The reaction to my column on women and the recent congressional primaries was mixed. Some readers thanked me for voicing an opinion that you don’t often hear in a major metropolitan newspaper. (Namely, that the gender of a candidate is irrelevant to her qualifications.) Others were appalled that I appeared to be dismissing the accomplishments of these supposedly strong women who were raising their voices at a time when the tensions between male and female have reached near-crisis proportions.
The reaction proved to me that the stereotype of the “strong woman” is just that, a stereotype. We all formulate our ideas of strength by following the solitary route of personal experience, and that’s why partisanship and tribal sensibilities have little to teach us about real empowerment.
I am a political animal, but I did not grow up in a deeply partisan atmosphere. Instead, my teachers and role models were mostly women, and mostly unmarried. My mother was widowed at 43, left with five children to raise alone. That took a strength that I am only now beginning to fully appreciate, three and a half decades later.
Then there were the nuns, too many to count, who were far from the angels depicted by Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, but stand out in my memory as the strongest, fiercest, and most independent creatures I ever met. Sister Mary David, who deserves a column of her own, stood just over four feet tall and had a halo of silvery hair peeking out from under her bonnet. She looked as if she couldn’t intimidate a mouse, and yet if she had been in charge instead of Caesar, we might all be speaking Latin.
I couldn’t tell you what was written on Sister’s voter-registration card, or even if she ever voted. I grew up thinking my mother was a registered Democrat but later found out she was a Republican, which goes to show how perceptive I’m not, and how independent she was.
Politics are irrelevant to character, strength, and the quality of the human spirit, so I think that’s what annoyed me so much about the obsession with gender in last week’s primaries, mostly from one side of the aisle. Women cannot be categorized.
There’s a book out now that expresses this idea with clarity and compassion. Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman tells the story of 101 people who faced adversity and triumphed. This is not a self-help book. It doesn’t tell you how to live your life in 10 easy principles, and it doesn’t enunciate rules for success (although I was thrilled to learn that proceeds from the sale go to Dress For Success, an organization that gives women a head start in joining or rejoining the workforce).
What the book does do is introduce you to women who encountered obstacles, and instead of trying to circumvent or run away from them, did what strong women do: climbed up, and over, the mountain. The exceptional thing is that there is no template, no blueprint, no stereotype. The writers come from all social, ethnic, economic, and political backgrounds. What matters is that they followed their own unique trajectories toward empowerment.
One story holds particular significance for me. I know a woman who gave birth to a son and who, a few months later, was told by her husband that he wasn’t cut out to be a father and was going back home to his native England. She saw her dreams of a picket fence crumble but straightened her back and said, “I’ve got this.” Shortly thereafter, that “father” demanded a DNA test, and the results confirmed that there was a 99.89 percent probability of his paternity. That became the title of the essay, “Mr. 99.89 percent.” That mother is my sister Tara, and that child is my nephew.
The woman who put the anthology together is a study in empowerment. Amy Newmark graduated from Harvard, spent three decades on Wall Street, and then returned to her first love, writing. In collecting these stories, she helps shine a light on real, substantive, nonpartisan, female strength.
These are strong women.