“Girls should be modest and soft-spoken.”
“Women make bad leaders.”
“If a girl is too domineering, no man will want to marry her.”
If you are from a very Western upbringing, such statements would probably shock you.
However they are what I grew up with, in a culture where strong views of gender roles held sway, where shame was a big issue, and saving face for one’s parents, family and community was of paramount importance.
I was brought up to believe that it was bad form to be an assertive, ambitious, leader-like woman who spoke her mind. People spoke respectfully, yet in slightly derogatory terms, of strong women leaders like Margaret Thatcher. It was okay to be aggressive or domineering if one was a man – because you were then going to go places and do things. But a woman…?
For many years (and fueled by what I now realise is unbiblical teaching on the roles of male and female), I believed that women who were in high positions of leadership, who were assertive, driven, and who spoke their minds, were aberrations to God’s perfect plan for humankind. That is, the existence of such women was yet another example of the fallen, sinful nature of this world. One friend, who strongly opposes (to this day) the idea of women in leadership, said that women leaders existed as a concession – because there weren’t enough men stepping up to take their rightful roles as leaders.
Did I mention that this doesn’t just happen in the East, or in conservative Western Christian circles only? In the secular Western world, such sentiments still prevail, though perhaps more subtly. “She’s got him firmly under her thumb”, or “She wears the pants in the house.”
Personally, I don’t believe aggression and domineering are healthy qualities in either a man or a woman. If we wrote a list of why, we can start with the fact that both put a stop to open and honest communication, both are used to control people, and… then the list is endless. We have all read of countless dictators who were strong leaders gone wrong.
The point in this post though is that, to this day, society tends to have opinions on what a man can be and what a woman can be. Though that is, thankfully, changing.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I am one of those bossy, assertive women. And you can probably also guess that I had a tempestuous upbringing.
As a child, my strong-willed personality clashed almost continually with the other strong-willed assertive personality in the house, which was my father’s. All my relatives (who are mostly women) to this day attribute my strong personality to his influence. They seem to believe that, left to myself or a different father, I would never have turned out the way I am. I recall plenty of criticism, advice, and encouragement to overcome those assertive out-spoken personality traits. My family, and so I, treated these traits in me as if they were handicaps.
I learned to try to hide these traits from others around me. I tried to suppress my outspokenness, my urge to take over and rule the roost. But it would sometimes feel like trying to plug holes in a dam with a powerful river surging right on the other side. I would inevitably feel the injustice of something, and speak up strongly – and as I was not encouraged to do so, it would often come out inappropriately. Or my strong urge to take over would assert itself in the absence of what I perceived as a lack of leadership. And as I did not have practice, I would lead inappropriately, often in a way, my family said, that was disrespectful of those around me.
I am now in my thirties.
A little while ago I picked up Florence Littauer’s book “Personality Plus”, and found it insightful. Florence’s book is based around the basic Four Temperaments’, which is a theory of psychology that in turn is based on an ancient concept of classifying different personality types.
I know there are strong critics of this method of classifying – but though I understand what the critics are getting at, Personality Plus has been revolutionary in helping me understand that a lot of my temperament (which turns out to be Choleric-Melancholic) may actually be God-given, that I may actually be meant to be the person that I am.
It blows me away even to write it at this relatively late date! I have got so used to trying to be someone that I am not, and wallowing in guilt when I couldn’t be this non-existent person.
Another book that has recently helped me is Don & Katie Fortune’s “Motivational Gifts”. I have worked out that I definitely have up-front, speaking gifts. I don’t shy away from public-speaking in and of myself. Though the voices from my past do war with my desire to jump up and say something.
According to ‘Motivational Gifts’, I come out as primarily an Exhorter. Another ‘wow!’ moment – I felt amazingly freed to know that God actually made me to have words tumbling around inside my head, waiting to burst out.
It is going to be a long journey, retraining myself to fit back in my skin. I am enjoying knowing that my assertiveness, my ability to speak to most situations, my urge to organise and call out tasks to a team, are all a part of who God has made me.
I am enjoying knowing (whenever the truth sinks in) that I am not a freak or an accident of nature. I don’t have to feel guilty when I speak up in a situation. I do not have to beat myself up for being assertive.
It doesn’t lessen my responsibility to those around me. If anything, I have a better picture of what it looks like when we all, men and women, with our own individual characteristics, work together, each doing something significant, like the cogs in a wheel. When I lead, when I speak out, when I organise, I can now respect, honour, and be more appreciative of those around me with their own unique temperaments, opinions and gifts.
It is the beauty of God’s grand design after all, that He made each one of us different – for a reason.