by Lyndsay Kirkham
Trigger warning for discussion of intimate partner violence.
Perched on the bathtub’s porcelain edge, cradling the phone in my hand I could hear the voice of a disbelieving woman, her whispers barely audible. She was asking how, with a degree in Women Studies, with years of working in shelters and sexual assault centres, how could this be happening to her?
It was my voice. It was me asking for help.
Embarrassment and incredulity my companions as I begged a crisis centre employee to tell me that this could happen. I needed to know that this happened to other people, that I wasn’t the only “strong woman” to experience violence in a marriage.
He slapped me before I had even asked him to share my cramped graduate school apartment. One hand had steadied my face while the other came quickly across my peripheral vision and hit me hard. I shrugged it off, giving him a pass because I was just completing a Masters that focused on feminist writers – I couldn’t possibly be a victim.
Months later, now married, he dislocated my thumb while in a drunken rage. This time, I cried, I gave myself a shake telling myself that this drinking was unacceptable, this it needed to change. For two more years I struggled silently with abuse that was emotional, psychological, physical and financial. I continued to focus on his drinking, not the violence, not on the abuse.
Every day I would wake and button myself snugly into my feminism, I was The Strong Woman. I was the one people called when they wanted to talk about the new Margaret Atwood book. I was the one organizing Take Back the Night events for my community rape crisis centre. I was the one loudly talking about a need to infuse our political and justice systems with more female role models. I marched. I organized. I wrote polemics. I raged about abortion rights. I couldn’t cop to this violence in my marriage – because, what then?
Consciously or not, I was reinforcing a stereotype that silences thousands of women who experience violence in their lives. It wasn’t until, after another weekend of observing inebriated violence and finding myself locked in a bathroom, my tears soaking through the too-thin sheets of the phone book’s crisis centre numbers, that I accepted there is a binary system that falsely links together “strong women” with lack of violence. I was forced to accept the fact that my feminism, my strength wasn’t preventing violence from seeping into my life any more than my experience with violence made me any less of a feminist.
I had internalized, like so many women, the narrative of “the strong woman.” I remember feeling thrilled as a teenager to hear that I was strong, that I was fierce, that I was smart. These qualities amounted to so much more than any off handed comment about my physical attributes. My heroes were Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf and Queen Elizabeth. I went through my teens and my early twenties with my fist in the air – I wanted nothing more than to cause a riot.
This cloak of the strong woman, which is an almost acceptable cultural stereotype for the feminist, or the single mother, or the marginalized woman who finds success in conventional arenas. They are known for their strength, their fortitude, their willingness to keep getting up no matter how many times they are beaten. We see this character in literature, in films, music culture, and social narratives.
But, like other stereotypes, this depiction of womanhood becomes a dangerous cage for women who don’t exist in monochromatic reality. By subscribing to this idea of myself as the invincible, as the tough-as-nails feminists, I was creating a situation where I wasn’t able to acknowledge, let alone share, the violence that was happening in my life.
Like everyone, a strong woman needs to be soft, she needs to curl up, she needs to cry, she needs to feel safe, she needs to not be the only one doing all the heavy lifting in her life. We need to work harder at teasing apart the language of what “strength” and “perseverance” really mean, and the places where they are problematically gendered. Strength in women undoubtedly carries a much different meaning when referring to a woman, than say talking about a man. If a woman wants to be strong, she is subsequently expected to be quiet, to not cry, to not sing her truth. Thus, in the pursuit for strength, women silence large portions of their lives-lived.
Violence against women doesn’t occur in a vacuum of only some women’s lives. It can and does impact all cultures, languages, it infiltrates all economic strata, impacting people of all personality types, all body types, all sexualities, all gender identities, experiencing all types of relationships.
Violence perpetrated against women is insidious and by nature initiates a cycle where the victim is silenced by the shame and psychological abuse. In any society that perpetuates – even by benign acceptance – the myth of the strong woman, these victims are further muffled by all false notion that all feminists, all women who are strong, or fiesty are free from violence.
During November, which is Prevention of Violence Against Women month in Ontario, consider the ways that internalized notions or cultural assumptions lend us to silencing or erasing the voices of women who are experiencing violence in their lives. And remember, the personal is always political.
(photo by Petar Milošević, CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)