Recently, while watching an episode of (don’t judge me) The Flash, I found myself laughing out loud at what was meant to be a serious moment. It wasn’t the terrible dialogue or the wooden acting (though the show has both) it was this moment in which Iris (a petite woman) punches Wally (a man). Punches him out cold. In a single punch. It was ridiculous.
So often these days, it seems like we are meant to view women as “strong” only if their strength manifests in the same way as a man’s. But, if we do this, women will always come up short. The average woman isn’t physically stronger than the average man. She will lose to him in a fist fight and she’ll never best him in battle. But a woman can be heroic. And she can be strong.
Ours is a different kind of strength. A steely determination and a quiet resolve. A refusal to give in, an acceptance of a difficult task, a calm and straightforward willingness to do what’s right. In this, the heroes among us are equal to any man. Refusing to acknowledge female strength negates the heroism of women.
The actions of, for example, the women who came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein are examples of feminine strength. Even though they didn’t rise up and kill Weinstein with broadswords, each woman’s decision to come forward and say something that feels shameful to her — that might open her up to criticism and scrutiny and could prompt further attack — shows strength.
“Now when I go to a restaurant or to an event, people are going to know that this happened to me,” said Annabella Sciorra — one of Weinstein’s victims. “They’re gonna look at me and they’re gonna know. I’m an intensely private person, and this is the most unprivate thing you can do.” It takes courage, grit, and strength to publicly accuse someone of the worst possible violation. A feminine kind of strength.
When I think about true feminine strength there is one person who comes to my mind more than any other. My own person heroine: Catherine of Aragon.
Catherine of Aragon was married to Henry VIII (you know, the guy with six wives?). For nearly twenty years their marriage was, by all accounts, loving and peaceful. But in 1529 Henry made something very private, suddenly very public. He began to talk about whether or not Catherine had been a virgin at the time of their marriage.
Henry had fallen in love with another woman — a younger, more fertile woman — named Anne Boleyn and was looking for a way out of his marriage to Catherine, and into one with Anne. Before marrying Henry, Catherine had been briefly married to Henry’s brother, Arthur. But Arthur died only five months later and, Catherine claimed, their marriage had never been consummated (due to Arthur’s illness). But, if Catherine had, in fact, consummated her marriage to Arthur, Henry could claim that his marriage to Catherine was incestuous (as was the common belief at the time) and therefore null and void.
So Henry began to make his case for annulment, telling everyone who would listen — both in private and, later, in public — that Catherine had not been a virgin on her wedding day. Imagine it. Here you are, queen of England, held up as the example of purity, virtue, goodness, and grace, and all of sudden your husband is telling everyone who will listen about your sex life and calling you an incestuous liar!
The easy thing for Catherine to do would have been to submit to Henry’s will and enter a nunnery. She was a deeply religious woman — she probably would have enjoyed being a nun — but she refused to submit. She believed she was born to be queen of England and no one — no matter how powerful, no matter what he might do to her — could dissuade her otherwise. For every claim that Henry laid against her — every lurid and vulgar detail he made public — Catherine had an answer. And her answer was that she would not yield.
She knelt before Henry in the legatine court — though he entreated her more than once to rise — and swore that she was his true wife. “I take God and all the world to witness, that I have been to you a true and humble wife . . . And when ye had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man.”
There she was, a woman, who by every social custom of the day ought to have submitted to the will of her husband (particularly since her husband was also her king!), stating for all the world that she would not give in. Even if it meant speaking to a group of men about her sex life.
Ultimately, Henry won. He broke with Rome, established his own church, and got himself his annulment. He forced Catherine to live in ever more dismal lodgings, and banned her from seeing her beloved daughter, Mary. She would be allowed to see Mary, Henry told her, if she would just admit that she was not his wife. She never did.
On her deathbed, Catherine wrote Henry a letter. “My most dear Lord, King, and Husband, . . . I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone.” Perhaps it sounds a bit pathetic to be writing this to the man who had another wife, who had cast Catherine aside, and left her in a drafty castle to rot. But it’s the exact opposite. Catherine’s deathbed letter was her final defiant act. I am still your wife, she resolutely claimed. And I am determined to treat you as a good wife should. Until my final breath.
It’s hard to explain what Catherine of Aragon means to me. To modern eyes, she seems the epitome of the oppressed woman, forced to submit to a man against her will. And, certainly, I am glad for the social advancements that have occurred in the last 500 years that allow women more freedom, agency, and authority. But there is something so feminine about Catherine’s strength. Something which is now overlooked because women are meant to be “badass” warriors who drop kick their accusers and then knock back a whiskey. Catherine’s strength — her unwavering, brilliant strength — was not external.But it was strength nonetheless.
Refusing to acknowledge gender differences sells women short. Women are strong. We’re just not men. Catherine’s strength is our strength. Why can’t we be proud of that?