I get confused about what it means to be a woman sometimes. I don’t get accused of not being “woman enough” the way that I think men do, but it’s a challenge I feel more often than I acknowledge. My family was very much a matriarchal one and this undoubtedly influences my concept of what it means to be a woman. I was taught strength and a fierce sense of independence from my mother and grandmothers. I got ballet slippers and a BB gun for Christmas. In my house, being a woman often meant being strong enough to not need a man. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “We don’t need no stinkin’ man!” as a celebration in our kitchen when we fixed a leaky sink or opened our own pickle jars.
A quick Google Images search will tell you that femininity is pink cashmere cardigans, dresses with ruffles, and skirts that hug our perfect hourglass hips. We’re taught that femininity means being soft. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a social cue that women are supposed to be emotional too. But I’m more rational than emotional, more logical than sentimental. I don’t cry often and I’ve said countless times in my life “Feelings aren’t really my thing.”
Every self-assessment I’ve taken agrees: I see myself as methodical, rational, analytical, motivated, and somewhat extroverted. Never once do my results indicate that I am sympathetic, sensitive, or nurturing. Being a strong woman is something to be proud of in my family. In talking with my mom this week, she said her staff had an intervention with her for not being “warm and fuzzy” enough. Initially I laughed and agreed with her staff, reassuring her that we’re just not like that. We are problem solvers and crisis managers, behind the scenes putting out fires—not in the front of the room leading ice breakers and group hugs.
I learned my lesson early on in life: There’s a difference between being a woman and being a strong woman. Or so I thought.
So much of my identity as a woman has been developed in black and white film, through a completely dualistic lens. Being a strong woman means not needing a man and being independent means going at it alone. Having emotions means showing a tender and vulnerable piece of myself—definitely the antithesis of strength. I struggle with this balance every time I write—college papers, blogs, emails. Which voice should I use? What should a woman sound like? Should it be a strong, deliberate, and confident tone? Or a raw, rough, emotional, vulnerable voice?
Neither of these voices makes me any more or less a woman. Being soft makes me no more feminine than being strong does. My women colleagues have shown me the incredible strength and courage it takes to share raw emotion, to write honestly and with vulnerability. They have shown me that strong women not only have feelings and experience emotions, but that they’re not made weaker by showing or sharing them. I’d never think to call another woman weak or less than enough, so why do I let my own identity be defined this way? We are not strong enough, sensitive enough, or woman enough because of any choices we make. We are strong women because we are women.