Strong women

Where I live, people want women to be “strong.”  That is the official sentiment, at any rate.  That seems to me to be asking for too little.  Maybe I can introduce my concern by coming at it from the other side.

For years now, I have misremembered a line from a poem by Charles Kingsley.  I am not embarrassed that I misremembered it; I am embarrassed by the fact that I like the wrong version—mine—better than the right version.  Here’s the way I have always thought it went:  “Only be thou good, sweet maid/and let who can be clever.” [1]

So…what are we talking about here?  We are talking about gender norms.  What kind of “behavior” [2] should we prize in women? [3]  It would be nice, one might think, to say that it depends entirely on the woman.  A woman “ought to be” what she wants to be and we should all root for her success.

That never works.  I have never heard of a society without gender norms.  It makes a contribution to the society, somehow.  Usually, what is meant, when someone says that a woman should be free to be whoever she wants to be, is that she should be free to be whatever kind of woman she chooses to be.  There is still, in this model, an “OK for women” space and this argument holds that a woman should be able to choose anything she likes from within that space.

strong 2So now that we have corralled the question to a certain extent, we can ask it more meaningfully.  What kind of traits—among the traits that are virtues in women [4]—should we emphasize?  The current choice, made by the staff of the Senior Center where Bette and I live, is that woman should be strong.  The Mother’s Day [5] featured a little card, along with a beautiful flower, that said this: “Here’s to Strong Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

This emphasis, bracing as it is, violates most of the criteria set out above.  It presupposes, for one thing, that the women in question want to be strong women.  So it is a challenge to the individuality norm.  It presupposed that among the various traits women might have, strength is the most important one. [6]  It is more important than gentleness, for instance, or good humor, or good manners, or wit, of adept communication.

It will be protested against this indictment, that there is nothing about being “strong” that prevents it from being joined to any number of those other virtues.  That is true, in principle, but we are talking here about salience.  Some are more important than others.  We are not talking here about the best combinations.  We are talking about what is to be prized at the expense of what.  It’s a salience war.

Strong 3Let’s pause for an example.  In my political science classes at Portland State, I used to try to teach the importance of salience.  We can treat that, for today’s purposes, as “What is the question we are addressing.”  I began by noting that in what are now called “the abortion wars,” no one takes a position called Anti-Choice.  Similarly, no one chooses Anti-Life.  Why?  Because you will lose if you do that.

The argument proceeds, instead, as a conflict over which question is salient.  Is it “Should the life of the fetus be preserved?”  Is it “Should a woman be free to choose what happens to her own body?”  You tell me what the question is and I will tell you who is going to win.  Why?  Because salience is everything.

And that brings us back to strong women.  Strong rather than what?  If you establish “Should women be strong?” as the question, then I think “rather than weak” is the proper way to complete the question.  That makes it a pretty aggressive question:  “Do you want women to be strong or weak?”  Hint: there is a right answer.

In Julia Ward Howe’s original Mothers’ Day Proclamation, women were thought of as the sources of caresses and affirmation, something nearly any man would desire.  Here’s what she said:

Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage/for caresses and applause. 

The point there is that men should not be free to wage war, as they often want to, and then return to their wives for the hero’s welcome.  Absolutely not.  We mothers will save the caresses and applause for the times when the men do what we want them to do.  In this case, that is to forego war and pursue peace.

If you want to say something other than “strong and not weak” or “weak rather than strong 4strong,” you are going to have to change the question that is being asked.  Should women be praised for other traits as well?  Or is it just being strong?  Could we say, for instance: “Here’s to Smart Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”  As an exercise, I tried googling “nice women” and I got pictures like this.

Or could we say: “Here’s to Nurturing Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or could we say: “Here’s to Resilient Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Or even: “Here’s to Beautiful Women.  May we know them.  May we be them.  May we raise them.”

Some of those traits are currently fashionable for women; others not so much.  But the objection would be likely to be one of two kinds.  Either it will be that all those are good and one should be simply added to another as “appropriate for women.”  Or it will be that each woman should be able to choose for herself what traits to emphasize in her own life.

Those are both good answers, of course, but they do not serve the proponents of the “strong woman” campaign, because they undercut their goals as well as all the others.  It’s not a problem with a solution.

There is one thing, however.  I am nearly panting with my enthusiasm over the trait that will be chosen for Fathers’s Day.  What is the current “virtue” for men?  Watch this space.

[1]As I looked it up, I discovered that the actual line is: “Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever “

[2]  Including all traits here, including styles of cognition, intention, and emotion, as well as actual actions.

[3]  I think you ought to start getting ready for another post on Father’s day.  Gender norming, in the view from the trenches, is not for the faint of heart.

[4]I always savor the pun that is buried there.The word “virtue,”—meaning any virtue at all—derives from the Latin, vir, = man.So, etymologically speaking, every virtue is a “manliness” of some kind. This is most ironically true of the classic virginal maiden who, in preserving her virtue, is preserving her manliness. Etymologically speaking.

[5]  The placement of that apostrophe is of climactic importance.  The original choice was “Mothers’ Day,” the day of the mothers.  It was a call for peace, rather than war; for femininity, rather than masculinity.  The current style, “Mother’s Day” is the day dedicated to good ol’ Mom and especially in light of all the ways she helped us along when we were children.  You choose your apostrophe placement, you choose your battlefield.

[6]  Or, if not the most important one, the one most in need of praise and support.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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