Redefining the Strong-Willed Woman
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, best-selling author and Founder/CEO of AppLe St. (Applied Learning Styles), is best known for her popular books The Way They Learn and You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded). Many women benefit from her advice for parents and educators in those books. The message of Redefining the Strong-Willed Woman is very different. Tobias shares her experiences of being a Christian and a strong-willed woman (SWW) to illustrate that it is possible to glorify God, not in spite of a strong will, but because of a strong will. She writes, "Strong will is not a negative trait; it only becomes negative when you use it in ways that do not honor God." The main premise is that if you are a woman with a strong will, then God made you strong-willed for His glory.
Redefining the Strong-Willed Woman is organized into four sections:
· What is a strong-willed woman?
· The strong-willed woman and her relationships
· The strong-willed woman at work
· The strong-willed woman and her world
The first few chapters are dedicated to defining the strong-willed woman. She includes a short inventory for the reader in order to determine her strong will quotient. Women with a relatively high quotient will not discover anything new in the pages of Tobias’ book. However, the women with a low quotient may find a few pointers for how to deal with the strong-willed women in their lives.
According to Tobias, a SWW has a deep desire to make a difference, is not content to coast, is fiercely loyal, needs to be involved, will not be ignored, has no reverse gear, tends to succeed, is wholehearted in whatever she does, has diverse interests, has a strong desire to do right, and is willing to do what needs to be done. She explains what each trait looks like in a SWW, then shows what happens when a woman uses these qualities in a negative manner. To help take her definition of a SWW further, Tobias turns to debunking five myths of the strong-willed woman. She explains that a strong will is not a negative trait, SWW do not hate men, SWW are not always rebellious, some SWW are quiet and compliant, and SWW can take orders and work for someone else. Finally, to define a strong will, Tobias explains the major differences between a compliant woman and a SWW. Even a compliant woman can display a strong will when she needs to, but that does not mean she is strong-willed. A strong-willed woman differs from a compliant woman in that the SWW will take greater risks, does not work well with others (unless she is leading the group), and she is very impatient.
The second section is dedicated to helping a SWW with her relationships. She shares her experience as a single woman, a married woman, and as a strong-willed parent of strong-willed children. This particular section may be helpful for those who have to live with and/or deal with strong-willed women. Tobias has much to say regarding single life, married life, and parenting as a strong-willed woman. I will offer what she wrote along with my comments.
First, when she was a single woman, Tobias worked and studied hard to achieve her goals. She was far too busy to be concerned with finding a husband, much less to feel the need for one. This is not an encouraging chapter for a single woman who desires marriage. Tobias relished her independence and could not relate to women who did not. She shares strategies for deflecting questions and advice from well-meaning married people. Because she enjoyed being single, she does not have much personal advice to share with women who are not happy being single. Instead, she shares a few lengthy quotes from other authors. When Tobias decided she was ready to marry, she put an ad in a magazine and found her husband, who, incidentally, wrote a portion of "Strong-Willed Women and the Men Who Love Them."
Tobias believes there are "at least five characteristics that a strong-willed woman’s husband should ideally possess to lay the groundwork for a successful Christian marriage." He must be a godly man, comfortable with himself, confident in his abilities, not feel threatened or intimidated by SWW, and he must steadfastly offer unconditional love to his strong-willed wife. These are good qualities for any man to have regardless of what kind of woman he marries. The final quality, though, "steadfastly offering unconditional love," reveals the weak spot in the SWW’s armor. Though Tobias does not give away too much, it is true that most women doubt anyone could really love them all of the time. She also shares how to avoid a nuclear argument with a SWW. I was disappointed that Tobias did not share more of what the Bible says about seeking forgiveness and offering forgiveness after an argument. Tobias writes honestly that many hours can go by after a heated battle with her husband before she will even want to talk to him again. Though she says it is something she is working on, she still struggles to humble herself, apologize, and admit when she is wrong.
Parenting a strong-willed child is more about the child than it is about handling your own strong will as a parent, according to Tobias. It seems that above all other relationships, Tobias believes the parent-child relationship is the one area that strong-willed women will have to learn to back off. This relationship is the one in which a SWW must guide and direct her child’s strong-will so that the child does not rebel. Tobias does not recommend ever making demands of the child. She gives the impression that it is necessary to tip-toe around the child’s sensibilities (much the same way people adjust their behavior around SWW) so as not to offend and push away. She does not consult Scripture for parenting wisdom. This parenting strategy is motivated by fear.
The section for strong-willed women in the workplace and in positions of leadership is exactly what I expected it to be. According to Tobias, SWW set goals and go after achievement. They do not sit idly by nor conform to status quo. She says they are movers and shakers and make everything better. They are the happiest women on the planet. Tobias has "never spoken to a strong-willed woman who complained of living a life of "quiet desperation. As a rule, we don’t have the patience or mindset to stay in a job we hate unless it’s part of a strategy for getting where we want to be." The key, according to Tobias, is "finding your calling." She believes that God has a different plan for all of us, and "the most important job we have is finding what we are truly supposed to be doing with our lives" (emphasis mine). Tobias says the answer is somewhere deep within our hearts. Again, she does not visit God’s word on this.
The final portion is dedicated to "the world" of the strong-willed woman. It includes a short chapter on her relationship with God. In the first chapter of the book, Tobias states that "there are so many strong-willed women whose hearts and souls long to know Christ but whose self-sufficient natures won’t even consider the possibility of surrendering their hard-won independence…It’s never been more important to find a way to recognize and validate their worth in the kingdom of God." In my opinion, this is the critical issue of this book, but it is ignored until the ninth chapter. Tobias speaks of salvation as though it is there for us to take whenever we’re ready. She makes no mention of God’s power or grace in our lives. To Tobias, repentance, submission, and obedience are the perfe
ct challenges for the strong-willed woman. She writes, "Repentance requires a firm decision to turn our lives around; submission takes daily discipline to stay firmly and unshakably surrendered to Christ; obedience demands a vigorous and energetic commitment to strike out into the unknown and be willing to conquer the impossible. Wow–that sounds like Christianity was tailor-made for those of us with strong wills!" Tobias rephrases what many popular teachers have been saying for years: following Christ is not your death, it’s a great adventure! Rather than letting God’s requirements for salvation get in the way of a relationship with Him, let the strong will He gave be the very thing to help you follow Him.
At first glance that sounds good, even wise. It is not, however, because it is not biblical. God is removed from the equation. Tobias is encouraging women to follow God in their own strength and will-power. This is impossible. Tobias quotes author Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction several times to further her assertion that the Christian life is the easiest life to live, and if you already have a strong will then nothing can stand in your way. Her usage of The Message only helps prove her points. Each verse she uses is about how special and unique you are and what fantastic plans God has for you. You are the focus of salvation, rather than God and His glory.
Chapter 10 is about the strong-willed woman in crisis. It is true that the strong-willed woman is much better handling someone else’s crisis than her own. Tobias writes that too often it takes a crisis to break us. Well, isn’t that true of most people? It’s not just the SWW who has to face a struggle in order to see her need for Jesus.
The final chapter is about the SWW developing a special group in her church, a Strong-Willed Women for Christ group. Tobias believes that if the SWW in churches would work together so much more could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom, they could reach out to other strong-willed women, and they could work to decrease the young SWW church drop-out rate. I agree that young women need to be discipled (or mentored, to use Tobias’ word), but not to the exclusion of other girls. It is not biblical that only strong-willed women should mentor other strong-willed young women exclusively. The whole idea that it is perfectly fine to create special groups centered on a common quality or interest is contrary to the Bible’s goal of cultivating fellowship in the church. This is just my opinion, but I think the last thing a church needs is another women’s special interest group.
Like the divisions in this book, Tobias seems to compartmentalize life. She writes about her relationships with others, with her husband, with her children, with her co-workers, and with God as though they are separate sections of her life and she can behave differently in each one. This book would have been more powerful had Tobias spoken to strong-willed women about making Jesus the center of our lives. She could have discussed the work of Christ in our hearts and in our relationships as we submit to his authority and give Him glory. She could have discussed the joy of surrender to Christ in our marriages, giving Him glory. She could have discussed the joy of being a godly, yet strong-willed, mother who gives Him glory. She could have discussed the miracle that is a strong-willed woman humbling herself, loving, and growing friendships with "compliant" women for God’s glory. She could have discussed the blessing of submitting to the God-ordained authority of men in the church, thereby giving Him glory. She could have discussed the wonder of a strong-willed woman giving up the feminist ideals of career and crashing glass ceilings in order stay home and raise a family for His glory. It’s a near miracle when a very strong-willed woman goes against her nature to do those things with joy and gladness and humility. Tobias didn’t write that book.
While I could relate so well to nearly everything she wrote, Tobias’ book does not inspire me to follow harder after Christ. The more I read, the more I felt like I had a God-given excuse to do whatever I wanted. She set out to "redefine the strong-willed woman," but all she did was describe her to a T.