The mythology of the strong woman is fairly epic, considering that women are supposed to be weak-willed ornaments or maids that make it through every indignity — depending on how those women score on other scales of the privilege lottery. A system of male domination is not supposed to allow for strong women, except that it really does and in a way that reinforces the ongoing subjugation of women as a gender, and as individuals. While of course it feels good to be identified as a ‘strong woman,’ the reality is that this myth is a mixed bag. Strangely enough it can be destructive.
It’s important to note that the moniker “strong woman” is a compliment. But its status as a compliment actually depends on drawing a contrast between you and other women, as if those other women are weak. As if being a woman makes you inherently weak. As if you are rising above the challenge of your gender. Am I arguing that folks who use the “strong woman” language are intending to slam other women? No. I am suggesting that we question why this particular distinction is drawn in comparison to other women, rather than just telling women (or men) they are strong without a gender value attached.
“Strong women” come from many walks of life, but oddly they are heavily represented in two polarized political communities: conservative women, and feminists. I want to examine how this plays out in each community, and how it can be destructive to women as a gender and as individuals.
Conservative political women leaders like Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) and the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (UK) both played into the strong woman archetype. By virtue of toting guns or being cruel, they were both thought too big to be mired in a second-class status.
What is, I think, most interesting about conservative strong women is that they are propped up early and often by the masses of men who hold most of the power in their movement (the denigratory term is window dressing, although that erases the contributions a slim minority actually does make). Those conservative strong women frequently define weakness as qualities associated with femininity, most notably all peoples’ innate need for interdependence (regardless of gender, however coded woman).
Strong women of the conservative model are supposed to be a reminder for everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Well, everyone with enough privilege to do that. It is in this way that the mythology of the conservative strong woman serves to reinforce a status quo where family-friendly policies are a pipe dream, salaries and leadership are blatantly unequal, and you don’t need reproductive rights because you could just not be a slut.
Feminists, too, are often referred to as strong women and it is not always helpful. Recently, I wrote a piece for RH Reality Check detailing Why I Stayed in an Abusive Marriage for Two Years. It is the first time I’ve spoken publicly about this issue. In response, I’ve received feedback from a number of people sharing that they, too, have experienced violence in the course of a relationship.
What has struck me is the number of feminists who have shared the experience, and also acknowledged to me that they also felt they couldn’t admit this had happened to them, because ironically enough being an advocate for women’s issues can appear to create a situation where you are not allowed to have those issues yourself (the strong woman mythology). In other words, being seen as a strong woman can be an impediment to accessing the services you need and the services you and your peers work so hard for.
There are overarching similarities between the feminist model of strong womanhood and the conservative one: When strong womanhood is seen as a personal quality, it reinforces the idea that avoiding the inferior status allotted to women is a matter of personal fortitude. That you are weak if you experience sexism.
The point of this piece is not to ridicule folks who consider themselves strong women, or to take away the fact that someone is complimenting you when they refer to you as such. Rather it is to acknowledge that building up too much of a myth about strong womanhood can be bad, especially when radical honesty — women telling the truth about their own lives — holds so much power toward the cause of justice. For tellers and listeners alike.