What Does a Powerful Woman Look Like?

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Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most powerful women puts Michelle Obama at number one and also first in the category of politics, ahead of Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany) and Hillary Clinton. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. Obama may be a powerful woman in her own right, but first in the world? And in politics? Really, what has she done but be married to (arguably) the world’s most powerful man?

Number three on the list is Oprah Winfrey. (And #1 in the Media category.) Lady Gaga is number seven (and #1 in Lifestyle). I have no idea what criteria Forbes used to compile this list other than that of “power and creative influence.” And it’s a hodge-podge of a list, too, since it covers everything from politics to business to media to lifestyle (which itself encompasses everything from authors to athletes). Granted, the list is a snapshot of the world as it is right now. It would have looked quite different a decade ago and will look different a decade into the future.

But the list did make me wonder: What is it that makes a woman powerful? Is it her bank account? Her visibility? Her celebrity? Her ability to change people’s lives? The mark that she leaves on the world?

One definition of the word “powerful” is “capable of producing great effects of any kind.” If you go by that definition, I can see how Lady Gaga fits into the list. But if you use the definition of “having great power, prestige or influence,” I have to disagree. Lady Gaga is powerful now by that definition, but how will she be seen thirty years from now? It’s too soon to tell if she will be another Madonna. Her supposed power could just be a flash in the pan.

My definition of powerful would include a high degree of control over others but also the ability to cause others to change. These are not necessarily the same things. A powerful person can get others to change their outward behavior but a truly powerful person changes the way people think. A parent may be powerful in that she can control what her child does. But the truly powerful parent is the one who shapes her child’s values.

But there’s another kind of power that we haven’t considered yet. You could argue that the most powerful person is the one who is able to control and change her self. The person who can clearly define her own goals and measure her own progress is more powerful than the one who is subject to the influence of others. A powerful woman is the one who knows her own mind and who refuses to let others control her. She knows what she wants and goes after it. She stands firm in her convictions.

When a woman has that kind of power, others can’t help but react to her. She causes them to question their own values and behavior, and sometimes even to change them. She is a force to be reckoned with.

That’s what a powerful woman looks like.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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