Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
September 20, 2015
Over the last ten years or so I’ve been unlearning the interpretation of Proverbs 31 that I grew up with, a reading that governed much of my adolescence and young adult life, as it does for so many girls in traditions that are concerned with raising godly women, ushering them into carefully defined and controlled ways of being feminine. And in that sense, it’s important to not merely talk about the text itself so much as how Proverbs 31 has been, and in many ways continues to be, misused.
This text was always at the forefront of “Girls Night” at the Christian summer camp I attended. Each summer I would jealously watch as the boys marched out into the woods to play capture the flag for “Guys Night,” while we young ladies prepared to have a spa night and watch Everafter. I have no particular problem with spa night or Everafter, mind you -- it’s the prescribed nature of the thing, the assumption that our identities are so narrowly defined. The fun activities were just the beginning of the night, though.
At some point in the evening we would inevitably listen to a talk about what it meant to be a godly woman. A Proverbs 31 Woman. This woman was so ingrained in both the young men’s and young women’s minds by the time we were in high school, and then working as staff in college, that we’d abbreviate it: “Yeah, she’s a real P31,” a male counselor might say, of his girlfriend who was coming to visit that weekend. It was somewhat tongue in cheek, but always somewhat serious, as well. You wanted to be a P31, because P31s were who good Christian guys wanted, and good Christian girls wanted to marry those good Christian guys. And if God didn’t bring you a husband, there was a good chance it was because you hadn’t yet lived up to the P31 standard.
And so, in curving script, using dry erase markers or possibly pink lipstick, counselors would write on bathroom mirrors: Charm is deceptive, beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30. I don’t have to look it up to quote it to you, because it’s written on my mind, forever. As a reminder that one’s worth as a woman, or dare I say as a person, doesn’t come from physical beauty this seems all well and good, but the tyranny of effortless perfection can take on other, equally insidious forms. The P31 woman will forever stand in my mind alongside supermodels and professional athletes, an archetype of a different sort, a seemingly unreachable standard to which we nonetheless compare ourselves.
I distrust archetypes. I distrust ideals. There is too little grace in them, too little of God’s love for our imperfect selves.
In this sense, I don’t think it is wise to separate this passage from its history of misogynistic interpretation or application. I know that Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis wrote a wonderful essay on Proverbs 31, which illuminates the agrarian context of the passage in a way that could be described as empowering. I also know that -- as blogger Rachel Held Evans has popularized -- another interpretation of the opening phrase, “a capable wife” is “woman of valor.” But neither of those things changes the way this passage has been used to shape and pressure girls and women. Nor does the emphasis on getting the interpretation “right,” now, diminish the perceived standard of perfection that I see embodied in this passage. At the end of the day, it is still about how to be an ideal woman.
We might emphasize how independent and industrious she is, making clothing, buying property, selling her merchandise -- she’s a producer, a maker, not just a consumer. Her contemporary equivalent would no doubt have an Etsy shop, grow and can her own vegetables, maybe even brew her own beer. She probably does CrossFit or runs marathons, too -- not to be beautiful, for beauty is vain, but to be strong. “Strong is the new pretty,” they say. Reading the passage through this lens, I think of every overachieving, over-extended woman I’ve known. And I honestly just wonder, if she is really doing all of this, when does she sleep?
The text says that her lamp does not go out at night, so perhaps she simply doesn’t.
The real clincher comes at the end though, for me: “Give her a share of the fruit of her hands,” the writer says, “and let her works praise her at the city gates.” Her husband is still the authority, over the household, over its resources, over her. She gets a share. I don’t know that there’s an interpretive dance we can do to get around that one. Understanding a passage and its context can’t magically erase every difficulty we encounter in scripture. Some texts are messy, and alway will be.
In Proverbs 31, today I find not so much as model as a warning about how our notions of virtue can crush us. Conversations with women around me echo my sense that this passage, these pressures, are a burden -- and not the holy kind. Refusing to acknowledge the pain such interpretations have caused perpetuates a cycle of self-doubt and perfectionism that seems to be pretty far removed from who we believe God to be. Instead of praising women for “doing it all,” I like to imagine a world where we feed them cupcakes and they get to take naps -- a world where women are multidimensional, imperfect, with needs and desires of their own, not separate from the needs and desires of those who depend on them daily.
I am many things, as are each of you -- women and men alike. But I am not a woman of valor. I don’t make my own clothes. My garden consists of a single tomato plant. If my alarm goes off before daylight I will get up, but I will grumble -- even though I’m only going as far as the next room to write in my pajamas, rather than off to consider a field and buy it. I’m not weaving wool and flax; I’m no good with a distaff.
I’m sure you could make a list of your own, of the ways you fall short of ideals, the reasons you feel don’t deserve to be praised at the city gates by your partner. And while there is much to admire in this passage, much that men as well as women might reasonably emulate, I come back again and again to the fact that society and the church expect so much of women, while still offering so little in return.
Some days, I wear strength, though often I don’t. And we need to be a community where, on the days our strength fails us, others will pick us up. A place where we can speak words of wisdom, but, likewise, a place to say the hard things, in a community of love that can hear the difficult words, too. A place where it is safe to name our needs, to acknowledge our insufficiency, to ask and receive help.
Charm is deceptive, as Proverbs 31 says. And I think this valiant, hardworking “How does she do it?” P31 woman is charming. Rather than a mere prescription for “womanhood,” I hear in this text a warning against the ways society continues to break women’s spirits, by expecting them to do it all, have it all, and give it all away to those around them -- always with a smile, for “she laughs at the days to come.” And that image, there, is perhaps the worst deception of all -- woman as superhuman, perfect without her efforts ever showing sweat and exhaustion -- rather than a fellow human, who must cope with the inevitable limitations and heartbreaks of our precarious lives.
What if women didn’t have to be exceptional in order to be praised at the city gates? What if the options weren’t as cut and dried as fleeting beauty versus this perfect, industrious standard of godliness?
What if this Proverbs 31 woman, like every other person I have ever known, had good days and bad days, and needed to be loved on every single one of them?