Fierce and Feminine.
Despite widespread perception, deeply embedded associations and centuries of conditioning, these two words are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are but two sides of the same coin.
Fierce: bold, ardent, passionate, powerful, relentless, strong.
A force to be reckoned with.
When I think of the women I know, those who walk through life with me, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, this is the most prominent descriptor that comes to mind. Loving, loyal, caring, courageous, beautiful, thoughtful, articulate, immeasurably wise, gentle even, yes, certainly, they are all of these and more, but fierce is not the least among them. In fact, put the adverb fiercely in front of any of the above adjectives, and it only serves to make the statement more accurately telling of their character.
I grew up in a loving, supportive Christian family, the oldest of four daughters. Make no mistake about it, I have always known I was deeply loved and valued. And still, our home was structured around patriarchal thought, though as a child I was hardly aware there was a formal name for it.
But I can tell you this…
I have always felt it, felt the weight of it.
Growing up I was taught, both directly and peripherally, that a man is to be the “head of the household,” and as such, at the end of the day, the husband’s and/or father’s word was to be final, and ultimately should always be regarded as “right” and of the highest standard. A woman was to submit to this authority over her and such a posture should be honored in the home and church.
But if I am to square with you, this arrangement has never set well with me. Something deep in my bones has always been at odds with this model. And yet, for a significant portion of my life, I couldn’t have told you why.
Rewind with me, if you will, roughly 10 years: I was a teenager when my well-meaning mother first tried to coax [or coerce rather], me into learning how to cook. She attempted [unsuccessfully I might add] to require I prepare dinner for the family at least once a week so that I might “hone this skill set necessary for a woman.” I can specifically recall her saying in exasperation, “how do you ever expect to find a husband if you can’t cook?” I resented her use of what I considered to be severely insensitive, ignorant words.
Quick on the trigger, I wasted no time spewing back careless words of my own regarding my independence and rejection of the notion that I should “need a man to take care of me.” If my ability to slave away in the kitchen was a contingency for marriage, I would just soon never marry, or would simply find a man capable of feeding himself. Certainly such a one must exist. I knew these words served as daggers in my poor mother’s heart, and I regret that. I was not skilled in the art of arguing well at 15.
Yet, at a very young age I knew that what I had to bring to the table as a woman, and someday as a wife in the context of marriage, greatly exceeded the simplistic assumption of what I might be capable of setting on one.
We laugh about it now, especially considering that today I love the art of cooking. However, I learned to love it of my own accord and volition, not by force or out of duty. All the better then.
Fast forward to college. I can still remember my father making this statement after hearing I’d started dating someone: “well good, at least we’re getting our money’s worth.” Now, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that this playful comment was never intended to be condescending or demeaning. I certainly don’t hold it against him.
And yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the underlying message is this: the most productive, valuable thing to gain, as a woman, from a college education, is a husband; someone to lift the burden of care from the shoulders of parents. As women, we are not inherently enough on our own, not complete without a man to “take care of us.”
While in retrospect I can see the fingerprints of such perspectives smeared all about the surfaces of my life, because patriarchy is a subtle creature in our western culture, it has only been in the last few years that I have been able to wrap words around it, speak its effects into some degree of intelligibility and identify the threads woven throughout the pages of my story. As I peel back the layers, I’m discovering a distinct framework that brings to light something I have always deeply known:
I am a woman.
I am not weak, not a commodity, and I am not to blame for human depravity.
I have a mind; it is critical thinking. I have a voice; it is worth hearing.
I was not created to fit a restrictive mold; I was created for Kingdom work.
I bear the mark of my Creator in my femininity, not in spite of it.
I am of no lesser value than any one of my brothers.
I, on my own, and by the power of the Spirit in me, am enough.
Now in an effort to derail any misconception that I might be shaking a fist at men and their brute insensitivity, please hear me out when I assure you this is not the case. Rather, one of the more profound realities this revelation has brought to light is this: while this liberating truth is worth celebrating, it simultaneously prohibits me from playing the blame game.
I am responsible for my own actions, my attitude, my heart and my sin. It is my responsibility to take all of these things to the foot of the cross.
No one stands as mediary between me and the blood of Jesus. Period.
This reality goes a step further by lifting the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of men. My husband [assuming I marry] will never be held accountable for the cultivation or current standing of my relationship with the Lord. He does not bear the burden to “lead” in this way as those fluent in Christianese [of which I am one] might compel you to believe.
I am already led by the Spirit.
I don’t need another leader, I need a partner. This is both liberating and sobering.
None of this ought to be extrapolated, for even a moment, to assume that we don’t need our brothers at all. On the contrary, we need them very, very much.
A few Sundays back, I sat, tears brimming, in the pews during service while one of our pastors seized a most unexpected opportunity to speak out into the congregation words of acknowledgement for the indispensable nature of every women. He reminded us of the revolutionary actions Jesus took to bestow dignity upon women in a culture committed to disparaging them. He thanked us for our contributions and our voices, for our support and our leadership.
And in that moment, it was his voice that was needed. So incredibly valuable. You see, words have this funny habit of meaning things. They have the ability to breathe life into places and spaces where perhaps it had been lacking previously [and likewise can have the opposite effect]. And on this particular evening, it was the voice of my brother that broke chains and brought down walls.
The fact of the matter is this: women are fighting fierce battles alongside our brothers on behalf of the Kingdom in our world every.single.day.
It pains me that the voices of more than half the Church often go unnoticed and unheard; silenced even, or not taken seriously while their oppression is dismissed as a “secondary or third-tier issue”. This ought not be so! May we contemplate the weight of Paul’s words as he addressed the churches in Galatia:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus [Galatians 3:28]
In a culture that boasts great freedoms, it’s easy to dismiss oppressive forces like patriarchy as non-issues, or at best, “second or third-tier issues.”
But they aren’t second or third tier issues if you’re a woman. They aren’t second or third-tier issues to our Father who designed us in the Imago Dei. Neither should they be second or third-tier issues to those of us who are charged to be his hands and feet. We so desperately need to be equipping all the saints to bring Kingdom here on earth in a holistic manner, side-by-side, as a full representation of the body of Christ. Both sets of voices are equally necessary to push back the stifling confines of patriarchy.
A few weeks ago I was out to dinner with friends. As the evening unfolded I got into a great conversation with one of my girlfriends sitting next to me. She is an incredibly bright, gifted, and vibrant woman. Spend five minutes in her company and her indubitable strengths are made self-evident: she is a born leader. I admire her strength, passion and lively spirit, and on this particular evening, I happened to tell her so.
Immediately her demeanor changed. Her shoulders slumped and the light in her eyes dimmed. She looked at me ashamed, “I know, I hate that about myself!”
“What?! What are you talking about? You’re amazing!”
“But women aren’t supposed to be like me, they are supposed to be soft and submissive. I need to be more like that…”
The kiss of death for a strong spirited woman.
Such are the concepts, along with all the implicit connotations that are being communicated to the hearts of women, reinforced in the minds of men, and perpetuated throughout the church today. And this is what I mean when I say the grip of patriarchy is far-reaching and elusive. It’s difficult to pin down, not nearly as obvious and forthright as we expect it to be.
Rarely is the message of oppression communicated through candid words, black and white rules or blatant subjugation.
No, more likely we learn its lessons passively, by way of a dangerous undercurrent, and in all that goes unsaid we are conditioned to buy into the lie, and eventually, if we’re not careful, become complicit in the crime of perpetuation.
Soft: often confused with feminine.
But we were not called to be soft, oh daughters. Au contraire… we are image bearers of the risen Lord called to bring about the Kingdom in partnership with the Spirit, our brothers beside us. We are far from soft, we are fiercely feminine. And that is no small thing to celebrate.
While reading your article as I am pondering this whole idea of equality and femininity, I was struck by your friend’s response to your compliment. As a person coming from a pretty opposite side of the spectrum — someone whom most people would probably describe, to some degree, as soft — I have often felt really exhausted trying to be, or at least thinking I should be, the kind of passionate, leadership-bound, outspoken kind of person instead. As I have gone through life, and started accepting myself more, I have found more of these qualities actually coming out, but I still sometimes feel like I am falling short of a feminine ideal by not being particularly fierce or passionate. This makes me wonder if it is easy to pick up on the ideals that seem to say “the way you are is wrong, and the way she is is right.” Certainly, there are many standards (especially in a lot of “traditional” church environs) to which I feel well-suited, and having friends who are more outspoken, I know, at least second hand, that it is really frustrating to be getting the feedback that you are not properly feminine.
In the end, I guess what I am saying is that we should keep building each other up in our strengths and (for ourselves) being able to see them as strengths, whether they be quieter or louder, more subdued or more vigorous.
Hi Bethany, thank you for your very honest feedback! I think you are right on, and the pendulum certainly tends to swing doesn’t it? I’m sorry you have felt exhausted trying to maintain a standard you don’t feel designed to fulfill. I have thought a lot about this actually as I have friends who are naturally wired with a more reserved and/or quiet personality, and fit the more “traditional mold” of femininity as portrayed by the church and society, and honestly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
I have a roommate who is an intelligent, educated, fun, talented and loving woman and sister in Christ, and her greatest yearning and desire in life is to be a wife and mother someday. And I absolutely celebrate that. You might relate to her more as she is on the quieter side and certainly a peacemaker. But not for one second would I hesitate in using the word “fierce” to describe her. The woman is Fiercely loyal. Fiercely loving. Fiercely patient and enduring in trying times. And she is Fiercely faithful in her pursuit of Jesus. I kid you not, I look up to her every single day, longing for her discipline, nay, DESIRE, hoping I can find the strength to be half the amount of fierce she is. But areas in which her and I are strong are manifested in different ways.
The battle [Jesus] Feminists & Biblical Egalitarians are fighting is not to belittle the traditional gifts, or those who naturally identify with them, it is to put a stop to the elevation of one specific model above all others as “most holy” or “most pleasing to God,” or even, “the ONLY option pleasing to God.” It is to say that no woman [or MAN for that matter] ought to be automatically put in a box simply because they are a specific gender. We are all different as you have identified. You are absolutely correct when you say “we should keep building each other up in our strengths…” The frustration exists because very rarely are we being ASKED the appropriate questions in the first place.
I do hope you find yourself relaxing more and more into the woman you were created to be. You are celebrated, and you sharpen people, whether bold and outspoken or thoughtful and gentle. If you feel gifted in the traditional roles, I support you, 100% and I will fight for you to be celebrated as you embrace your God-given gifts. My only request is that you return the favor to your sisters who are gifted differently. You are fierce and irreplaceable in the body dear sister. And you are a woman, therefore you are most certainly feminine!
Grace & Peace
Thank you so much. And I will fight for you, too.
Cayla, what a great post. I too was brought up (in a non Christian household) with the clear understanding that boys were somehow inherently better… and this was all the more poignant because my parents hadn’t been fortunate to have any. They loved their three girls, definitely, but they were poorer because there was no son… and this was in suburban Sydney, Australia, not the wilds of Africa or India or China…
… and there was something about that that didn’t sit right with me (the last born girl, and therefore the most deeply disappointing)… somehow it didn’t make sense.
It took a lot of years (a LOT Of years) for me to grasp why/how but grasp it I have, and I am better because of it! You’re right… we are not called to be soft, but fiercely feminine. Very cool.
Thanks for sharing Bev. I’m so glad you DID finally grasp it, as you’ve stated. Very cool indeed!
I love this post, especially you talking about your awareness that it didn’t sit right with you without being able to fully articulate why.
Thank you Carly! And thanks for reading and sharing!!
Such a fierce article! I love it!
My mother told me that I could major in English in college since I would eventually have a husband to support me (and would not, presumably, be working myself). And while my English degree hasn’t resulted in a super lucrative job and my husband certainly contributes more to the bank account, the assumption that as a woman I might as well “waste” my time on a “frivolous” degree still rankles.
Thank you Sarah! It’s amazing how many of us have our own stories to tell that are so similar in nature. If I wouldn’t have felt so much weight and pressure to major in something “practical,” I would have majored in English also. It has always been my great love. Instead, I received an Accounting degree… yeah. It’s taken me years [and I’m still in the process] of passionless work, big risks and lots of counseling to get myself back in a direction that makes me feel more like me. Proud of you for pressing in and pursuing what you love regardless of the messages you were sent. No matter what- God is always accomplishing His redemptive work behind the scenes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
This just made my whole day! 😀
Thank YOU Lisa! I’m SO glad! 🙂
This is beautifully written. I would go even further and question what is “masculine” and “feminine”? Whatever one would list under those categories, I’m sure you could find people who do not fit within, proving your point as well.
Loved this very much. 🙂
Ha! Good point Kenna! Sounds very similar to the conversations revolving around the attempt to define in strict terms what “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood” look like doesn’t it? Very tricky territory, and I’d argue there isn’t really a hard and fast definition for either. We often get hung up trying to figure out how to define femininity/masculinity in order that we can earn the title of a real “woman” or “man,” rather than reorganizing our thinking to recognize that because we ARE women and men, we are therefore feminine and masculine. Thanks for reading and sharing!
Here’s my take on the myth of Biblical manhood/womanhood, Cayla.
Tim, guessing there was supposed to be a link in your reply but it didn’t make it across cyberspace. Please try again!
I tried embedding it in the phrase “manhood/womanhood”. Here’s the link itself: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/biblical-womanhood-is-nothing-and-neither-is-biblical-manhood/
I think you’ve already read that one, Gail, but I figured Cayla might appreciate it if she hasn’t stumbled upon it yet.
I thought as much. Such a great post. Thanks for sharing it!
Ahh Tim, that’s fantastic, thank you for sharing! I died laughing when I scrolled down to see the picture of Jael! My roommate ran out of the bedroom to see what on earth was so funny! Totally caught me off guard, well played! And seriously great point. We could all benefit from setting our sights on achieving Christlikeness over “Biblical (wo)manhood”!
Cayla! What a beautiful writer you have become! such a bright mind with fresh perspectives. This is such an amazing time in my life when I can honestly say, “I’m learning great things from my daughter.” I love walking this journey with you, what an adventure! The man that finds you will be blessed indeed! And, you can cook! ;-D
Thank you mama 🙂
Absolutely, beautifully, fiercely awesome! I am so happy to have a wonderful group of sisters with whom you are walking out this fiercesomeness…and I look forward with hope to a better day. I have three teenage sons … and you can bet that I am doing my best to make sure they know the truth about Kingdom family priorities! 🙂
Wow, Cayla, this is powerful and beautifully written! And we live in the same town! We have got to meet.
…me, too! Me, too, Harriet — I was thinking exactly the same thing (even though I am across the river in Vancouver)….
Hi Harriet, thank you! And that’s so great! I would love to sit down for coffee and get to know you 🙂 You too Peggy!
Wow I am so proud of my sister who wrote this! She is so incredibly talented and has always had a way with words!! Amazing!
Aww- thanks sis 🙂
Having two kids of my own who just came out of their teens, I can just imagine that 15 year old you responding to your mother’s efforts at instilling domesticity in you. Nicely written, Cayla.
When it came to whether I thought of who I’d like to marry, the ability to keep house wasn’t at the top of the list. In fact, it wasn’t on the list at all now that I think about it. But a lot of what I did find attractive in women would fit under the word “fierce” as you’ve used it here. And that’s what happened: my wife is feminine, and she’s awfully fierce. I like that, and I love her.
Haha, thank you Tim! Oh teenagers… 🙂
And I love hearing that you admired [and still do] your wife’s fierce spirit! That’s very encouraging 🙂 Thanks for sharing!