When I was a kid, I impressed the neighborhood boys with my ability to lift cinderblocks, climb trees, and run fast; I was strong. But when I played dolls, house, or school with the girls, it was never about demonstrating strength. Strength was domination, force, or power, not cooperation, design, or instruction. So I became a strong woman as defined by the boys, as defined by masculinity.
But then I realized I was sensitive; I felt things deeply. That was a weak, feminine characteristic that I stuffed down and replaced with bravado on the outside even while wilting on the inside. I could power through and hide that sensitivity.
I read God’s words to Paul, “’My power is made perfect in weakness’” and Paul’s response that he would boast about and delight in his weakness (2 Cor 12:9-10). I thought he was crazy. Why, oh why, would I ever tell anyone else about what made me weak?
The biblical Deborah was my hero, judging, telling others what to do, and leading in battle. She was strong. I had also heard of Hannah and identified with her song of triumph much more than her weeping prayer to God. I heard few stories of women in church, so I was ready to be strong in a masculine manner like the men’s stories.
But then I realized I wanted at times to be dependent; I didn’t want to do it all alone. Like my sensitivity, I stuffed that down and replaced it with independent bravado, powering through to hide the dependency. My bravado lasted for a long, long time, covering up anything society called feminine and therefore weak. But finally, finally, the true me reared her head, and I could deny her no longer.
The true me was deeply maddening. Sure, my karate instructor said sensitivity was a good thing, even in fighting, but I couldn’t believe him because it only made me feel weak. And my singleness and career challenged any desire for dependence—I literally had to do it all on my own.
So, here I was, fighting a battle against myself. And I was steadily losing, stuffing beach balls under the waves only to have them pop up wildly in the most unpredictable of places.
At last, I quit fighting; I let myself cry. I let myself express the pent-up years of suppressed sensitivity. I allowed myself to depend on others even though they might fail me. I had compassion on the true me and let her be. And as I get to know her, I decided I like her.
I am a wild combination of masculine-strong and feminine-weak. I am independent but dependent at times. I am vulnerable, empathic, and feel things deeply, but at the same time I work hard and get the job done.
And then there’s Jesus, whose strength, like Paul’s, seems to be made perfect in apparent weakness. Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha over Lazarus’s death (John 11:35). He also mourns tearfully over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus is a sensitive man, and he may have wept at other times that aren’t recorded. He also depends on his disciples to pray with him in his hour of great need in the Garden of Gethsemane. His submission to death is remembered as the greatest triumph of all. Jesus, like me, is a wild combination of masculine-strong and feminine-weak.
I say “apparent weakness” because all this makes me wonder about our definition of strong. Strength is so often defined as power, especially physical power; it’s also correlated with what our society calls masculine characteristics rather than feminine ones.
So, when I think of strong women, I think of those who displayed masculine characteristics of independence, pioneering, force, and power. Problem is, my definition of a strong woman is misguided.
In my story, it wasn’t my sensitivity or my desire for dependence that made me weak. No, what made me weak was my fight against myself. I picked and chose who I wanted to be rather than choosing to be my authentic self. The suppression of the true me was exhausting; it weakened me.
So, rather than deciding which women are strong by a masculine-characteristic ruler, I prefer an authentic self ruler. In order to find acceptance in our respective arenas, we women often suppress who we truly are. Some, like me, suppress feminine characteristics, while others may suppress more masculine ones.
A strong woman is a woman who is able to be who she really is, living from the core of her true self, in its wild mixture of femininity and masculinity. A strong woman may therefore fully express what society deems weak, but her strength is in her authentic living.
I want to be that strong woman.