Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Strong Women

Happy International Women’s Day! This holiday has apparently been around in one form or another since 1909, but it seems to have gained new traction––at least here in the U.S.––in just the last few years. 

The cynical part of me says that it’s gotten popular here because it’s another way for companies to make a buck, selling us corporatized feminism so we buy their lipstick and running shoes. But the less-cynical part of me says it doesn’t really matter why it’s gotten popular. What matters is taking the time to recognize and honor women, which God knows is not the norm in this culture. Imagine what the world would be like if we honored women, saw them as real human beings, every day. Imagine what the Church would be like. Imagine what the courts would be like. Imagine what your neighborhood, your family, would be like. 

Anyway. I was thinking, this morning, that I don’t really love the way we’ve come to talk about “strong women.” You’ve seen the little inspirational posts and slogans, I’m sure: “Here’s to strong women/May we know them/May we be them/May we raise them.” Or: “A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everybody else.” On the one hand, I get it. There’s a long list of qualities that we women are expected to embody––be beautiful, be docile, be meek, be self-deprecating, don’t step on anyone’s toes––and “strong” often doesn’t make the cut. 

But sometimes the way we talk about strong women makes it sound like they’re unusual, exceptional. Which is absurd, because as far as I can tell, strong is the one thing you can almost always count on women to be. Kind or cruel, smart or slow, visionary or rigid, most women are strong.

Strength’s been handed down to us through the ages. Through your family, I’m sure––how many of us have great aunts, great grandmothers, great great greats, who survived invasions, survived going “insane,” survived all kinds of abuse, survived raising 12 children, survived, survived, survived? How many of us grew up being inspired by our heroes and patron saints who were burned at the stake for wearing men’s clothes, who advised Popes, or oversaw monastic communities, in a Church where women today still aren’t even allowed to read the Gospel? How many of us depend on female doctors, female journalists, female lawyers, whose forerunners went through all kinds of trials and harassment to be allowed to practice their skill? We hear about these trail-blazing, iconic, historic women and all the stories of all they had to suffer and somehow, at least for me, I think that’s the only, or the best, metric of strength. I hear how those generations upon generations suffered horrible injustice to get the rights that we have in the West today and then, when something unjust or demeaning happens to me, I think, “I must be able to take this. Think of how much worse women used to have it. Don’t whine. I can take it.”

When we had the Joan Chittister Institute this past summer, the ten or so of us young women were always comparing battle scars from butting up against the Church and the academy, and always reassuring each other how strong we were: staying in school, staying in the Church, not letting them drive us out. I remember one of us said, when asked what gift she had to offer the Church, “I can hold a lot of pain and keep working.” That is a gift. That is strength. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the kind of strength that I hope we won’t have to hand down to any more generations. When I look at the little upturned noses and bitten fingernails of my goddaughters and imagine them as grown women, I pray that their strength won’t be just about survival, about being able to bear pain.

I want women to be celebrated for a different kind of strength, a strength that isn’t solely endurance. Let’s celebrate strength that’s creative. Let’s celebrate strength that’s loving. Let’s celebrate strength that’s about connection and building each other up. Let’s celebrate strength that isn’t about carving out space for ourselves in a hierarchy that doesn’t see us as human, but is about making something brand-new.

What does that mean? What does it look like?

I’m not sure, exactly. But I think of my mother, who spent her childhood translating a foreign country for her parents; who, when I was a child, forbid me to ever say the words, “I can’t do it.” I think of the night we looked out our front windows and saw one of our neighbors being arrested for beating his wife, and how my mother was out the door in an instant, pulling me, age 17, behind her. I can still see her wrapping the beaten woman in a bathrobe, sending me to tuck her little children back into bed. When I came downstairs, my mother was at the kitchen table with her friend, drawing up plans for where she’d go next, helping her make a budget for the next three months (a budget that primarily drew on my mother’s own savings). Years before, my mother had told me that I should think of every woman as if she were my sister, and do everything I could to help her. I realized that night that she meant it.

And then, of course, I think of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie–– the ones who have mentored me and befriended me and the ones I don’t really know on a personal level, too––who have spent decades ministering with vulnerable people, and writing and speaking and protesting and nurturing. They’re driving their thirty-something-year-old godchildren to psychiatrist appointments or methadone clinics. They’re bearing their personal griefs as patiently as they can. They’re walking with the poor and doing as much as they can to buffer them from injustice and bureaucracy. And they’re also having fun, pursuing hobbies, laughing a lot. They’re living shoulder-to-shoulder with other women who are very different from them, trying to dream up and live out a way of acting that is “different from the world’s way.” There’s so much potential here.

So. These are just some things I’m thinking about. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from a Marge Piercy poem, A Strong Woman, which says all that I’m trying to say, more clearly than I can. 

A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

 

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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.