The Strength of Women Reexamined and Redefined

“Being a strong woman isn’t remarkable, it’s normal.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her address to the graduating class of 2015 at Wellesley College.

As she often does, Chimamanda drops these pearls of wisdom and leaves us sorting through the sand to figure out their true meaning or at least to determine if they have real world application. In the end, the majority of us find ourselves concurring with Chimamanda’s pronouncements because, well, they just make sense and they are grounded in much truth. So when Ms. Adichie – or anyone who commands as much influence as she – observes that being a strong woman isn’t “remarkable” because it’s normal, we are compelled to examine the validity and implications of such declarations.

There was quite a bit of buzz online after the transcript of the speech with accompanying video was posted online. By reflex, most people agree that women are “strong” with the primary reason being a woman’s ability or propensity to put up with crap. The depth and width of that crap depends on the economic and social space in which a woman occupies in the moment. For example, instead of working to end wage disparity based on gender, we laud poor women for their ability to raise and feed their families single-handedly on $0.78 to the dollar that a man earns for doing the same job. Similarly, rather than tackling the roots of gender based sexual and gender based violence, we congratulate women on being strong enough to survive, overcome and speak out against the same violence they found themselves victim to. Those who found contention with Ms. Adichie’s observation that the strength of women is normal did so for these reasons.

“Don’t you think this merely invites men to treat women in any way they want to; because it is assumed that women are strong enough to take it?”

Some think this is a very dangerous sentiment, and there is merit to their conclusions. The concept of “strength” – especially as it relates to women – is a very cold, callous one. A woman is considered strong if she shows little to no emotion in the face of injustice, if she is silent in her suffering, if she vows to pick herself up from the ashes like a phoenix without seeking revenge against those who have slighted her. These are false concepts of strength. They are brittle and with enough time and pressure, will crumble. Women are human…but even in the face of the need to crumble, we are denied our humanity. Strong women are not permitted to come apart at the seams.

It is for this reason I believe that we are sorely in need of new ideas of what it means to be strong. When I think of something that embodies the qualities of strength, it is not something I want to provoke or irritate. There are consequences for doing that. When we think of strong nations of the world for example, we do not think of dignified silence in the face of attack. For decades, other countries in the world would think twice before provoking America. This is because America has a “big stick” policy. Aggressors are stricken with equal, if not greater force. Somehow, that concept dissipates when it is applied to inter-gender human relations, with women expected to take the higher moral ground when she is confronted with obstacles like a cheating husband or being passed over for a promotion because she found herself in possession of a vagina at birth. She is expected to stay for the sake of the kids (or her religion) and/or be grateful she’s got a job at all.

Chimamanda addresses these widely accepted concepts when she said, “Victimhood is not virtue.” The ability to endure suffering does not translate to piety, and yet this is exactly the attitude women all over the globe have been conditioned to adopt.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s R&B era, when Whitney Houston and Black Street were ubiquitous. In those days, music spoke very much to the condition we found ourselves living on, or at least served as a portent of events for those of us who had yet to truly come of age. In the song “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”, Whitney Houston uncovers the shenanigans of a philandering mate. Clad in leather and bold makeup, she goes on to croon these words:

It’s not right
But it’s okay
I’m gonna make it anyway
Pack your bags up and leave
Don’t you dare come running back to me

It’s not right
But it’s okay
I’m gonna make it anyway
Close the door behind you
Leave your key
I’d rather be alone
Than unhappy

THIS is the strong woman trope we’ve all been conditioned to ascribe to: that we can banish the source of our pain without requiring him/her/.it to make admit wrong doing or provide restitution for their wrong doings.

Kelis takes a very different (and less popular) approach to the same issue when she encourages female listeners by saying:

Yo, maybe you didn’t break the way you should have broke, yo
But I break, know what I am saying, this is how it goes:

 

I hate you so much right now
I hate you so much right now
I hate you so much right now
Ahhh!!!!

So sick of your games, I’ll set your truck to flames
And watch it blow up, blow up, tell me (How you gonna see her now)
So far from sincere {I love you}, fabrications in my ear
Drive me so far up the wall, I come slidin’ down

kel

Kelis is unhinged, undignified and nearly crazed in her presentation of her pain. She forces the responsible party to acknowledge the monster they have created. She compels him to acknowledge that she is human – and therefore capable of fragility – and he must deal with the inferno of her hatred.

This is not what women and girls are taught to identify as being strong. We are conditioned to expect to be victimized and to operate as the perfect victim, to accept that certain concessions that patriarchal systems allow are enough for now. That’s not strength. That’s feudalism. We would do well never to confuse the two.

 

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