Recently, my boyfriend and I were having a CS Lewis-inspired gender discussion. (Like you do.) We were really on a roll, knocking down gender stereotypes while still upholding a Biblical understanding of what it means to be men and women, when suddenly he said, “I love what Proverbs 31 says about women.”
My thoughts came to a grinding halt. Part of me wanted to agree with him, because of course he was right. But part of me was throwing my metaphorical Christian woman hands on my metaphorical Christian woman hips and rolling my metaphorical Christian woman eyes. Proverbs 31 woman--bleh. My response was so automatic and so gut-deep that I was grounded. Why on earth was this my reaction to someone who was only affirming scripture?
My boyfriend was confused too. “It seems like a feminist passage, almost,” he said, trying to understand. I tried to organize my thoughts, tried to understand my own reaction. Because clearly this should not be my reaction to a representation of woman that God himself penned. I should be wholeheartedly embracing it.
But I don’t think I’m alone in this response. If I had to guess, I would wager that most women in my age group who grew up in the church are all rolling their own metaphorical eyes at the mention of this passage. I think part of it is due to the simple fact that this passage has been watered down, simplified, and spoon-fed to girls in youth groups by leaders who have mishandled it. And yet it goes deeper than that.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that at its core, it is a question of how women are perceived. This is such a complicated issue, and it’s even more complicated in the church where many women affirm that yes, there are differences between men and women. It’s a fundamental truth for women (Christian or not) that much of our life is spent thinking about ourselves in relation to how men perceive us. It’s part of being the “other”—the non-man, which is how the world has treated women since the beginning. Women seldom feel that they are their own entity, able to fully disassociate themselves with how men see them. Our fallen culture was built for men; therefore women are constantly being measured against how they are different from men, rather than simply who they are.
This grows more complicated yet when Christianity enters in. Women who believe in gender differences and roles affirm that there is something inherent to women that desires to be cherished and pleasing to men—some impulse that is naturally servant-hearted. As a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about feminism and women’s issues, I don’t think it’s dehumanizing or anti-feminist to affirm that women have this fundamental difference from men. Men often tend to be very individualistic, very opportunistic. Every human is different, and there are exceptions on both sides of the gender divide, but in general I am comfortable saying that women tend to be more aware of how their actions affect others. (Some would probably say it’s nurture, and not nature. Different discussion.)
All this to say, when Proverbs 31 was brought up all these subconscious thoughts united in my mind and I began to feel that slow, resentful feeling I get when I think a man is only viewing me in relation to himself. Because what does the Wife of Noble Character do? Serves her husband. Feeds her kids. She does it all, man. And coupled with the baggage of years of misinterpretation and sinful cultural stereotypes laid overtop of it, I automatically associate this passage with men who view their significant other as nothing but a shiny trophy of stereotypical Christian womanhood.
There is also, of course, the not-small issue of my own sinfulness, and the struggle of how I see myself. For most people—and Christian women especially—the idea of role and equality is a huge one. I spend so much time worrying about whether I’m getting what I deserve, and being all I can be, and not getting shorted, that of course when presented with a passage that speaks mostly about service, I rebel against it. But this is where the Lewis passage that started it all comes back in. He has a beautiful chapter in his book The Weight of Glory titled “Membership,” and it cut me to pieces. (Really, you should just stop reading this and go read that instead. It’s brilliant.) He has this idea that equality is a necessary evil—that really, we’re all supposed to function as completely unequal but fully valued, but we’ve had to introduce the idea of equality to protect ourselves from our own sinfulness. I’m a little bit afraid that if I start quoting from the chapter I’ll end up quoting the entire thing, but I’ll just share this one beautiful bit of truth:
Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside the world which says “I am as good as you.” It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel. As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more and more necessary.
It occurred to me, during our gender discussion, that it had been at least ten years—and probably more like fifteen—since I’d actually read the passage in Proverbs. Which, first of all, is embarrassing because it means I’ve been picking and choosing pretty severely in my personal Bible-reading. But I flipped open to Proverbs 31 (which apparently twelve year-old Ruthie decided to underline in its entirety #thanksyouthgroup) and read it again. And I will be honest: I cried. Some of what I felt was, I think, due to the fact that I’ve been discovering and growing a lot recently in my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and settling deep into those realizations. But some it was just honest conviction.
It is an incredible passage. It is a beautiful picture of a strong, passionate woman who, even in a time when women were traded and bartered for, worked steadily and confidently. But it wasn’t her independence, and the feminist themes that are present, or even the impressive amount of work that she accomplishes and the fact that everyone likes her that got me. It was the way she is able to just be. She’s not fighting herself, or her society, or her husband. She’s not worrying about whether she’s getting as much respect or independence as she deserves. She is her own unequal piece of the puzzle, and she is joyful.
I don’t think the point of Proverbs 31 is to empower women to be whatever they can be, and I certainly don’t think the point is to make women feel guilty about all the things they’re not able to accomplish. This passage is a lifeline directly to the stressed-out heart of women, and it is telling us to breathe deeply and be who were created to be. For some of us, it will be doctors and lawyers. For some of us, it will be artists and teachers and mothers. But for all of us, we are not defined by who we are in relation to our male counterparts, or whether we are as smart as them or as driven as them or as powerful as them.
Let us leave those discussions for another day, and let us be free.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard