Feminism February: Revenge of the Proverbs 31 Woman

Welcome to our second panel of Christian women writing about issues related to faith and gender and a whole lot of really interesting topics. Catch up on last’s week’s panel on Disney princesses, and read on for some thought-provoking reflections. (You will probably also want to be friends with all of these people because they are so thoughtful and articulate.)

Today’s topic is close to my heart because I know many women who get exhausted after just reading Proverbs 31. And because I know teenage girls who have worried that they should be “less” of something if they wanted nice Christian guys to like them—less intelligent or opinionated or capable. And because I once thought I was a terrible person because I did not have a “quiet and gentle spirit.” (Note from context: the opposite of a “quiet and gentle spirit” is not a “feisty and exuberant spirit.” It is a “self-flaunting and obnoxious spirit.”)

Prov 31

I have nothing against this passage. Just like I have nothing against Benjamin Franklin’s schedule. But seriously. Who does that?

Question: What comes to mind when you think of what most Christians in our culture think a woman should be? Is this helpful or hurtful, and in what ways?

StephanieThe ideal Christian woman: she’s married, has three kids (named after Bible characters, possibly Old Testament prophets), either home-schools them or invests a large amount of time in protecting them from negative cultural influences, home-cooks every meal, hand-makes her children’s birthday gifts using less than $5 and her mad-crafting skills, is warm and friendly (but not too opinionated or loud), teaches Sunday school, runs the church potluck and missions committee, attends three Bible studies, always looks put-together and attractive (nothing immodest of course: think Ann Taylor Loft clothes bought on sale, and the perfect amount of make-up to enhance her natural beauty) and is a constant support and encouragement to her husband in the work he does providing for the family and leading in the church.

The biggest problem I have is that this story revolves around the woman being married. If you’re a single Christian woman, the only way you fit into this story is in the prologue, where you hone your skills and sing, “One day my Prince will come.” I think as Christians we need to tell ourselves (and our children) a story of womanhood that doesn’t completely base our identity nor define virtue around how we respond to our husbands/future husbands.

–Stephanie E.

For more from Stephanie, visit her blog, Bridging Hope.

ChelseaI could make a list, but the biggest thing, I think, is that we’re often expected to be the same. We hear sweeping statements about how women “give sex to get love,” are more emotional, are more nurturing, etc. While there certainly are behavioral trends among women (and men), I think it can be harmful to act as though these tendencies are absolutes which apply to all women, everywhere, at all times. Not only does this thinking ignore women who don’t fit the mold, but it also encourages the idea that if we can only figure out who the “average woman” is, and what she wants, then we’ll finally understand the women in our everyday lives.

But it’s just not true. The “average woman”? She’s isn’t me. She’s not my sister, my aunts, my co-workers, or my friends. She certainly isn’t my sisters in Christ. She’s an amalgamation, a creature made from surveys and studies and polls, and pretending otherwise is—quite frankly—dehumanizing, as though women are merely carbon copies of each other and not individuals made in the image of God. Dorothy L. Sayers talks more about this in Are Women Human?, which I highly recommend reading.

–Chelsea Molin

DianaI imagine that for people who grew up within privileged white evangelical homes like mine, we see Her as stylish but “modest.” Confident, but not too loud. Smart, but not pretentious. The first to volunteer, but only for the “right” roles. The one holding a baby, but never commanding a room.

Behind Amy’s question lies a paradox: to describe the ideal Christian woman, you have to assume she exists; that gender “norms” exist; that there is a dominant cultural image of the ideal Christian woman. It’s a self-perpetuating system. We draw hard lines around “the Proverbs 31 woman” and hand women the crayons.

This cultural “picture” also universalizes (Western, white) privilege without recognizing that for women around the world, issues like employment are a question of survival, not a theological debate.

The conservative, evangelical Christianity I grew up within sponsored these gender-based cultural expectations in a way that excluded and wounded people who didn’t fit in—and allowed those who appeared to fit in to remain invisible. When we tell people what they should look like, who they should be, we also say don’t be this, don’t do that. We say, no room here for you.

–Diana M.

For more from Diana, follow her on Twitter (@dianameakem), or visit her blog, Wordflow.

RuthieThe first image that pops into my mind is a stay-at-home mom with 3-5 kids, although I think that image of ideal Christian womanhood is quickly becoming outdated. I think it’s difficult for Christians to know exactly what a woman should be, partially because there are so few positive examples of biblical womanhood. I mean, you have Esther, Ruth, and Mary the mother of Jesus, sure, but after that? Jezebel, Bathsheba, and Rahab? Not exactly women we’re able to hold up as paragons of virtue.

So many times, biblical passages involving women just bring more confusion. Should women speak in the church or be silent? Can they teach or should they leave that to the men? What role should childbirth and motherhood play in the life of a woman? No one has definitively answered these questions in a way that satisfies all Christian men and women, and so most people are left a little bewildered.

Personally, I’d like to see more encouragement from Christians and the church for women to be whole people, rather than fragmented stereotypes. Maybe she’s a mother, maybe she’s a career woman, maybe she loves baking and taking care of guests, maybe she loves math or sports or life in the corporate world, maybe she’s vulnerable, maybe she’s strong. Maybe she’s a little of all of these things…and that’s okay.

–Ruthie B.

For more from Ruthie, visit her blog, Stories that Bind.

Thoughts? How do you think Christians can affirm women and speak to issues that affect their lives without stereotyping them?

4 comments

  1. Very interesting responses! Thanks for sharing them. I really like that people have a pulse on what the culture thinks and are willing to discuss it. I’ve so long ago set aside what society thinks that it’s “news to me” when I hear this is what the general world believes. Then again, it’s reasons like this I left them to their choices, I guess, and was called away from the masses and to the individuals.

    “How do you think Christians can affirm women and speak to issues that affect their lives without stereotyping them?”

    Love them. It’s the thing that fixes everything. When we love others (all; male or female) we have no need for things like stereotypes. Stereotypes are for taking shortcuts, and true love has no shortcut. To sit, and listen, and care, what else are we called to do? Ah, it seems to me we get in our own ways and try to fix things instead. We try to fix things “out of love” instead of just loving and allowing that to fix anything that needs to change. What power do we really have? None, but it all comes from God.

    Poetic, perhaps, and airy and light and easily brushed off. Yet the simple truth usually is, as we try to fix complicated problems with complicated answers. It’s not prose, it’s action, and up to us to do it or continue to search for our own answers, and struggle.

    My thoughts, anyway. Based on the peace I’ve found when I stop ignoring God’s command and start just loving people and giving him the rest. It’s what I was called to, but everyone is called to things unique to them. All we can do is whatever that is (or ignore it, of course, which I did for 30 years [not recommended]).

  2. I relate a lot to these stories! I found myself stuck in the hamster wheel of performance oriented Proverbs 31 femininity within the church! So much so that i ended up writing a book about it when i finally got out of it! lol Proverbs 31 is not a to do list, but unfortunately it is being taught as one. One thing that i’ve come to realize is that because of Jesus’ work on the cross, we start out as Proverbs 31 women. Proverbs 31 looks different on each of us, but it’s the Holy Spirit in us that unites us. Understanding our value and worth and knowing that we don’t have a list of things to do to be a godly woman, frees us to be able to choose everything: how many kids we have, how we school them, if we have a career or stay home. Christ set us free so that we could truly be free!

    Hannah
    http://www.proverbs31redefined.com

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