A Woman of Strength, Who Can Find?
Critical of both feminist and
old-fashioned models of womanhood, Christian women seek a renewed feminine
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
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
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.
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
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.
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".
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
Thus it becomes clear that Christian feminism fails to sketch a description
from which a portrait of Christian womanhood could accurately be drawn.
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.
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
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
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.
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.