When it comes to faith and women, one of the best and most frustrating passages in the Bible is Proverbs 31: 10-31. I say best because I actually like what it has to say. I say frustrating because it is used by some groups in unhealthy ways to keep women “in their place.” I don’t know why this passage is so cherished by men who seemingly want to control their wives, because the woman I see in it has great independence and influence.
A woman like the one described in Proverbs works hard. She brings in income for the family, makes the purchasing decisions, buys land and farms it, and cares for her family. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, kindly instruction is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31: 25-26). This is not a quiet, meek maid to her husband. This is somebody who is active in the community, who makes her own money and speaks her mind.
Up until the Industrial Revolution, work and home were less divided. You made and sold your wares out of your house. A man worked, but he was still around his children. A woman cooked and cleaned but also helped in business transactions. Yes, there were distinct roles for men and women, but the family unit was kept together throughout the day (the children weren’t going off to school or anything; they were working alongside the rest of the family). It was really in the 1800s that idea of “man leaves house to work; woman stays in house” arose, physically separating men and women and work and home.
A woman can cook dinner and spin thread when the oven and spinning wheel are in the same room. She can’t do both when she’s in a factory. A woman can tend a field and raise her baby when there are grandparents or older siblings to keep an eye out. She can’t when the grandparents are off at their own jobs and the older children are in school. Families spend their days isolated, sorted out by age and gender. Then for a few hours a night, they try to reconnect and make it all work.
Our modern system makes having a functional family difficult. You spend most of the day apart. A woman as described in Proverbs needs a support system to care for children, make their clothes, cook their food, tend the vineyard, and bring in income. At the very least, she needs a husband who also works hard and who values and supports her contributions. But she most likely has the wider support of extended family and the community.
Still, I find the passage a surprisingly good description of what makes a great woman. She does her work diligently, she cares for her family, she speaks in wisdom and is valued for her contributions. It is not a definitive command of what womanhood should be, but it is a good role model.