“Girl power,” “girls have no limits,” “girls never give up,” “the future is female.”
A quick walk around the girls’ clothing section of any store reveals t-shirts emblazoned with these messages, and many more. The bright colors attract my eyes, and the message of empowerment attracts my heart. I want my daughter to know she has value. I want to build her up with words that tell her what she’s worth.
My daughter is coming of age in a time when it no longer seems enough to promise young women they can do it all; now we’re telling them they can do it better. Having faced misogyny (and worse) in school and the workplace, we want something better for our daughters. So we’re telling them what we think they need to hear—that they’re amazing, powerful, strong, and the hope of the future.
The empowerment we need
I think many of these messages come from good intentions, but what if, rather than empowering them, we’re actually saddling the next generation of young women with expectations they can never live up to? With stress, anxiety, and depression at alarming levels in kids in middle and high school, it appears this added pressure to “do big things” and “change the world” might not be the empowerment we think it is. And we can get this wrong in our Christian circles as well.
As a child, I read biographies of missionaries and women of faith and believed that these women were the picture of Christian near-perfection. They did such amazing things—moving to the jungle, hiding the persecuted, rescuing orphans. One day, I wanted to grow up and do amazing things, too.
But when I started reading about some of these same women with my daughter, I saw how my thinking as a child had been flawed. I believed that these women were somehow extraordinary—could I ever actually measure up to them? And, I also believed that their lives were so radically different from mine. It was hard to relate to them.
Now, I read about these women and see how incredibly ordinary they were. Corrie ten Boom struggled with loving difficult people; Annie Armstrong had trouble getting along with friends and co-workers; Pandita Ramabai dealt with a fear of what others thought of her. Not only that, but they lived pretty ordinary lives. As children, most of their days revolved around school and chores. As adults, they spent much of their time doing mundane jobs, writing letters, and playing with children.
Rather than being saddled with sky-high expectations, girls need to know that they do have limits and that they don’t have to do “big things.” We need to teach them to see their value not in what they do, but in Who is living in and working through them. Rather than relying on some idea of tapping into their inner strength, what if we taught them to see that weakness is true strength, humility is true power, and service is true happiness?
As I began reading biographies to my daughter, I realized it wasn’t enough to just know their stories—I wanted her to encounter God through these stories, and to know that the same God who empowered the women we read about is working in her life, too, right where she is.
The common theme for these women of faith, living in different countries at different times in history, was that they truly knew God. When they were tested by suffering and difficulties, they already had the tools they needed to stand up under pressure: they had hidden God’s Word in their hearts, and they knew he answers his children’s prayers. They didn’t just know about him, they knew him personally.
This is what I want my daughter to know—that knowing God and having his Spirit at work in her life is the empowerment she truly needs. The same God who helped Corrie ten Boom forgive difficult people in her life can help our children to love the difficult people in ours. The same God Who gave Phillis Wheatley great talent and empowered her to use it to point to the dignity and value of African-Americans has given our children gifts so they, too, can use them to glorify him and lift others up. The same God Who was with Esther Ahn Kim in prison during World War II, strengthening her and giving her compassion on her fellow inmates, is at work in our children’s lives, helping them to be brave and to care for those around them.
Our kids don’t have to wait to know him, and they don’t have to try to change the world. They just need to know that he’s always working, just as Philippians 1:6 says,
I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (CSB)
You can read about these women and several more in Empowered: How God Shaped 11 Women's Lives (And Can Shape Yours Too), available now from B&H.