Where does your mind go when you think of feminine strength? Do you think it means “inner strength,” like fortitude of character, not actual physical strength?
“You throw like a girl.”
“The little missus.”
“The weaker sex.”
The phrase “masculine strength” doesn’t even exist. When we call a man strong we’re usually referring to his physical strength. But when we call a woman “strong,” we are usually referring to anything but.
Think of the expression: “Behind every strong man is a strong woman,” which means behind every man who has a public persona is a woman quietly in the background supporting her husband with her inner fortitude or strength of character. We don’t actually picture a tall, big, powerfully built woman flexing her ripped muscles when this is said.
And all of that is just poppycock. The idea that women aren’t physically strong and able is bunk.
Feminine strength in history
Because, as journalist Haley Shapley makes abundantly clear in her new book, Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, And Unstoppable Athletes, history is chock full of stories of feminine strength.
Strong women. Doing great things. Physical specimens of strength.
Shapley has written an exciting book, sharing stories of powerful women doing amazing things. Her book should be required reading in every history class in the country.
Why? Because it writes the women who have been left out back into history where they belong. It turns mainstream “his-story” on its head. No, women aren’t too weak or too sensitive or too emotional to compete with men. And though they’ve made great strides in this century, history shows that they never have been.
Shapley’s book uncovers this hidden history of feminine strength, helping us to break through the stereotypes and throw off language that demeans women. Her powerful book is a celebration of the physical power of women.
What if we change the narrative of strength?
We’ve never had a female president in the United States. But this year many of us thought we would at least have a woman running for president. We were wrong. Having just endured a Democratic presidential primary with several women candidates who ultimately lost to two seventy-something white men, neither of whom was as charismatic, compelling, or exciting as they were, America seems to have a l-o-n-g way to go to shatter stereotypes about women’s weakness. A true portrait of feminine strength can help.
Strong Like Her celebrates women athletes who break the rules, make history, and don’t let their narrow cultural confines define who they are.
Like the first female Olympian who raced a chariot.
Like Queen Victoria, a strong and stubborn girl who defied her mother’s attempt to make her act like a delicate flower. After she inherited the throne and married her cousin Albert, she insisted she would not be bossed around. Granted, Queen Victoria wasn’t entirely successful (Shapley calls her “a study in contrasts”), but Shapley insists she was a strong queen who set the stage for what was happening across the ocean here in the States: Physical Education classes for girls, women riding bicycles for the first time, and ladies participating as athletes in spectator sports.
Shapley argues that the women in the 19th century and early 20th century America like Sandwina—the Lady Hercules—paved the way for American women today who do magnificent things with their bodies: the women bodybuilders, yoga champions, ultramarathoners, and more.
Her words are coupled with stunning and inspiring portraits of feminine strength by photographer Sophy Holland.
I loved this book. My only criticism of it is that it doesn’t have an index. As an erstwhile college professor who still teaches from time to time, the book would be hard to use in a classroom setting without an index to look things up. That’s a real shortcoming. One I hope they rectify in the next edition.
(A side note to nonfiction book authors: Usually the author, not the publisher, pays the expense of creating an index, even when the actual indexing is handled on the publisher’s end. It’s always worth every penny. So don’t forgo the index because of the expense. And if your publisher isn’t planning to include an index, be sure to insist on it.)
Strong Like Her challenges us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the power of women. The physical prowess of the athletes pictured in the book leaves no doubt that strong is strong. These women, most of whom can do things with their bodies that the vast majority of men cannot, don’t portray feminine strength. They’re just strong. Period. And totally awesome.
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