Recent conversations with the fairer sex will form the basis for this post and the next. My track record on speaking about issues that women face has not been perfect, though, as I tend to get a large number of livid comments from women who enjoy the evangelical status quo just fine. On the other hand, I also get an equally large number of women who write me privately and thank me for exposing the pressure they feel to conform to impossible “Christian” standards for women.
I think the standard that leads to more burnout of women in 2010 is striving to be The Proverbs 31 Woman™. I add the ™ to distinguish a genuine, Biblical womanhood from the chimera that evangelicals have spawned in creating the idealized form of womanhood as depicted in that Proverb.
To get a clear idea of this problem, let’s look at the text:
An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
Being a geezer, I remember the old Enjoli perfume commercial. I think a lot of other people do, too, because we continue to cultivate that image for women today.
I think women today resent that “she should do it all” image. (And I think that evangelical men everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to contend with a Proverbs 32!)
Yet that image remains the evangelical ideal. Except that being The Proverbs 31 Woman™ also adds homeschooling, leading an American Heritage Girls troop, making the family’s clothes and meals from scratch, crafting high-demand handmade doodads for sale on eBay or Etsy, running a women’s Bible study (or, at minimum, participating in one, preferably with Beth Moore’s imprimatur) , and out-Deborah-ing the female judge of the Old Testament.
I think I could probably retire today if all the Christian women who are burned out of the expectations of being The Proverbs 31 Woman™ sent me a dollar.
I know it’s not possible to talk about cultural distinctives in the Bible that don’t align with our modern age. People who do get called all sorts of names. I’m going to talk cultural distinctives anyway.
Most women today do not have handmaidens who do the real grunge work around the ol’ tent. And while she may still bring her food from afar, it’s because she packed up her five kids into the minivan and headed to Kroger, not because she dispatched her servants to the Italian Coast for fresh olive oil. The woman of Proverbs 31 made her family’s clothes because all the necessary components her household grew or bred, though I don’t know any woman today with easy access to sheep and flax. Today’s woman’s husband is not likely the vanguard at the gates, but some middle management automaton who slaves in a cubicle 20 miles from home. And the woman in Proverbs 31 didn’t have to take a full-time job out in that business world because her husband got downsized and has not been able to find work for a year.
American women today don’t live in tribal villages that offer an unseen network of support. Instead, most have cocooned their households because they’ve had it drummed into their heads that it’s every family for itself. Even if she wanted to, she could not go to the tents next door to trade for medicines, balms, sandal repairs, fresh spices, and so on. Instead, she fights wrong charges on the phone bill, diagnoses the reason the oven stopped working, sits endlessly in pediatrician’s offices, and fills out mountains of bureaucratic paperwork. And the woman of Palestine 2000 B.C didn’t have to spend every evening shuttling her four kids to band, soccer, or basketball practice, piano lessons, and 4-H Club meetings.
Yet somehow, we expect American women of today to exactly model their Palestine-dwelling counterparts of 4,000 years ago.
All that said, what is the real point of Proverbs 31?
The Bible makes it very clear what the wrong kind of woman is:
Call me crazy, but the latter two are not going to be issues for most Christian women.
Skipping the gossiping busybody for now, idleness is the remaining issue. Look at the list of activities of the woman in Proverbs 31 and note how it concludes:
She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Given the manic lifestyle that we’ve created for women circa 2010, who among them is truly idle? Who ignores her household’s needs? What Christian woman out there is not giving 110 percent? Most women work harder than their husbands! Almost every woman I know contends with two lives worth of responsibilities and daily chores. Yet somehow we continue to add requirements to their being The Proverbs 31 Woman™.
I chose the word Burying in the title of this post for a two-fold reason. It’s high time we stopped burying today’s Christian women under the expectations of being The Proverbs 31 Woman™. We need to let them be who God made them to be and not force them to conform to a standard that none can attain. In other words, grace. I also think we need to bury that title of The Proverbs 31 Woman™ and move on. It’s used by too many as a cudgel, and I think a lot of women would agree that they’re tired of the beatdown.
Now, about gossiping busybodies…
I think that women who feel most buried by The Proverbs 31 Woman™ are those who get looked down upon by other women. Some women who pride themselves on being The Proverbs 31 Woman™ are the ones administering the beatings to those women they feel don’t meet that standard. Fact is, any woman who concerns herself with how some other woman is not doing The Proverbs 31 Woman™ correctly is headed right into that gossiping busybody title. In other words, the self-selected arbiters of what constitutes The Proverbs 31 Woman™ probably need to stop being judgmental prigs and just mind their own business. That would please God more than anything.
Proverbs 31 offers us God’s word about a woman who is giving her all for her Lord, her husband, and her children. Almost every woman I know is already doing that. Let’s stop making her job harder.