I can still see the cartoon in my memory – she was robed in white, her nose in the air, gracing a marble pedestal under which lesser women cowered. Inscribed on the pedestal were the words, “The Proverbs 31 woman.”
It was illustrating a comedic piece in a Christian women’s magazine, describing exactly what the author felt when faced with such a perfect, perfect woman. My mother lifted the magazine out of my hands. “Don’t read that nonsense,” she said.
“Why not?” I wanted to know.
She thought a moment. “People like to mock her. It’s easy to make fun of her. But I don’t like it.”
Lots of women do feel intimidated by Proverbs 31. We feel if we were to meet her in real life, we would only meet with judgment. We react to her as if she is a standard that points out all our inadequacies. And authors who write about her know this – they feel compelled to include an apologetic paragraph somewhere near the beginning of their article: Don’t worry, everyone comes from a different life situation. Don’t worry, this woman appears to be rich, and you might not be. Don’t worry, everyone is unique, and not everyone needs to live up to this passage in the same way.
A recent article I read started off with, “Reading Proverbs 31 can be discouraging! Who can live up to such expectations?” The first reaction to her is to downplay her a little, and make her more approachable.
The assumption is that an unsoftened look at the woman in Proverbs 31 will lead to discouragement. The assumption is that the first emotions this passage will raise in us will be negative emotions, and that these negative emotions will need to be navigated and managed before we can get anything useful out of the passage.
I don’t deny that this is often the case, that often these are the emotions stirred up by this passage. But I don’t think this needs to be the case. It should be possible to re-frame the passage as a whole, from discouraging and disheartening to uplifting and inspiring. Maybe the Proverbs 31 woman can be encouraging without being softened.
Actually, I know it is possible. I have often read this passage with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. In contrast to many human writings, it does not downplay the capabilities of woman, and it acknowledges and appreciates them (and urges the rest of society to do so). It is not a passage that needs to be clarified with the sentence, “oh, this applies to women too,” but it is directly applicable. However, this woman can clearly inspire either excitement or discouragement in many women. What causes the difference? Can she be inspiring to everyone?
The value of ideals
One problem is that we tend to think of ideals in the wrong way. The woman in Proverbs 31 is an ideal, and ideals are judges. Ideals are meant to draw our attention to the gap between them and us. They do give a verdict on our conduct by demonstrating the ways we fall short of them. But ideals are meant to be a vision of what could be, of what we can strive for, rather than a standard that is meant to crush and punish us. They aren’t there to push us to quit, but instead give us a vision of a different way to live.
Our modern world doesn’t like ideals very much. In the past, people did frequently talk about the ideal country or ideal city or ideal king. But nowadays, who talks about the ideal prime minister? We don’t believe any politicians could ever be ideal. Our cynicism is unavoidable – we are much more comfortable speaking about the way our current society is not just and equal, than speaking of what a just and equal society would actually look like. Human realities have led us to give up on utopias, and create lists of our problems instead.
But maybe we should take our eyes off our lists of problems, and learn to feel inspired once again. We can draw fresh enthusiasm from working towards a vision of the good.
When presented with an ideal, we feel like ideals force conformity on us, tell us to be all the same, and can only make us feel bad about ourselves. But instead, the power of ideals is that they can open our eyes to a better way of living. In that way they are not limiting, but rather are a demonstration of opportunities we would never have imagined in our current circumstances.
After all, children look to their parents to see what it is like to be a person who can accomplish more than what their childish limbs can manage. They can’t do what their parents do, but they can imagine growing into a future where they will be able to do more. When they look to their parents they can see an example of how to live a life they have never yet experienced – an adult life.
And Christians are inspired by Christian role models too. Paul the apostle advises the Corinthians to imitate him as a model in their Christian life, as an example of a more mature Christian (1 Cor. 11:1). Having examples can be freeing rather than limiting, because we see how different lives than ours can be lived.
Yes, visions of what could be are intimidating. But to erase them is to limit ourselves only to what exists right now.
An ideal woman
And this is the way I think the woman in Proverbs 31 can function. She can demonstrate the power of a virtuous woman, and lead us in turn to feel enthusiasm about what is possible for us in our femininity.
After all, it does not take much for us to feel ground down in our femininity – we’re confronted daily by negative portrayals of silly women, clingy women, bullying women, or passively helpless women in media, online, or just mentioned in general conversation. We can feel hormonal and wonder if our genetic makeup is a curse. We can struggle to perform heavy labor and feel dependent on others as a result of who we are. We can hesitate to speak up and make our voice heard, and feel held back. And when others reject us and label us or neglect to appreciate us, and we become vulnerable to harmful images of femininity.
When we turn to our Bible to counteract this, we find the Bible itself does not shy away from portrayals of the shortcomings of women (just as it does not shy away from the shortcomings of men). Women can be gullible (2 Tim. 3:6), weak, (1 Pet. 3:7), or just unpleasant (see elsewhere in Proverbs itself, such as Prov. 21: 9).
Faced with all this, how does one remain hopeful about womanhood? Is there any vision of a woman being a woman in a positive way? Yes, there is.
When we need a picture of a woman exercising female traits and positively affecting the world around her as a result of being a woman, we can look to Proverbs 31. We can look to Proverbs 31 and begin to heal from our doubts and worries about womanhood. There are many things a woman can do, even a very “traditional” woman such as this woman.
She can be strong, both physically and mentally, even though we’re tempted by negative images to believe we’re doomed to be fragile and unstable. She can be effective, even though we’re afraid we’ll only be passive and ineffective. And she can be courageous, even though we’re worried and anxious. In this way she is purely encouraging. We are not fated to be that taunting caricature of ourselves that may live in our imagination. When we need to insist our womanhood is a gift God has given us and the world, she is on our side.
“A heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” is how one commentator classes this passage. Another calls it, “an ode to a champion.” What women do is not only worthy of being recorded, it is worthy of being applauded in exactly the same way as a warrior who slew a lion. But she girds her loins and takes up the heroic role in a very different setting.
We can feel confident in this picture that we receive in Proverbs 31. This is not like the argument over whether Cinderella is a good role model for girls or not; we can take it as a given that this woman is a good role model. And if she is, what opportunities does that present to us? She brings so much to the discussion that I cannot begin to include everything in a single article, so I’ll have to limit myself to the example of her strength.
Strength is not the first word I associate with women, but it is the first association brought out here, in the very first line: “A woman of strength, who can find?” She draws our eyes to the quality of female strength specifically.
Looking for a strong female character
What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek.
Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live.
Women live their lives under the awareness that they will never be as strong as men. There is a limit to what we can physically do, and aside from a few exceptional women, most of us will burn out measuring our strength against men’s. Because of this, some of us can conclude it is not worthwhile to develop our own strength and capacity. Or others may choose to highlight only these exceptionally strong women as a defense against perceptions of weakness, in a way that makes regular women feel inadequate.
Another way we do not feel strong is in our awareness of our vulnerability—we live knowing we can be overpowered and harmed by others with more strength. We structure our lives because of our awareness of our vulnerability, not walking alone in the dark, or holding our keys in our fists when we feel threatened. So no, I don’t believe that physically strong female characters in media are enough by themselves to encourage and inspire us in our regular lives.
Strong and weak stereotypes
However, it does not follow that in order to be a woman, we must emphasize our weakness. There has been a growing awareness through time that strength in women is a benefit and not a drawback, starting with the nineteenth-century encouragement to throw off tight-laced corsets and be physically active.
Nowadays, the capacity of women is recognized on a society-wide level, and women are encouraged to develop and use their abilities to accomplish what they set their hand to do. And Proverbs 31 gives no support to ideas that weakness, fragility or delicacy are defining characteristics of womanhood.
It is at this intersection between “kickass” female stereotypes and the experiences of regular women that the woman in Proverbs 31 stands. Remember, this passage is “a heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” or, “an ode to a champion.” In this way, she stands alongside Achilles and Beowulf.
And yet she is not unreachable or alien to us in our everyday life. In fact, one thing many commentators notice about her is the mundane normalcy of what she is described as doing, even as the passage uses phrases such as “girds her loins” as she does these things. We might expect a woman who does “great things for God” would have more in common with female superheroes than with us. But we can relate to the strength needed to consider a field and buy it – or, in more modern terms, decide to launch a business, or plant and harvest a garden, or challenge ourselves with an activity we have never tried before.
Let’s take it a step further and compare the Proverbs 31 woman with some older female stereotypes – she may be rich and of high status, but she does not spend her days in the cool shade of her porch, being fanned by servants. She has not retreated from the world to seek the safety of a carefully ordered life, buffered from anything that might jolt her poor nerves – an image of femininity that would be unreachable to most of us, even if we did desire such a life. Instead, her strength is demonstrated by taking up the task of living, including the hard things, and by working with her own hands.
In other words, she demonstrates that strength is a non-gendered Christian quality. It is not men with strength, and women with fragility. But both draw on God’s strength to use their full capacity.
Christianity has never been about strong men and weak women. Christianity has always been about strong men and strong women.
A woman of strength
We’re not used to hearing the first verse of this passage quoted as, “a woman of strength, who can find?” It is more recognizably quoted as, “a wife of noble character.” The description is translated in various ways: a wife of noble character, an excellent wife, a virtuous woman. Literally, it is a woman of valor, and the description is the same description given to Gideon (“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”) and Ruth (“I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman”). When we read it translated as “virtuous woman” we might not quite get all the overtones of power, competency and initiative this word carries. But it would be misguided to read this chapter and come away thinking this woman is not empowered (she is a woman of power), or that she is a passive housewife experiencing a lack of control over her life.
And it doesn’t really matter if the power this woman possesses does not come through in every translation, because further verses in the passage underscore it: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” and “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” If there exists any strong female character, it is this female character! She is the purest demonstration that strength and women can, in fact, go together.
It is clear that while she is described with power, capacity and strength, this is not reduced to the physical ability to bench-press heavy weights. It is not an ability to defend her home from intruders, or protect herself through hand-to-hand combat. The various translations demonstrate the meaning of this word is much broader. Her strength is her competency at what she does, and her capacity to consider a plan and complete it. Strength in this passage is not only physical strength (though a certain amount of physical strength would be necessary for her to accomplish all the things she does), but also includes competency and strength of character. And when we talk about “strengths” we tend to use this term in a broad way as well.
Strength of character in particular is important, as she is “a woman who fears the Lord.” When we think of that other “worthy woman,” Ruth, we understand it was her character that brought her notice, and not only her unflagging energy while gleaning for grain.
Lastly, don’t forget that this passage is directed to a man – a king, instructing him on what kind of wife to look for. A strong woman will not be a drawback for him. “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
Strength in action
There is, then, such a thing as female strength, in that woman can develop and exercise their strength. There are some aspects of this that are uniquely female, such as the ability to bear a child, but in a more general way it is women intentionally developing their capacity, skills and character. Developing one’s individual capacity is something everyone can do, regardless of what your starting point is.
Sometimes women don’t realize how strong they are. They may hesitate to do things by themselves, or to take initiative to develop an idea of theirs, or to build on their skills and talents. There is nothing wrong with depending on other people, as humans are made to interconnect and rely on the strength of each other. But sometimes, if we habitually rely on others, we forget what we ourselves can do.
In Proverbs 31, it does not mention her consultations with her husband over her initiatives, such as buying a field or planting a vineyard – this is not to say that she did not consult her husband (and I would argue most likely she did, and it says he trusts in her completely and her plans always brings him good). But it does demonstrate that the emphasis in this passage is that this woman can have an idea and carry it through. She knows her strength, and does not shrink away from taking action. She makes plans, and then puts in the grunt work necessary to bring her vision into reality.
This is especially true when it comes to our own faith life – we all need spiritual leaders to follow, but we also need to be able to study, learn, grow, tell truth from error, and so on, even when not directed by someone else. When many sections of Christian publishing target fluffy, easy, devotional reads to women, we can get a glimpse at what some marketing bodies think of the readers of these books. But we can also counteract these stereotypes by growing in our own faith.
Strength can be used wrongly, of course. Strength can be used to bully. Strength can be used to overwhelm others. This is true of female strength too, and there can even be extremes such as female-on-male abuse. However, strength and gentleness are not contradictory. After all, 1 Peter 3:4 still applies: “let your adorning be… the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” If you can think of strong men who are gentle, you will know strong women can be as well.
Am I a strong female character?
There are two responses to this idea of strength. The first is to glorify the strength of women as if this strength did not come first from God. To elevate the strength of women to the point where we almost require women to attain the same level of strength as men, or to speak as if female strength always surpassed men’s. We are afraid we’d be betraying our gender by speaking of our fragility
A broader understanding of strength is a good defense against this.
The other response is to feel intimidated because we personally feel so very beaten down and weak. There are many of us who hate hearing about how strong women are because we don’t feel able to take even another step.
Can you tell I relate more to the second? I have never considered myself the strongest, and because of health reasons I’ve spent the past couple years feeling very weak. I was weak to the point where, when certain types of men have expressed the idea that women are inconveniences, I felt like I agreed, in that I wasn’t sure I could help anyone much. It is a modern cliché – “the strong, female hero”– but I tend to notice all the ways I am not strong, physically and otherwise. And then I am reminded of verses like 1 Peter 3:7: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,” and I feel like a weaker vessel. “A woman of strength, who can find?”
In this regard, it’s worthwhile to remember that weakness is not a gendered characteristic either. What does Paul say about weakness? “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” he says, because as he says elsewhere, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He knows his weakness points him to the power of Christ. We all know what it is to be weak, and we all need to know where to turn to be strong.
The modern female hero can feel intimidating and unreachable and alien, in a way the woman in Proverbs 31 is not. Female superheroes might be fun to watch, but they do not change how I live. But Proverbs 31 is different. Proverbs 31 inspires me, because she is both like me and better. She challenges me to reach higher, through Christ who strengthens me.
The greatest ideal
Let me conclude with a question: what do you do if you don’t feel this way? What do you do if, instead of being inspired, you feel ground down by Proverbs 31 and don’t feel enthusiastic about its picture of opportunities for women?
First, you need to recall there is another ideal that is very familiar to Christians, and that is the ideal of Jesus Christ himself. All Christians are called to conform themselves to Christ. And all Christians are aware of where we fall short in this. Do we look to Christ to feel bad? Of course, the woman in Proverbs 31 is not an ideal in the same way Christ is. We are not required to live up to the ideal of Proverbs 31 in the same way we are commanded to put on Christ-likeness. But while pursuing Christ we can see the examples of other Christian role models, who give us ideas about how to apply Christ’s work in our own lives. The Bible has not neglected women – rather, it speaks right to us.
Second, there is an undeniable cultural context here. It’s not wrong to point out that this woman is set in a specific place and time, and this affects the way she is described. She acts in the way a wife of a rich, high-standing husband would act. And since this passage is advice given to a king by his mother (see Prov. 31:1), it is, in a sense, an ideal woman viewed through the eyes of a man who will need to find a wife someday, which does explain why some features are emphasized more than others. After all, Jesus Christ himself put on human flesh in a specific place and time, and we still understand that the universal application of his example is not tied to being an unmarried carpenter. It is correct to say she’s rich and you’re not, but not as a way of downplaying her achievements or making her easier to stomach, but rather as a way of re-contextualizing your response to her. In your circumstances, what can she inspire you to do?
Therefore, the third point is that we can see her as an example of a different way to live, rather than a standard meant to intimidate us. We are not doomed to some of the repeated negative stereotypes about females that are spread around: neurotic, weak, anxious, gullible. None of this is our destiny. It is not encoded in our genes, a sentence given by God at birth. No, we can draw enthusiasm about our femininity from this picture presented here.
The woman in Proverbs 31 does many things. As Wikipedia sums it up, she is “an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26).” You can look at all that and think, oh wow I have to do all that? Or you can think, wow, I could be a businesswoman. I could be a trader. I could be a benefactor. Look at all the things I could do and be.
And that sense of possibility is a good place to start.
Don’t be afraid of her. Remember, she comes to you with words of kindness in her tongue.
Author Harma-Mae Smit loves theology and loves the Lord. If you want more articles like this, you’ll be interested to learn she has started a monthly newsletter (where this article first appeared) as an antidote to the shallow and negative stories that tend to get shared online. Join her by signing up at the bottom of this webpage to get a new issue every month, and engage in discussion.