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Steel Magnolias: Born or Made?

Until a few days ago, I would have argued that strong women (read: Steel Magnolias) are not born but made. Life hands us a set of circumstances and we can choose to deal with them directly, up front and with an inner strength capable of doing such, or we can sail along hoping others will treat us kindly–but taking what we get.

I had to fight, and fight hard to get into this world. Born as a footling-breach delivered by natural child birth and without anesthetics, the event inflicted much pain on my poor mother. Perhaps because of that, I spent the first half of my life “doing right and being good.” But then, at midlife, I learned I had the right to fight for what I wanted. To name it and claim it. Claim it I did.  I fought for my rights as a strong woman, and continue naming and claiming it today.

In contrast, my sister, born two years earlier, describes herself as spending her life trying to get along as easily as possible–making the least waves while trying to work her way through the jungle called life without cutting a path.

She describes me as searching until I found a machete. Once I did, I cleared that path and laid out my life as a smooth road. I created my place in this world, she says. Whereas, she knew it was going to be hard and didn’t want to make it any harder than possible. She wanted life to be as easy, to just get through it. Then life handed her things she couldn’t avoid.  Afraid to make a wrong move, for too many years she chose to not make any move at all.

So, I had this theory worked out. You either mold yourself into a strong woman, or stay passive all your life.

Then along came Jourdan Sander.

Jourdan and I met at the library last week after her mom called and told me her daughter heard me mention that I write strong women. Jourdan’s eyes lit up, her mom said, and Jourdan wanted to meet me. Why? Because Jourdan is a strong woman. She has no problem naming it and claiming it.

Jourdan is an 18-year-old senior at Georgetown High School, in Georgetown, Texas. We met for an hour at the local library. My first question to her was, how did you get to be a strong woman?

“I’m opinionated,” she said. “Always have been. I know what I believe and I speak up for it.” She went on to say she figured out really early who she was. “I insist boys treat me with the respect I deserve.”

Jourdan went on to explain that from her earliest memories,  she has never had difficulty claiming her right to speak her mind and voice her opinion–often to the consternation of her father, she said, with a smile.

One of her pet peeves is the sexist comments boys make to girls in her school. When she hears it, she speaks up, while at the same time trying to teach her girlfriends to not allow boys to talk to them that way.  She also approaches the boy and asks for a behavior change–and they give it–at least to her!

Her mom confirms that she has encouraged her daughters to be strong and to speak up for themselves, although she did not set the example for them to do so. Often times our children are our teachers.

Jourdan coined a new term for me when she said she had girlfriends who were “boyfriend dependent.” They feel so needy for male attention that they allow and put up with crude sexist comments, choosing to shrug them off rather than standing up for themselves and calling boys on their behavior.

How much better our daughter’s lives would be if they stood confident in their own strength, as does Jourdan.

We will hear more about strong women like Jourdan in the future, but for now, she’s changed my opinion about strong women and how they got there. I now believe some are simply born that way–as says Lady Gaga–while others of us grow into our voices when life circumstances force us to get stronger or die.

What about you? What has been your experience with either becoming and being a strong woman. Or if you are male, what has been your experience with the women in your life? How might we encourage girls and women to stand in their own power? We’d love for you to add your comments to the posts.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was probably born strong, but it’s taken me many years to let it show.

    May 18, 2011
    • Yes, sort of like me, Helen. It took me a long time to start chopping that trail through the wilderness.

      May 18, 2011
  2. Helen and Sylvia, I wonder if girls today who are born strong are able to express that strength at an earlier age than I. When I was growing up, it was always, “Boys don’t like girls who are smarter (stronger, better at something) than they are.” It was always, “Little girls should be sugar and spice and everything nice.” The only kind of strong a woman was supposed to be was when she needed to “Stand By Your Man”. lol!

    May 18, 2011
  3. Marian, my conversation with Jourdan revealed just that. She came into this world giving her opinion and has never stopped. Girls in my generation absolutely had to be the proverbial sugar and spice, always sitting with her knees together. Remember–women in WWII stepped out of their comfort zone to don pants to work in the shipyards and many felt ashamed and afraid God was going to send them to Hell.

    However, not all girls are like Jourdan, even today. They still suffer from “boyfriend dependence,” only getting their sense of fulfillment when a boy likes them. They often suffer abuse and sexual innuendoes and put up with them so they won’t displease the boys. My question is, what are their parents teaching or not teaching that makes these boys think they can get by with that? And what are they not teaching their girls that allow them to not take a stand against it?


    May 18, 2011
    • My husband blames pop culture for everything, and I’m sure that has a little bit to do with it. I don’t watch half-hour comedy shows because the ones I’ve tried have sexual jokes every few minutes. Some people might find that funny on the screen, but it isn’t funny in person to a young girl. Still, everybody laughs at it on TV, so there must be something wrong with her if she doesn’t think it’s funny.

      Beyond that, I’ve seen a deterioration of the taboo against boys hitting girls. A girl might be afraid to stand up for herself, if she thinks she’ll get smacked for it–or worse.

      Basically, a lot of young people aren’t being taught respect–to feel it OR to show it whether they feel it or not. And a lot of young people ARE being taught that self-respect comes from outside validation, not from inside. If they aren’t treated well, they think it’s because they don’t deserve better.

      A strong sense of self-worth, validated by struggle to live up to your own expectations, is a gift.


      May 19, 2011
      • Actually, Marian, Jourdan said that very same thing–about blaming pop culture–the media–for all of the sexually inappropriate comments to girls. It takes a lot of work from others to overcome this stigma implanted in the eyes of young people. Personally, I believe we should hold the media responsible and demand better for our young people. It is difficult for young girls to be pulled both ways. In the process, they lose a sense of their own value. Hence the purpose of this blog. Please help me spread the word about it to young girls–I’d love to have their input and questions. They can email me questions they would like to discuss and we will, right here-and anonymously for their protection. Thanks for writing!

        May 19, 2011
  4. I’m a strong woman who has been traveling this country in a small RV for seven years now with just my dog, Maggie, as companion. I love this blog. I was always strong, but I was in my 40s before I accepted it. I love your blog.

    May 19, 2011
    • As was I, Pat! Good for you! I’d love to do just that. And who knows, I just may one day! I think a lot of our young girls today are strong now but don’t know it and allow themselves to be subject to abuse. Let’s commit to helping change that system. One way to do that is to invite them to join the discussion right here on this blog. Here they can receive input and suggestions from women who have been there and done that! Let’s support our young women by being here for them! Hopefully Jourdan can send some our way!

      May 19, 2011
  5. Hi Sylvia,
    Thanks for emailing me about this new blog of yours. It’s wonderful. As for strong women, I most certainly was not born strong. I was a chameleon for most of my growing up years, trying to please everyone and losing myself. Life circumstances didn’t help. Now I feel I am strong, but still not always able to stand up for what I believe in, but certainly getting stronger all the time. I am amazed at the girls and young women I know in my life who are born strong. It is a gift

    May 19, 2011
  6. Back in the day (the 50s) we were taught, as Helen says, to hide our strength because that was the way to attract a man. We were suckered in by Cinderella stories. No one talked about all the things that could go wrong after the wedding and why strength might be a good thing. If they had, I might not have wasted so much time on getting ready for dates and might have written more.
    I’m fortunate now to be married to a Mike Nettleton, who is also my co-author on a number of mysteries. He’s a huge fan of uppity and sarcastic women who know their place–at the front of the pack. And he’s also a huge fan of some of my characters, especially Kate Dalton in An Uncertain Refuge.

    May 19, 2011
  7. Karen, it truly is. And yet we had it earlier and didn’t know it. One way I have learned for being able to stand up for what I believe in is by just saying it-at that very moment I am feeling it. If I let it fester, then when I do say it, too much heat is added to it because of the festering. My motto is Just Say It. Right then and there. With no heat, no animosity, no attack. Just say it. Letting it just come out of my mouth. It is AMAZING the power found in that simple act. THAT is when we know what we stand for and what we don’t stand for–and more important, what we WON’T stand for! Thanks for your support and encouragement!

    May 19, 2011
  8. I vowed from an early age not to be like my mother. I loved her dearly but she had 9 kids and would make a different meal for any child who didn’t want to eat what she set in front of them. Plus she catered to my father, who admittedly worked hard. I am the only child of the 9 who went to college and on to graduate school — paying my own way because my Dad didn’t believe in girls going to college. (But he was proud when I graduated!) Dad also gave me his love of American history and now I write a series of historical mysteries with two nosy Puritans from Boston as detectives. While Mom was more like a Wilting Lilac I guess Dad was the Steel Magnolia. Still, lilacs are my favorite flower.

    May 19, 2011
  9. Slyvia,
    I was developing as a strong woman during the most unpopular years, at least for me. Middle school and High School. I was smart, outspoken and opinionated and for the longest time, everyone, except for my family, tried to make me feel ashamed for it. Boys and Girls I met and knew tried to tell me I was a b–ch. It is unbelievably heartening to find your site and to hear the stories, especially about younger women, who speak out against sexist comments, don’t rely on boyfriends to define their self-worth and who grasp that the world is a better place for it. Now as a writer I delight in inventing female characters who are strong, and not just “male” copies which I think some writers feel they have to do. A woman doesn’t have to act like a man to find her strength.
    Whew, this turned out to be a long post. Love the site, I will be coming back again and again.

    May 20, 2011
    • Oh my, Karyne! Good for you! I am so thrilled to have your voice heard here on this blog! We need women like you and Jourdan who found their voice at a younger age and can share advice and suggestions to others who search for it in the midst of a world where that isn’t always encouraged. We’ve come a long way in our society, but we’re not there yet!

      May 20, 2011
  10. I love hearing about strong young women like Jourdan! I hope more teens will learn to do what she is doing.

    May 20, 2011
    • Isn’t she an inspiration, indeed! Looking to hear from more young women to share their stories. Anyone know one, send them my way! Thanks Heidi.


      May 20, 2011
  11. Very glad to hear of a young steel magnolia in Texas! And reading all of the comments from others here. I appreciated your thought, Sylvia, about trying to be trouble-free after your difficult birth. I bet your mother loved you in both incarnations…?

    I was lucky enough to be born into a very liberated family, where male or female didn’t determine anything, but skill and need. My dad for example often did the cooking because as a teacher he had nights free and my mom worked as a psychologist, seeing patients.

    I’ve always said that women will be truly equal when we don’t have to have a movement to make us equal.

    Thanks for the post.

    May 22, 2011
    • Jenny, Isn’t that the truth! No titles such as Mrs. to determine whether a woman is married or single. Till we create new words to replace “generic” pronouns such as “man” or “he” when referring to “Everyman”.

      Indeed we are making progress. I recall a man saying to me, We would treat women as equals if they’d just shut up about women’s rights!” My reply, ” Really?”

      May 22, 2011
  12. I’m strong when it really matters. Otherwise, I’m polite and accommodating.

    Morgan Mandel

    May 25, 2011
    • Morgan, the first isn’t contradictory to the second. We can be strong, polite and also acomodating when it is called for.

      June 7, 2011
  13. Laine Estep #

    I love strong women. I have a few in my own family, and a few who SHOULD be, but like your sister, prefer to not make waves. Personally, I am one of the big belly floppers in the pool of life! I make my waves as big and as rocking as possible because otherwise I’m not living, but existing. I wasn’t put here to merely exist. This life is the only one I get and I fully intend to get the most out of it as I possibly can.
    Even in my teen years (eons ago) I knew what was and what was not acceptable to me. I was often (and still am) labeled as a bitch because I stood up for myself and for others whenever the need arose. I finally stopped getting angry over that label and decided to embrace it. So now I tell people “You bet I’m a bitch!” I do that because not ONCE in my 46 years on this planet have I ever been called a bitch by someone who was getting what they wanted from me. It is only when I stood up and said NO that I became a bitch in their eyes. I finally said that if standing up for what I believe in makes me a bitch, then I will wear that label with pride and distinction.
    I have a teenage daughter and I’ve tried to impart that same kind of attitude upon her. She does it when it matters to her, but when it doesn’t, she lets it slide. Luckily, the things she lets slide are really not all that important, Disrespectful behavior from anyone is met with a ‘don’t speak to me that way!’ reply.
    It does make it difficult to raise daughters in this era of Snooki and Twilight. It isn’t impossible to teach our daughters to disregard those messages; it is just a lot harder to know they are listening.

    June 7, 2011
  14. Laine, love your belly flop in the pool of life! Great comment. Like you, I have a daughter and she is a very strong woman. Much to my delight.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    June 7, 2011
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