Thursday, March 05, 2015

What Makes a Strong Woman?

A little over ten years ago, I presided over my recently deceased grandmother’s funeral visitation. This is what most of us are called to do a few times in the course of one lifetime. Wearing a full suit and tie, plus jacket, I nervously circulated throughout the largest, most ornate room of the funeral home. One-by-one, people queued up to offer their personal condolences and remembrances.

A middle-aged woman approached me with great energy, shaking my hand as though it had been an antique pump handle. “Your grandmother,” she said, reverently, “was such an inspiration to me.” Southerners can be gushy, but this unknown mourner was only getting started. “I remember her being such a strong woman, especially when she established the recycling center and the library.”

I thanked her for such effusive praise as I stifled the impulse to speak the truth. A strong woman means something different to different people. If by strong woman we mean (and this is only my definition) a lack of overt femininity, and a wanton desire to live in the world of men, then my Grandmother easily qualifies. She was the only girl in a household of four brothers, younger than all but one of them. They grew up during the Depression without a father, who died when my Grandmother was ten, and mostly without a mother who likely suffered from schizophrenia and, shortly after her husband’s passing, was institutionalized for the rest of her life.

Those sorts of tragedies would make anyone tough, male or female. As a man, I’m certain I have a very different view of what constitutes a strong woman. Rather than resort to abstractions, I’ll tell a few family stories and let you decide for yourself. It is true that my Grandmother’s business sense and accounting acumen was impeccable and that she ran much of the family water well drilling company herself. It is also true that my grandfather, not her, was the true authority behind the company, who only deferred to his wife when his bipolar disorder grew too extreme for another day’s filthy, muddy work out in the fields.

Yes, my Grandfather was a man of his time, a husband who expected his wife to have supper on the table when he arrived home and his newspaper neatly folded. If he disliked what had been prepared, for any reason, he loudly left the house and had his dinner instead at the local barbecue joint. If she resented that treatment, her children never knew. This was the 1950’s, a time before feminism and its own forceful virtues seeking to accomplish strict gender equality.

The closer we get to the 2016 Presidential Election, the more we’ll hear about the value of strong women like Hillary Clinton. I have no doubt that former Secretary of State Clinton is one. She’s lived in a fishbowl for the last twenty-three years and if conquering adversity makes for strength and strong women, she most certainly qualifies. But are there other qualities that go into making strong women besides being a survivor of tragedy and not kowtowing to men?

As you’ll recall, my grandmother was roundly praised for her civic duties. The small Southern town where she and her brood lived had never heard of this strange concept called recycling, nor had most Americans in the 1970’s. The well drilling work of the family business determined that recycling water and other materials wasn’t just environmentally friendly, it also saved them a ton of money. Furthermore, my grandmother felt it obscene that the little town where they lived didn’t have a public library, and she contributed to its construction.

But every life has its worst qualities. She favored the ways of men above the ways of women, which would be a matter of preference, except that she also favored her male grandchildren above her female ones. While in the middle of the political discussions of men that inevitably broke out during family gatherings, my grandmother never argued for women’s rights, acting mostly as though her own gender identity was invisible. She wore dresses and perfume, reluctantly, and despite being an excellent cook, she was not an especially feminine, maternal, or nurturing person.

She could be a little selfish and cutthroat, especially where money was concerned. For her female progeny, Grandmother (never anything as vulgar as “Grandma”) could be impossible to please and quick to insult. I, a boy soon to be a man, could do no wrong. And I very quickly grew tired of her constant complaints and unfair criticisms lodged constantly against my two younger sisters. Though I may seem cruel, I did not mourn when my Grandmother died. But I did not rejoice upon her passing, either. I was struck with a sense of injustice combined with discomfort that I hadn’t known how to address. I still don’t.

So I return once more, a man, asking a question that may have no easy answer. What Makes a Strong Woman? Is there any pure definition that our idealism might have us pursue in a life’s work? We might well be asking if there is such a thing as a Good Person or a Bad Person. We wrestle with degrees and definitions of our own creation. But with politicians particularly, it’s possible to be strong for the right reasons and strong for the wrong reasons, but this is the case both if we are male or if we are female.

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