I have three daughters, and like every mother, I would like to raise them to be “strong women.”
But what does that mean?
I’m sure everyone has their own idea of what a “strong woman” is. But this phrase gets thrown around so much that I want to define it in my own terms for my daughters so they know the meaning that I give it, lest they think that being a “strong woman” means they should aspire to be Katy Perry.
Often we hear the term “strong woman” describing women who are in charge. A woman who shakes things up. A woman who can win arguments and lead and wave flags around and protest against conformity, authority, superiority, and all the other -orities. A woman who personifies the bumper sticker: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
When I first saw that slogan I thought it was kind of clever. But the more I thought about it the more I decided that its message is not quite accurate.
Take my mother, for instance. My mother grew up in a poor family with a father who never believed she could go to college. She proved him wrong. She went to college. She became a scientist and studied at Harvard. She published papers, won awards and became world famous. Later on she won the Nobel Prize. Haven’t you ever heard of Dr. Patricia Q. Bagley?
No you haven’t. Because after my mom graduated from college she stayed home to raise seven children.
She never ran for anything, she never made any money, she never had a job outside the home. But she was an exceptionally good mom. And she sacrificed a lot to put us at the center of her world.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the female presidents and doctors and CEOs and lawyers are not strong women. These women are amazing. They are what I call Obviously Strong Women.
But can a woman be strong if she would rather study dance instead of engineering?
Can a woman be a strong with no degree at all?
What about the NSOSW?
(the Not So Obviously Strong Women)
Let’s have some fun. Let’s go back to the bumper sticker and dissect it.
The first part: Being well-behaved. That word is purposely condescending, suggesting that women who are well-behaved are much like a good dog.
But being “well-behaved” also means that you have self-control. It means you know when to open your mouth and when to keep it shut. It means you are considerate of the feelings of others. It means you are wise. Being well-behaved is something I’ve tried my whole life to be, and it is not easy!
It would be much easier to yell when I feel like yelling. It would be easier to tell someone EXACTLY WHAT I THINK OF THEM than breathe, breathe, breathe . . . and forgive. It would be easier to FREAK OUT whenever I encounter something that makes me afraid, than to study it, understand it and see it for what it really is.
Second part: Is “making history” really what a woman of true strength is aspiring for? Many Obviously Strong Women definitely gain fame in the process, but in my definition, Obviously Strong Women who become famous for being strong were not searching for fame at the beginning of their journey. They were trying to correct something, establish something, change something or stand for something. “Fame” was something other people created while these women had their shoulders to the wheel and their feet in the mud.
Being a “strong woman” in the context of the Mormon church
Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have always been given a lot of responsibility. We have callings, we lead, we teach, we administrate and we preach from the pulpit, in addition to the responsibility of caring for our children. Many women serve full-time missions. But women are not given the priesthood. This bothers some women, but it has never bothered me and I’ll explain why.
When Scott and I were first married we went to an intramural basketball game early one Saturday morning, and one of the players, a friend of ours named Richard, was dribbling the ball across the court when something odd started happening. He slowed, he staggered, and then he crumpled to the ground. By the time we approached him to see what was the matter he was unconscious. Three seconds later he was not breathing. A couple of guys went to call an ambulance. I knelt down next to him and sealed my mouth on his and breathed into his lungs. It was easier than I thought it would be. But then he lost his pulse. I started doing chest compressions while another girl took over with the breaths.
(I’m not fibbing this time, by the way.)
The guys who were playing basketball a moment before watched. Soon some of them knelt down at Richard’s head and gave him a priesthood blessing. The paramedics arrived and took Richard away. He was in a coma for three days.
But he lived.
I’ve often thought of this experience in the years since. Did he live because he got CPR? Or did he live because the boys gave him a blessing? I have no idea, but I’m glad he got both. We were ALL using our own specialized talents to do everything in our power to keep our friend alive. We can’t all run around giving people priesthood blessings and calling for ambulances. Someone has to keep the blood pumping through the heart.
Strong women support men, just as strong men support women. But is it possible for a strong man and a strong woman to coexist together? Or does one have to be pushed aside so the other can be “the leader”? I believe they can. Especially when they value each other’s different and essential roles. Having different roles forces us to depend on each other. The perfect match for a strong woman is not a weak man, and a strong man does not have to settle for a weak woman. We marry our equal, but not our identical.
When I was 7 or 8 years old I remember standing at the top of my driveway and seeing something strange coming up the long dirt road. Two people were walking up the road, a taller one and a shorter one. The taller one was struggling, leaning against the shorter. I remember feeling alarmed when I realized it was my parents. My parents never walked so close to each other like that, and especially not in public. Then it dawned on me. My father had had a seizure. I knew that my dad sometimes had seizures, and even though I had never witnessed one myself, I knew that he must have had one at the filling station where he worked, and that my mom was helping him back to the house. I will never forget that intimate moment as my strong, capable, indestructible father leaned completely on the slender shoulders of my mother. It has since become a powerful and very symbolic reminder to me that taking a supporting role is not a sign of weakness.
Ultimately I believe a strong woman is someone who has not conquered the world or conquered other people but has conquered herself. She has recognized in herself a flaw, whether it be anger, self-pity, doubt, intolerance, impatience, or selfishness and she worked hard to overcome that weakness. Or perhaps she is still working on it. Every. Single. Day.
And, ironically, could that not also be the definition of a strong man?
Not all of us have the capacity, the ability or opportunity to become wives, mothers, engineers, doctors, gold medalists or presidents of the United States. And whether or not we are “strong” should not be measured by how much money we make or how many children we bear. For we all have the ability to be kind, selfless, honest, loving, forgiving. We all can be on a constant quest for refinement and excellence. And that, my dear daughters, is my definition of strong.