Why "Strong Women" Labels Can Hurt All Women

The Issue With ‘Strong Women’ Rhetoric | Jennifer Spoelma

Dear Women, I’d like to talk about our strength and address some of the issues I have with the existing conversation on this topic.

Female strength. What comes to mind when those words register in your brain?

Successful business women? Entrepreneurs or women who have made it to the top of corporations?

Mothers? New moms, moms of multiple littles, moms of kids with special needs or moms of moms helping with grandkids?

Female athletes and competitors? Women who have break world records or who demonstrate unbelievable physical and mental strength?

Women at the top of their fields? Women contributing to scientific breakthroughs or engineering new solutions to the world’s problems?

Female activists? Writers, speakers or leaders who create momentum for social and political change?

Or maybe you envision something else. Maybe something more nuanced or seemingly less dramatic. But here’s what I really want to know:

Do you think of yourself?

Are you included in your own concept of female strength? I sure hope your answer is Yes!. And yet, I understand how difficult it can be to get to that point. I understand how entangled self-identity can become with the labels and expectations of others--even when we know it shouldn’t--and how so many of us grew up with confused messages surrounding femininity and strength.

So I understand if you feel awkward or unsure about claiming your strength. But if you’re in that category, then I hope this post will begin to change that for you.

Why is it hard for women to recognize their strength?

There are a million angles to take when answering the question of, “Why is it hard for women to recognize their strength?” But today I just want to focus on one small piece. The rhetoric of ‘strong women’.

Right now, if you were to open up Instagram and start searching, you would find thousands of accounts created for the purpose of encouraging women to “find” or “live into” their power. I’d be included in this list (hi!). Each account has its own flavor, language and subset of followers. This is not bad. On a one-by-one basis, many of these accounts are providing inspiring content for their followers.

But from an eagle-eye view, there is a general message attached to this trend. It’s a message that says, “female strength is untapped and that needs to change”.

And the message that “female strength is untapped” truly concerns me.

I’m not trying to split hairs here or be nit-picky. But here’s the thing: that message promotes the idea that women are lacking. It can create feelings of striving and competition. It promotes the idea that women need to hustle and grind to unbury our true potential, a quest that could be never-ending. This is in opposition to the positive effect of highlighting the power that comes from trusting oneself.

It’s not the intended message of the movement, I know. But wrong messages get created when there’s a gap between how we feel and the words we use to communicate those feelings.

And when we feel the weight and frustration that comes from being stifled and boxed in as women, we tend to communicate a message that says our strength is something learned or earned, rather than something inherent.

A woman’s strength is inherent, so why do we talk as if only some possess it?

It’s the difference between these two phrases: strong women and women are strong.

The first suggests a selective group. There is a qualifier, but it is undefined. What does it take to be, or to become, a strong woman? While the second phrase is a statement of fact, of truth. Women are strong. There are no qualifiers. Women are strong is an inclusive statement, it is reality and it is empowering for all women.

I wonder what the impact is of the strong women message is. I wonder how it might create in-group and out-group feelings. That is, the perception that some women are strong women because they meet certain criteria, but that may or may not include yourself. If a woman doesn’t identify to the depiction of strong women she sees in her newsfeed, how might that stunt her embodiment of her own power?

On the other hand, what happens to women that are in the in-group? What if they believe they are included in the strong women group because of something they’ve achieved, rather than because of who they are? What messages are internalized with that experience? How does it influence one’s view of other women?

The idea that some women are strong women and others are not, is a message that I don’t think many trying to send. However, when it’s sent enough times, even very subtly, it registers somewhere deep in our being.

The difficulty with subtle messages is that they are a challenge to identify but they can still have tremendous effects on our self-concept and worldview.

Even subtle messages that there is a ‘right’ way to be a strong woman are damaging.

I’ve been invited into several clubs for strong women. Some online and a couple in person. I’m thankful for them and understand the value of having a support system of women around me who challenge me to be my best self and pursue my ambition. But I am also constantly wondering, why was I invited? I don’t question from a place of insecurity, or because I doubt my own strength, but because I’m not sure what I did to show others that I belonged in the strong woman category.

It feels like being invited to the popular table at lunch in middle school. Of course I want to be a part of group. But when I’m there, I feel a bit uneasy. What I want more than being in the group, is for there to be no group.  

Women are strong is the narrative I try to spread. Sometimes it’s by directly speaking to the issue like in this post. But most of the time, it’s more organic than that. I spread the message that women are strong by being a woman and choosing to take myself seriously. I’ve learned that my self-beliefs are interpreted by those around me. So when I trust that my thoughts, perspective, skills and personhood are valuable and worthy of respect, I find that usually that’s what I receive. And this is not unique to me, it will work for you, too.

There are certainly female-specific issues we need to raise our voices about and fight for. But when it comes to our strength, I wish to see a movement of women choosing to simply own it and use it, and not get stuck discussing it.

Champion the narrative that women are strong, not that there are some strong women.

I hope that Feminine Foresight has been, and continues to be, a catalyst towards dismantling any strong woman in-group mentality that exists. I hope that when you read my words, or listen to me speak, you hear the message that women are strong, not that there are some strong women.

I see myself as a light and guide in a conversation that can sometimes feel overwhelming and full of pressure. You don’t need to do anything special or accomplish anything spectacular to legitimize your strength. Your strength is real and in you now, you just need to own it.

Embodying your strength doesn’t look the same from one woman to the next. But the more comfortable you are with your own power, the easier it will be to recognize the potential in others.

I want you to breathe easy here. I want you to view your strength as a given, and everything else as an opportunity to grow. That’s why I have been consistently providing useful information and skills about leadership and communication. Not because I am an expert, but because I wholeheartedly believe that knowledge + skills = confidence. And the more confident you are, the better the world will be.

Confidence in your strength leads to the following: more social engagement, making courageous decisions that align with your values, freedom, contentment and so much more. And as you flourish in these ways, you will spread them on to others. Because women are strong and that’s what women do for each other.