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Why Strong Women Don’t Get Respect

It starts with what we say about ourselves

"Must be my hormones again."

"Oh, it's just estrogen."

"I'm just a chick with a bad thyroid."

These are the kinds of things I hear women in high-profile positions say about themselves—and by extension, about all women.

Recently, a writer submitted an article for our staff to consider for publication. In it the author bitterly criticized strong women for not getting along with others and aggressively destroying women around them for no apparent reason. The article used several offensive and stereotypical terms in referring to women, such as "catfight," "henpecked," "meow," and "creatures containing estrogen."

This article was written by a woman.

One of the reasons I reacted so strongly against this article is because it reminded me of the way women often speak of themselves and each other in public. It reminded me of the stereotypes that label women leaders with derogatory generalizations designed to bring them down.

I wince every time I hear a Christian writer or speaker (and by virtue of her position, a leader) use the word "estrogen." This is not because I have some weird aversion to a discussion of hormones, but because she's usually using the word for a cheap laugh that summarily dismisses women as victims of this particular hormone that apparently makes us say and do things that should not be taken seriously. When we summarize ourselves this way, or embrace the world's derogatory terms for us, or dismiss our emotional expressions as symptoms of overactive hormones, we dismiss half the population—half of the people God made in his image. And we participate in the kind of base rejection that drives women to repression and self-loathing.

(As a side note, men also have estrogen, and women happen to have testosterone as well.)

This basic disrespect for our own gender and our abilities comes out in the kind of criticism unfairly leveled at strong women. It's common to insinuate that women who are strong leaders are, by nature, mean and destructive, and need to be knocked down a peg or two. They're overbearing, unkind, and predatory.

But the kind of behavior we stereotypically lay at the feet of "strong women" isn't about strength. I know a lot of strong women with leadership gifts who are exercising those gifts to serve God in the world and to empower other women to do the same. None of these women are backbiting, bullying human weapons of mass destruction. Even in the animal world, alpha females usually don't pick off the weaker members or destroy their pack. Sometimes they keep the group safe and lead them to food.

Overbearing, unkind, and predatory behavior is characteristic not of leaders, but of people who are overbearing, unkind, and predatory—women and men. The kind of destructive behavior we attribute to strong women is usually carried out by women who are hurting—whether they're strong leaders or not. In fact, in my experience women commonly attack one another not because they believe they're strong, but because they don't—they feel weak, powerless, and threatened by the other women around them. Sometimes they're being bullied regularly (perhaps by the men in their lives) and they're trying to assert some control and dominance to give themselves a sense of value. Such women need compassion—along with strong boundaries. They don't need the kind of dismissal that feeds the lack of self-respect that caused them to lash out in the first place.

The less women feel it's acceptable to dismiss themselves, the less threatened they'll feel by the women around them with the courage and calling to lead. And on this, perhaps we who are leaders need to set the example by being respectful of women at all times, especially in what we say about each other.

Amy Simpson is Editor of SmallGroups.com and Kyria's Marriage & Parenting resources, and a freelance writer and the author of Into the Word: How to Get the Most from Your Bible (NavPress).

December21, 2011 at 10:46 AM

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