't they? when they screw something up, they look to learn from the mistake. they're not afraid to try something new because they know they can practice enough to get good at it. they have a careless grace that is rooted in mastery.
i'll tell you an open secret: all grace is rooted in strength. all strength is paid for in pain. physical or emotional, we are tempered by experience. often those lessons are brutal. they make us who we are. the trick is to accept it, to let go. to be in and of the experience and allow it to forge and change your spirit. which brings us to the one we feminists don't like to acknowledge and society likes to believe is the only female virtue:
surrender and tenderness-you cannot be strong without also knowing the ways in which you are weak, and accepting them. you cannot be the master of yourself if you're afraid to be vulnerable with another person. strength is just as much about letting people in and being close and soft and gentle as it is about drawing a hard line and being passionate and smart. this is a spiritual mystery because it must be experienced to be understood. it's the feeling of getting lost in the eyes of the person you love most in the world. it's a mothers fierce protection for her child, and the connection she feels while breastfeeding for the first time. just as strength is paid for in pain, passion and aggression at their most intense, are fed by the tenderness we feel for the things we hold closest to our hearts, and our insistence that they never be taken away.

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