A Woman of Strength, Who Can Find?

Critical of both feminist and old-fashioned models of womanhood, Christian women seek a renewed feminine ideal.
by Jeanne Kun




Today's woman finds herself confronted by greater and more rapid changes than women in the past ever faced. Psychologist Judith Bardwick clearly states the problem this way: "Technological societies are threatening by dint of the sheer rate of change which is their characteristic; change itself creates uncertainty because the future is not like the past". In the midst of shifting expectations for women Bardwick asks, "Where then, are our anchors?" — the commitments and responsibilities that give life meaning and direction. 

A hundred years ago, when a woman married she was aware that married life would be unpredictable. Riches and poverty, sickness and health, earlier or later death were no more foreseeable then than now. But her anchors were in the specific relationships and responsibilities that were accepted as part of her role in marriage and parenthood. She could be confident that the part she would play in the family — how she would relate to her husband and children and make a home for them would largely the part that her mother and grandmothers played. 

The woman who marries today has no such confidence. Many of her tasks and responsibilities have changed as technology has developed. For example, modern conveniences have eased her physical labors but have often reduce the potential for her exercise of sill and creativity as a homemaker. The patterns of employment and education in technological society have eroded the extended family ties which helped define and support her role as a woman. 

If today's women is sure of anything, it is that most people do not expect her to fill the same family role as her mother did. Quite likely, she herself does not expect to do so. Her anchors have been cut loose and she is adrift; society no longer offers her a widely agreed-on formula to rely on. 

It is in the midst of this dilemma that women are exploring various models to fashion themselves after. Rapid change and ambiguous role expectations have given rise to more alternatives in life style and social roles than ever before. 

With so many models surrounding us, how can we evaluate them from a Christian perspective and mold for ourselves a Christian ideal of womanhood? The alternatives which clamor for our allegiance fall generally into feminist and more "traditional" categories. Both have serious shortcomings.

The Feminist Critique

The most influential force shaping women, including Christian women, in American society today is the feminist movement. Feminism has most powerfully voiced women's perceptions of the problems regarding women's current role in society. For instance, feminists have pointed out that a woman who remains at home finds herself facing real difficulties such as isolation from economic, social, and political life and sole dependency on her husband for companionship or support. They are attempting to correct such ills as disparaging views of the feminine intellect, emotions, and psychology; disparity in educational and professional opportunities; and unequal wages. 

The feminist movement proposes a structure for society that is broadly defined by a denial of task distinctions for men and women in the job market and professional world. For many feminists this structure also includes a denial, or even reversal, of the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives in the home and family. They call these distinctions and roles unjust, oppressive, discriminatory. 

But in proposing to erase distinctions between men's and women's tasks and roles, feminists tend to ignore differences between the sexes that have traditionally given rise to gender-related tasks and roles. As Margaret Mead asks: "Are not sex differences exceedingly valuable, one of the resources of our human nature that every society has used but no society has as yet begun to use to the full?" They devalue the things a woman feels a great desire for — to be a wife and mother and make a home — and the elements of her personality that are most naturally feminine. Women then end up internalizing make personality qualities and measuring themselves primarily by male criteria for success and achievement.

Unforeseen Consequences

Of course, many of the women who consider themselves feminists do not want to obliterate all differences between men and women. They simply want women to be free to choose whether and how they will stay at home or pursue a career and to have equal opportunities in the marketplace and receive equal rewards there. Yet even some of these elements of the feminist program may have enormous unforeseen impact. 

Most of us would agree, for example, with the feminist call for equal pay for men and women doing the same jobs. But, as Bardwick again has pointed out, "Even so literal and modest a demand as equal pay for equal work involves a reevaluation of women as workers, of women as mothers, of mothers as workers, of work suitable for one gender and not the other. The demand implies equal opportunities and thus equal responsibilities. It implies a childhood in which girls are rewarded for competence, risk-taking, achievement, competitiveness, and independence — just like boys. Equal pay for equal work means a revision in our expectations about women as equal workers, and it involves the institutional arrangements to make them so". 

The fact that equal pay for equal work implies those changes does not by itself define the nature of the changes. The exact changes in women's rearing, education, and role which follow will be determined also by society's operative model of womanly personality and character. The point is, however, that many feminists do not have a clear model of womanhood or a carefully thought-out plan for how a woman's role will function in society. They have not given adequate thought to the implications of their program, and thus are engaging in profound social change which may have serious unforseen and undesirable results.

Radical Defeminization

On the other hand, radical elements of the feminist movement have very definitely thought through the implications of their demands. Like the leftists of the 1960's, who capitalized on widespread discontent with the Vietnamese war to try to mobilize a popular movement in pursuit of far-reaching radical goals, some of the feminists are quite consciously using the movement to achieve a fundamental restructuring of society and a new kind of woman. 

Radical feminists elevate professional life above family life, advocate the destruction of marriage, and engender in women competitiveness and hostility toward men. A declaration of feminist extremists states, "The institution of marriage ‘protects' women in the same way that the institution of slavery was said to ‘protect' blacks — that is, the word ‘protection' in this case is simply a euphemism for oppression...Since marriage constitutes slavery for women, it is clear that the Women's Movement must concentrate on attacking this institution. Freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage. 

In general feminist ideology places emphasis on the individual — her feelings, her personal uniqueness, freedom, self-fulfillment, and authenticity — with little orientation toward caring for others. In Bardwicks' assessment, "Contemporary feminism reflects our culture's general drift toward the legitimacy, even the priority, of egocentric hedonism...We want to be free to choose what we do, to narcissistically dictate the extent of our commitments, and to continue a commitment only as long as it give us a sense of pleasure and fulfillment". 

It is this attitude which underlies some feminists' rejection of marriage. They view the responsibilities of being a wife and mother as hindrances to the expression of their own individuality. Women's Liberation, Notes from the Second Year declares: "We must destroy love... Love prevents the full development of woman's human potential by directing all her energies outward in the interest of others.

Final Dissatisfaction?

Thus, though it recognizes valid concerns that all women would agree on, the women's liberation movement falls short both in its overall vision for society and in offering a model of womanhood that Christian women could follow unreservedly. What satisfaction can a woman find in unraveling society's basic structures by declaring independence from her husband and children? In being molded primarily by her work environment? In divesting herself of her feminine character and personality? 

It is tragic that so many women are denying in such large measure any womanly role, to the loss of their own femininity, and are putting themselves under great pressure to compete with men. Many may end in a bondage more bitter than any they had thought to shake off. Midge Decter writes, "Should the seeds of such denial take root, we shall all of us, men, women, and babes in arms, live to reap the whirlwind".

Christian Feminists

The growth of the feminist movement has been accompanied by the appearance of Christian feminists. Some of these, for example, favor the opinion that when scripture speaks of marriage "head" does not indicate a governing role and subordination doe snot involve obedience. Stress is laid on such principles as equal partnership and mutual submission of wife to husband and husband to wife. Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, coauthors of All We're Meant to Be, insist that a pattern of subordination of wife to husband "cannot indicate an equalitarian marriage". 

Scanzoni and Hardesty propose the removal of sex roles: "True egalitarianism must be characterized by what sociologists call role interchangeability". Either spouse ought to "fulfill the roles of breadwinner, housekeeper, encourager, career-achiever, child-trainer, and so on"; husbands and wives should avoid the "stifling trap of sex-role stereotyping". 

The result of following this advice would not be much different from the unraveling of social roles proposed by secular feminists — a revolutionary change which is likely to have great unforeseen consequences. 

The Christian liberationist view is more akin to secular concepts of personal relationships and social order than to scriptural concepts. There is the same animus against personal authority, the same inability to see subordination as anything other than servitude and mark of inferiority. The principles which inform Christian feminist exegesis can be largely attributed to the influence of the secular feminist movement. A tendency to interpret scripture only in ways consistent with current opinions distorts the meaning of the text. 

Thus it becomes clear that Christian feminism fails to sketch a description from which a portrait of Christian womanhood could accurately be drawn.

Total Woman-hood

On the conservative side, other models beckon. Perhaps the most widely-known is The Total Woman. A Total Woman knows she is different from her husband and appreciates the differences. She affirms her worth as a woman, a wife, a mother, and a homemaker. 

However, Marabel Morgan ultimately reinforces the negative stereotypes of women. Her chief interest seems to be in giving suggestions on how a wife can revolutionize her marriage to make it "sizzle". This emphasis on the wife making herself desirable and available casts her in the role of sex object. 

Morgan describes scenarios in which a wife is encouraged to improve her marriage by admiring her husband, building up his masculine ego, and lavishing hero-worship on him — all in cute, manipulative, or childish ways that demean his intelligence. 

Woman's godly character or virtue is given only shallow consideration. Though a Total Woman adapts to her husband's direction without nagging him, Morgan's concept of submission is superficial.

Old-fashioned, Victorian

Morgan's view of the woman's role is commonly thought to be the more traditional one — the woman at home, in a clearly defined sphere of her own, submissive to her husband. It is in fact, only a caricature of the traditional woman's role. Strange as it may sound, Morgan's approach to the woman's role seems more from the Victorian notion of womanhood, which, far from being the traditional one, was actually a modern mutation. Of course, Morgan's approach to sex is hardly Victorian, but her view of the wife solely as the comfort of her husband is. 

In the 19th century, economic life became separated from home life by the growth of industrialization. Consequently a woman's life, which was still centered on her home, no longer involved her in her husband's enterprise. By the late 19th century, middle-class women were coming tot be thought of and treated as beautiful ornaments, passive, delicate, weak, flighty and incompetent. 

Today, this Victorian model often is mistaken for the traditional understanding of femininity. The Victorian model and its descendent, the Total woman, have also been confused with the Christian view of womanhood. But neither of these presents a scriptural portrait of a Christian woman's qualities or role.

The Woman of Valor

The challenge, then, for Christian women is to take account of the feminists' valid perceptions of difficulties in women's situation without accepting the feminist models for womanhood and women's role. The challenge is, further to get beyond old-fashioned notions or mere caricatures. 

I would suggest that a start could be made by reconsidering Proverbs 31. Too often Christian women and men have read this chapter as a checklist for the superhomemaker and wonderwife — the woman who wins the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Best Dressed Woman, and Mother of the Year Awards all at the same time. Or we have read it as quaint account of ancient domestic skills and breathed a sigh of relief that spinning and weaving are no longer essential for keeping the family clothed. However, the overriding value of this passage lies in the portrait it offers of womanly character. 

The entire passage portrays a woman who is strong and capable in her role as a wife, mother, and domestic manager — a sturdy helper to her husband. A more literal translation of the question, "A good wife, who can find?" Would be, "Who will find a woman of valor, strength, courage?" Such an expression should destroy the misconception that the scriptural ideal for women is passivity, weakness, and total dependence on a husband. 

But do not strength, competence, and initiative conflict with other biblical ideals — a woman's submission to her husband or a "gentle and quiet spirit" (1 Pet. 3:4)? The question reflects the mistaken idea that submission indicates weakness, or that a submissive wife is completely passive and acts only when her husband tells her to.

Strength and Service

The woman of valor command respect for her achievements as well as for her personal virtues. She takes pride in accomplishing her work with excellence, and her wide range of activities offers ample opportunity to employ many skills. She is enterprising, shrewd, hard-working, diligent, a wise investor, and good manager. She handles all the affairs of her household in a well-organized, efficient way, and in so doing provides for the well-being of all who are a part of it. 

In this, she is a striking example of a woman who gives personal care and service to those around her. She is generous, compassionate, loving, and concern in practical ways for the needs of her people. Moreover, her role is not limited to her immediate family, but extends outward to those surrounding her. She instructs and trains the young women around her (verse 15), is hospitable, and opens her hands (verse 20) — her cupboards, her home, her life itself — to the poor and those in need. 

This ideal woman brings her husband honor and gain; he can trust her to do good for him all her deeds (verses 11-12). Such a wife brings her husband more than happiness, however. Her competence in her role frees him to take his place both as the head of the family and household and in society at large, where he assumes his responsibility for the affairs of the community (verse 22). Together, husband and wife are a full part of and fully represented in the community. 

In turn, the wife is valued and honored by her husband, her family, and society. They compliment on the way she provides and cares for them. They revere her righteousness, her good reputation, and her knowledge and fear of the Lord (verses 28-31). Not only is the woman satisfied in her role, but others esteem her for it. Her womanhood is valued.

The Challenge

With only 22 short verses, and speaking across such a great distance in time and culture, Proverbs 31 can offer us only a rough sketch of Christian womanhood. The right likeness is there, but as a portrait or model it needs to be fleshed out, its contours fully developed. Much remains for today's Christian women, single and married, to explore and define in terms of role and womanly character as we take our place in this technological society, which is so different from the society in which Proverbs was written. 

As Christian women living in a society that offers so many distorted or inadequate models for women, we should be concerned to take on a mature ideal of womanhood. We need an ideal that applies in all its dimensions to the circumstances we now live in, yet remains fully expressive of God's purpose for women. 




(c) 1981, The Alliance for Faith and Renewal.  Reprinted with permission from Faith and Renewal (formerly Pastoral Renewal), P.O. Box 7354, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48107.