What makes a woman strong?

'Thinking' - Collage, JC Kirker (2011)

'Thinking' - Collage, JC Kirker (2011)

I have sometimes been told  that I am a strong woman and I never really know what to make of this. Using the word ‘strong’ in this context is a bit like using the word ‘nice’ I think – you don’t really know what it really means. When I hear it, I assume that it is some sort of compliment, but I am not quite sure what to make of it, since I mostly don’t think of myself as strong, or weak. I am certain I am not being complimented for my physical strength, but I wonder whether my resilience, resourcefulness and endurance are being noted? Or is it more to do with an ability to speak my mind fearlessly and ask the difficult questions when no one else will? Anyway, it got me thinking about what other women would make of the term, so I invited a few of my female friends and colleagues to respond to the following questions:

  • What characterises a strong woman?
  • What examples can you share of strong women?
  • How can women become stronger?
  • Can being strong as a woman become a weakness?

What characterises a strong woman?

This was the question I got the most responses to and I was surprised by how varied these were. You may identify with some or none of the following:

“A strong woman is someone who is confident about who she is and is able to love herself. She may have strong convictions, but is able to be flexible, admit her mistakes and be gentle in her dealings with others.”
“A strong woman is one who is comfortable in her own skin, she accepts and is content with who she is. She does not feel the need to prove herself in any situation. She is comfortable with being just a listener and observer. She speaks to air her convictions rather than speak for the sake of ‘being heard’. She does not crave attention but is happy to be in the background to support but is also capable of playing her role in the spotlight when she feels the need arises.”
“I think what makes any person strong (male or female) is an unwavering conviction in who you are and how you navigate the world (underpinned by your core values, beliefs and goals). And having a sense that you have worth as a person, primarily derived by feeling loved by family, friends and God (for those of faith!).”
“A strong woman is not afraid of doing what she wants, follows her passion and is not afraid of what people think of her. She is someone to look up to, and is a mentor for others, but also caring and kind. She understands deeply.”

“A strong woman is a people person: accessible, easy to deal with and inspires others to achieve their best. She is prepared to stand up for herself and others, and speak out. She brings people together and fosters good relationships."

“A woman is strong when she is heard and what she thinks is right at any one point in time is believed.”

“I guess strength is only ever noticed or tested at tough times. When we are in a comfortable situation, it is hidden or dormant. Or is it another way of saying we are managing stress, coping etc. Is it something we only recognise by an absence of other external signs of stress?”
“I figure that emotions are like a pendulum. As strong as you can be at one end is as weak as you can be at the other. We live in world of duality so to know one, we need to know the other.”
strong women words.png

While physical strength and fitness may be the concepts that are most often referred to when we talk of a strong man, it is clearly more often meant as an expression of character when it is applied to a woman. When I did a Google search on ‘strong women’ (e.g., see Pinterest’s catalogue of ideas about a strong woman) the concepts I encountered were:

  • Independence and autonomy
  • Conviction and confidence
  • Outspokenness and fearlessness in the face of challenges
  • Perseverance and endurance
  • Power and control

However, below are some of the internet images that apparently characterise strong women, which clearly all play on a theme of physical strength. I’m not being biased here – every single ‘strong woman’ Google image search result uses the same theme. There seems to be a real disconnect between the popular image of a strong woman and what characterise a strong woman. Why is that?

strong women images.png

What examples can you share of strong women?

The website KeepInspiring.Me came back in my Google search as a place to find “Strong Women Quotes” – here are 10 of my favourite ones from women I recognise as remarkable in some way:

“I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”– Amelia Earhart
“We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” – Marie Curie
“When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.” – Helen Keller
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” – Maya Angelou
“A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
strong women.png
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”– Margaret Thatcher
 “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.” – Mother Teresa
“Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.” – J. K. Rowling
“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.”– Oprah Winfrey
“A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.” – Melinda Gates

And if you don’t know who these women are, shame on you – it’s time you did some internet research of your own!

How can women become stronger?

“I think women can become stronger if they stop being their own worst critic and start believing in themselves.“
 “By not allowing the pressure to adopt a certain persona for any given situation. Stop feeling the need to prove themselves. Know themselves and accept their perfections and their flaws – and to believe that their unique experiences can make a valuable contribution to any situation.“

Both these responses suggest that self-acceptance and self-belief are essential criteria to a woman’s inner strength. For some women, the family and friends who love them strengthen their sense of acceptance and belief; for other women, their strength is founded on a living faith and relationship with God; and still other women draw on their personal achievements as a strength that drives them to greater accomplishments. I would be incredulous if there were a ‘one size fits all’ approach to building up a woman’s strength; it must depend on personal circumstances and I would always encourage women to find and rely on what works for them at that particular time of their lives.

Can being strong as a woman become a weakness?

“No – weakness only comes if they are not happy with who they are.”

“Yes – if they use their strength as a way to control other people.”

“I think some women who appear strong (such as leaders visible in the news and the business world - famous people) sometimes are too strong and tough and perhaps lose a little of themselves as they try to keep up the strong outer front.”

"Just as a woman who chooses to stay home to look after her family gives all her love and energy to others, a strong woman who gives all her time to a job she loves may damage her relationship with her spouse and children."

Clearly there is no wrong or right answer to this question. Personally, I have always maintained a strength that is overplayed can become a weakness. A strong woman may be someone we admire, but if her strength is used to dominate everyone around her, quash their contribution, or silence their opinion, it could be detrimental to everyone involved. Someone who is so convinced of their strength may become blind to the strengths of others and to their own inadequacies. No woman is an island!

Is strength even a useful concept for a woman?

Labelling people, including oneself, may not be a useful concept. For example, it may cause us to limit our perceptions of what we are or are not able to accomplish, how we should relate to others, where our values lie, etc. Labelling another woman as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ is judgmental and implies knowledge of that woman’s character that may be at odds with her self-image or common perception of herself. One of my female friends had the following commentary to offer and I think her acceptance of who she is without worrying about labels is a healthy way to conclude this discussion.

“For me I try not to think in binaries any more – once a upon a time I had black and white thinking and it was problematic for me – this is mostly a thing of the past. So the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ don’t work for me in a global sense. The construction of women as either one is problematic for me … as in my own experience, some days I feel more of one and less of the other moment by moment and if I characterise myself this way it could lead down a dark hole.”
“Instead, I like to think more about acceptance and no matter what I am feeling, I know it is a construction (my own construction) and that it can shift ‘in a blink of a think’. If someone else characterises me either way, then that is their business and a result of their worldview. I guess for me, I am what I am … whatever that is and I don’t think much about strength, particularly as I get older and less and less fit.”

I would like to thank and acknowledge the women who contributed to this article (Bernadette, Bindy, Clare, Donna, Jackie, Jo, Lyn and Marie Andree), who range in age from about 35 to 85 and live in various countries. I welcome your views on any of the questions or ideas raised in this article, whatever your gender. Please leave a comment below, or contact me directly if you prefer.