By Lindsey Abston Painter  |  4 December 2020  |  

She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. She is like the merchant ships bringing her food from afar. She gets up while it is still night, she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. She considers a field and buys it, out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously, her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. When it snows she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet… Proverbs 31:13-21

Many a Mother’s Day weekend we women have sat through Proverbs 31 sermons. 

Proverbs 31 sermons are well meant. That’s the definition of benevolent sexism: sexist, but well meant. And in this matter, Mother’s Day can be among the worst offenders. 

Who is this fabled woman who wakes up while it’s still dark, whose lamp doesn’t go out at night? Who is this mom who feeds and clothes her family, makes wise financial choices, and does all these domestic tasks so diligently and cheerfully? 

I confess: she sounds nothing at all like me. 

Most of my life, I have felt like a failure compared to this perfect, never tiring, domestic goddess that lives in Proverbs 31. Would she rest while there are dishes in the sink? I have. I can say with confidence that my children are not clothed in scarlet—unless there’s a sale at JCPenney on red children’s clothing. 

And call me lazy if you like, but my lamp definitely goes out at night. 

So why is Proverbs 31 in the Bible? Is it just there to make us women feel inadequate? 

Misunderstood

For generations this passage has been used to shame and guilt women. Yes, it was expressed in terms of a standard for a Godly woman to live up to. But that standard is unreasonable. Women can never live up to it. 

Which, in some ways has suited manipulative Christian men just fine. Because the more you can make someone feel shame for not living up to some unattainable ideal, the easier they are to control. 

I submit that Proverbs 31 has been misunderstood and misapplied. And women have suffered for it. Proverbs 31 was never intended to shame women. 

It is a poem that highlights the beauty in normally unsung tasks. 

The Bible is filled with poetry about valiant deeds and spiritual battles with God on our side. The Proverbs 31 woman, though, is not winning glorious battles. She is cooking, cleaning and sewing. She is managing the household finances. She is shopping and making sure her children and husband have everything they need to thrive and be successful. 

These are the things that are usually ignored and go without praise. The author of Proverbs 31 has actually noticed the enormous amount of unpaid labor here and acknowledged it, in poetic form. Which means that the way Proverbs 31 has been historically used against women is the exact opposite of its original intent! 

Around the world women bear the lion’s share of the unpaid load of managing households. These domestic tasks might seem small and insignificant, especially if you’re not the one doing the majority of them—and yeah, I’m looking at a lot of you men—but they are an enormous amount of work. Even though most modern women are also working full time, unlike in some previous generations when women stayed home while men worked, women continue to carry an unfair share of household work. 

And I’m not just talking about the physical work, although women statistically still do more of that too. I’m talking about managing a family. That means remembering birthdays, setting up medical and dental appointments, keeping track of what household items are low and replacing them, doing paperwork for the children’s school, making sure everyone is properly clothed, and many other things. 

In the business world, a job like that would be called a “managerial” position. It would be full time and it would be salaried. But in a household, more often than not it goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and unappreciated. 

A chapter for men

What if Proverbs 31 wasn’t written for women at all? What if it was actually written for men? What if it was included as an example of how to recognize, appreciate, and acknowledge all the invisible labor that is being done behind the scenes on men’s behalf? 

The evidence? There is only one directive in the entire passage, and it is directed at men: “Praise her for all her hands have done.” 

Several years ago I read A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. Held Evans shared her experience of attempting to live as a biblical woman would for a year. Her experiences were sometimes hilarious, sometimes trivial, and occasionally profound. 

Held Evans famously noted that a more accurate translation from the Hebrew for the first line of the poem, “A virtuous woman who can find?” is actually, “A woman of valor [Hebrew eshet chayil] who can find?” This changes the intent of the entire poem. It isn’t about measuring women against some ancient paragon of virtue, but rather appreciating all women—ordinary women—for their valor! Many modern women are working full time, raising children, and managing a household all at the same time! Eshet chayil—women of valor!

So if you’re a man, and you’re considering bringing up Proverbs 31, you’d better be using it as a springboard for praising underappreciated women for their hard work. If not, I advise you just not to bring it up at all.

As for you women: the next time you hear a reference to Proverbs 31, raise your head high! Even if their implication is that it’s not something you’re quite living up to, act as though you think you’re being complimented. Their confusion can’t fail to amuse.

To all women who have suffered through Proverbs 31 sermons designed to make you feel bad for not doing enough for your family, just remember: you are eshet chayil—“valorous women.” Thank God that at least one biblical author recognized women’s often-invisible labor!

Let’s hope we can get more modern men to care about it too. Or even better, take on some of that burden themselves. 

Note: This article is written from my perspective, with my words, and in my voice. But the inspiration comes from Rachel Held Evans, who I miss very much since she died unexpectedly last year. —Lindsey Abston Painter


Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie. 

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