Poet Marge Piercy's "For Strong Women" includes the line: "A strong woman is a woman standing on tiptoe and lifting a barbell, while trying to sing 'Boris Godunov.'" It's a curious image, and boiled down it evokes a fairly contemporary definition of strong women as multi-tasking, vibrant spirits who conquer everyday chores. That's fine, I guess. It's better than defining a woman's strength by the brand of detergent she uses (which commercials still do) or by her ability to stand by her man (which media will forever do). But Piercy's image gets a person thinking: How do you define "strong women" without further putting women in constricting boxes and gender roles?
The Strong Women Project at the Mansfield Library sprung out of a class project by University of Montana students Shane McMillan, Laura Pflum and Richelle DeVoe. The exhibit consists of 15 photos and statements, and attempts to portray strong women without limiting definitions.
Each woman reflects obvious diversity through occupation, race and sexual orientation. But there's a risk here. Visual imagery (in films and magazines, especially) has typically and historically perpetuated the idea of women as an object to be viewed. And perhaps that's an inherent flaw of the project. But by having each woman write her own statement and decide how the photo would be shot, the UM students allow the women to take control of how they're portrayed.
The statements often give sincere but predictable definitions: Being yourself. Knowing your history. Being a good member of your family and society. That kind of thing. Others are more intriguing and against the grain. For instance, Veronica Alvaro, an army medic, says: "Don't genderize yourself. Hang out with guys. Shoot hoops and try to skateboard, drink beer...gut a fish. Learn to fight and change your oil." In her photo, she poses stoically in fatigues.
Clinical sexologist Lindsey Doe talks about the actual process of the project in her statement. She showed up to the photo shoot dressed in a pressed collared shirt, slacks and matching jewelry. But after posing for a couple of shots she shook her head and told McMillan, "This is all wrong. This isn't working."
A few hours later she returned carrying a bowl of dirt from her backyard, and then added water. She stripped off her shirt down to her bra and rubbed the mud all over her face and chest. It was a personal epi-phany for Doe. For McMillan, it also proved an inspiring moment.
"She was one of the most revealing subjects," McMillan says. "When she came dres-sed as a professional, in black and white, she was kind of nervous. But when she came back...she put the mud on her face and it was really cool. She just kind of went for it."
The Strong Women Project doesn't get too philosophically complex, nor does it try to define all women in a general manner. It avoids lumping women into categories of mother/nurturer, or moral backbone of society or career girl or good listener. And that's the strength of the project. Instead, it illustrates anomalies and differences of people, all of whom just happen to have something in common.
The Strong Women Project continues at the Learning Commons in the Mansfield Library on the University of Montana campus through Wednesday, March 31. Free.