This week is book-ended with woman-centered marches in our nation’s capital, the Women’s March and the March for Life. The first touted the “rights” of women and trumpeted the need for “progress.” The second seeks progress, too; it urges society to leave behind the dated and detrimental notion that a woman must be allowed to harm others in order to actualize her Self.
The first march was fueled by the liberal agenda and its maidservant, the mainstream media, which has played an invaluable role in sanitizing the message of the Left to make it palatable for our schools and homes. An example that comes to mind is the Girl Power message I received in the mail on an ad recently, featuring a young girl with an atomic symbol on her t-shirt side-kicking a stack of books. The idea was, I think, girls are smart and can understand books about nuclear physics? Or maybe, girls who wear science t-shirts like to kick books? At any rate, parents who would be horrified by the things that went on in DC last weekend have been compelled to embrace the mantra, “Raise strong girls! Be a woman of strength!”
Girl Power vs. Feminine Strength
I have six daughters ranging in age from 20 months to 20 years, so I’ve been exposed to the media’s messages for girls for going on two decades. Well, double that, if you count my exposure when I was a girl myself. On the face of it perhaps, the “woman of strength” message doesn’t seem so bad. Who could argue with wanting women to be of strong moral character? It is by the morals of women that societies rise and fall, after all. But no, this message isn’t about moral character at all. Instead it’s about three very different kinds of “strength” – physical strength, strength in self-reliance, and strength of emotion – all of which are implied in the ad I described.
The Strong Woman message’s emphasis on physical strength is evident in everything from girls’ t-shirts at Old Navy to the propping up of certain women’s sports. Again, there is nothing bad about women seeking to be physically fit, but why is the media so keen on making it such a big freakin’ deal? Because of the same old shtick – physical strength is, biologically, a man’s domain. It is by that very fact a military objective for feminism. Authentic womanhood, on the other hand, emphasizes moral strength – a quality to which every woman, regardless of her ability or desire for physical endurance – can aspire.
This is not to say that women do not possess physical strength, but its natural and most striking expression usually occurs in the service of others, particularly in the bearing of new life. A newly pregnant woman climbs a mountain every day in terms of the energy her body expends on building the tiny new person. Around the fourth month a pregnant woman’s body experiences a strong hormonal shift as it pours energy into the building of a new person’s life support system, the placenta. Looking at my own profile in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy I myself have even wondered, “How the heck am I able to do this?” Then there’s childbirth, when a woman gets to see what her husband’s face would look like if he beheld an actual superhero.
Feminism of course also emphasizes the strength of self-reliance. This tenet is a direct attack on the truth that man and woman are made for communion and interdependence. Dependence on another means vulnerability and it means risk, and that is why true strength can be seen in a woman’s willingness to depend on her spouse. The woman who forsakes her career to be at home with her children because she feels it’s the best thing for her family is taking a courageous step. There is false safety in self-reliance, but there is courage and strength behind faithful dependence.
Another noticeable aspect of the Strong Woman message is the license for strong emotion. In other words, there is a value placed on strong emotions for emotions’ sake. We see this in popular media of many kinds, when women are celebrated for childish outbursts of anger, “following their hearts,” and just generally doing whatever feels right at the moment. The authentically strong woman, on the other hand, puts her emotion at the service of others. Her feelings for her spouse and her children can motivate her to place their needs above her own. The empathy that is a signature of the feminine genius makes her the emotional center – the heart – of the home. As that center, that heart, all the family members come to rely on her compassion and love, and she becomes strong in prayer and self-discipline, because she must.
Authentic womanhood, then, has a strength that defies the modern Girl Power hype. Rather than a physical strength that imitates that of men, we find a moral strength that calls others to a higher mode of living. And we see her uniquely feminine physical strength as the cradle and defender of new life. Rather than limiting herself through relying solely on her own power, the authentic woman is free to depend on those she loves, and draws them into loving dependence on her. Instead of being a slave to her emotions, this woman’s emotions serve to inspire her self-giving love.
The Order of Love
In giving herself away through love, woman finds herself, becomes more herself. For a photographic negative, we need only think of abortion. Its abhorrence and inhumanity is rooted in its utter contradiction of woman’s call to love, because that call is first and foremost to be answered in vocational motherhood – spiritual or physical. It would be a failure for a woman to refuse to defend the life of any of her children, but to fail in defending the most defenseless of all is a particularly poignant affront.
The “order of love,” noted Pope St. John Paul, “takes first root” in women. We see this played out in Our Lord’s ministry on earth, at the incarnation, at the cross, at the Resurrection. Our Lady is the preeminent example of womanly strength, but as we approach Lent I’d like to point out another saintly woman who has long been one of my heroes, St. Veronica. When Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released, my mind immediately flew to the sixth station of the cross. How would he portray Veronica?
In my opinion, he did so beautifully, and his portrayal highlights true feminine strength. Veronica shows physical courage when she approaches Christ in spite of the angry crowd, the abusive soldiers, and the volatile situation. Spurred by love, she offers a cool drink to the thirsty, a clean cloth to a suffering face – actions that bear the hallmarks of motherhood. While self-reliance has an inward focus, Veronica’s very dependence as a Hebrew mother seems to heighten her awareness of the needs of others, and strengthens her to respond. The emotion she must feel at the sight of Christ is turned toward service, not wasted on rage. In Gibson’s Veronica we see the particularly feminine power to be unobtrusively present in a dangerous situation and to do what is right without self-seeking. Her action is small, but her impact is immense.
A Love that Roars
Women now must turn on its head the old Helen Reddy feminist trope, “I am woman, hear me roar.” I am woman. Like Mary, like Veronica, I may not make a lot of noise. But if you look, you will see my strength. By the grace of Christ, my love will roar.