The Proverbs 31 woman has been held up as an example by both sides of "The Mommy Wars". When I was a child, she was considered to be the supreme example of the woman who makes home and family her career. After all, her activities are centered in her household, and her home is the base of her operation. People saw her as a wife and mother who happened to bring in extra money.
In the eighties, many began to point out that the worthy woman is a businesswoman. She evaluates and buys a field. She plants a vineyard out of her own earnings. She makes and sells linen garments. She makes and sells sashes. Many saw her as a professional who happened to have a husband and a family.
So, which is she, the hard working stay-at-home wife and mother or the equally hard working wife who holds down a full-time outside job?
I don't claim that I have the definitive answer, but here are some thoughts. The description of the worthy woman is timeless. However, as to detail, it was obviously given to us before the Industrial Revolution. For the better part of our world's history, most people lived in an agrarian economy. While men may have led, most husbands and wives worked closely together in or near the home. Most people were farmers or herders. Some operated small businesses, many of which were located in or very near the home. Some were religious or political leaders.
Some men were in the military. Some were merchants who did travel long distances to purchase goods and to sell them along trade routes. These were two of the few enterprises that might take a man away from his home for long periods of time.
Neither men nor women were likely to leave the home in the morning, work a full day, and come home in the evening. Until the Industrial Revolution, this was not a common pattern. Even in the early days of the U.S., peoples' lives were generally centered close to home, with exceptions being a man who was a soldier, sailor, or circuit minister.
We still see vestiges of home centered life and business today. We've all known couples who operated small businesses together or families in which one member was a professional and another ran the professional's business side. Likewise, if you are familiar with life on a family farm, you know that is a whole-family enterprise.
Two of my cousins' wives live in the same small town, and they bought and planted a small field of bell peppers, most of which they sold. This was not their main work, and it did not take them away from their homes. It did provide supplemental income and some personal satisfaction for the two.
I often think of these women when I read that the Proverbs 31 woman considered a field, bought it, and planted a vineyard. I also think about the fact that grapes provided needed liquid and calories, as well as wine to drink and wine for medicine. This was important in a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern semi-arid culture in the days before refrigeration. The worthy woman could make great use of her grapes in her own household, as well as sell grapes or wine for added income.
The worthy woman also sewed. Sewing, too, would have been an essential skill for any woman of the day. There were no fashion runways, department stores, box stores, boutiques, malls, mail order clothes, fabric mills, or clothing manufacturers. What fabric there was had to be hand-loomed of homespun and hand dyed fibers. If you count the time it takes to grow flax or for sheep to produce wool enough to shave, plus the time to spin thread and turn it into fabric and then to hand-sew it, you can see that the production of even one garment might take a year or more. Thus, it behooved the manager of a large household to know how to perform these steps. If she could also sell her handiwork to merchants, who could then sell it to others, she could again make some supplemental income.
The work of a skilled seamstress must have been highly valued in her world. Again, while this work might require her to be out and about a bit, it did not take her away from her family for very long at a time. Much of it could be done in the home or on the family land, where she would be available to her husband and to her children.
Though we do see some examples of this lifestyle in our culture today, the Industrial Revolution brought about more of an urban, corporate, industrialized society. As the society transformed from being largely agrarian to largely based on manufacture and commerce, the daily life of the family changed as well. There developed a pattern of leaving the home sphere for a long day of work in a factory or a business and coming back home only when that work was over. Home became more of a place to eat, sleep, and recover from work, rather than the base of the family's occupation and lifestyle.
In the early days of the manufacturing age, men, women, and children were employed in mills, mining, and factories, and the entire family might go off in different directions for work each early morning. More people moved from farms or small towns to large cities to find employment in factories or corporations, a process that started in the 1700's, but became more rapid in the first half of the 20th century. Child labor laws eventually corrected the abuse of pushing children into crowded factories to work, at least in 1st world economies. However, the prevailing pattern of work became one in an individual leaves the home in the morning, goes off to a workplace, and comes home only at night.
With the exception of WWII, the pattern in the first six decades of the 20th century was that the man would go off to a job in the morning, while the woman stayed at home to manage the household and to care for children. In the late 70's and eighties, women entered this modern workplace, as well. Thus, the process of rearing children was largely shifted to school and daycare, with children being at home with families only in the evenings and on weekends.
Today's Information Revolution may be slightly reversing the trend of going out of the home to a corporate or manufacturing job. Now, many are able to work from home via computers and the Internet. Many new ways have opened up for women (and for men) to market their skills from home. Some are able to carve new niches in this information based economy and to find work they truly enjoy doing using their home as a base. Moreover, today's corporate workplace is more flexible than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, allowing people to move in and out of corporate careers.
Likewise, some, for various reasons, some families consciously choose to reinvent the pre-industrial home or farm centered business lifestyle. In the 1960's, people often did this as a reaction to materialism, for they felt that the society which had its roots in the Industrial Revolution had become a materialistic one. Many also felt that modern society also separated people from nature and had also damaged the ecology. Others in recent decades have chosen this lifestyle because they do feel it is best for the family.
For my part, I do aim to life a home centered lifestyle and to earn supplemental income using my home as my base. My husband and I have chosen to live in smaller homes and to drive our cars for many years and to make other little sacrifices in order for me to be a manager of our home and to care for our children. I have also been available to help care for members of our extended family who were ill. At times, I have taken on part-time work or freelance work, though. My husband has also based his career decisions based on what is best to God's kingdom and for our family, even though that meant he made some personal career sacrifices.
There is nothing inherently wrong or right about any of the aforementioned societies: agrarian, industrial, or information based. There have been pluses and minuses connected with each of these ways of life. God's word transcends all temporary circumstances and cultures. It gives us the supreme wisdom by which to live our lives no matter what our culture dictates the ideal should be. Likewise, human needs transcend all cultures. No matter what our particular cultural condition might be, there is always need in a family for a wife and mother who looks well to the ways of her household. What that might look like may vary some from era to era, but the underlying need does not.
All of that brings us back to our question. Is the worthy woman of Proverbs 31 one who takes a full time job outside the home and leaves her children to childcare outside the home? I personally don't see her as a person whose main occupation takes her away from her household for long, long hours in a day.
So, does she fit our stereotypical image of the 50's suburban housewife? Is she June Cleaver or Betty Crocker? Not really. Her life is more richly layered than our (perhaps, mistaken) impressions of that era's woman.
Can a woman imitate the Proverbs 31 woman's attention to her marriage and family and also have a full time career outside of the home? I don't think that I could, and I've known many women who floundered trying to "do it all". However, I have known some outstanding women who have managed wonderful, godly homes and have also managed wonderful full time careers at the same time. It would be a mistake to turn Proverbs 31, especially by itself and not in context of the whole Bible, into a rule about whether or not all women should or should not have full time occupations outside of their household.
Who is the worthy woman, then? In my view, she is a woman with great reverence for the Lord. Indeed, we are told that her reverence for the Lord and her fruitful life are more important than how she looks. Her spiritual clothing is strength and dignity; her physical clothing is pretty and well-made, but she is not preoccupied with fashion or adornment. She has honed skills that build her family, and some of these skills are marketable, as well. She is a blessing to her husband and children, and her husband can trust, that because of her skill and effort, all is well in their household. She manages and increases her family's resources. She is wise and kind, and she instructs her children and servants wisely. She opens her heart and her arms to those outside of her family who are in need. She watches over the affairs of her household, and she is in the home enough to know what is going on there, what is needed, and what is progressing well. She neglects nothing that has to do with her family's welfare. She loves her home and her family and finds joy in her labors for them.
I think any Godly woman would love to imitate this woman's faith and to experience the fruitful outcome of a life like this woman's. I hope that we approach these verses about worthy woman for what we can learn from her and not stamp on to her what we wish her to be. I think we do best to understand the heart and principles involved in this passage and ask ourselves what it is that the is Lord trying to teach through this lovely description. I hope we avoid tagging her with our cultural baggage and that we use scripture, and not cultural norms, as the guide for our lives.
There are many scriptures, including Proverbs 31, that show us how to order our lives. The scriptures also build our faith that if we seek the Lord and his righteousness first, he will take care of us.
As the last decades of the modern and postmodern society bump against the early decades of the information age, our cultural work patterns are zigzagging. Many daughters of 60's style feminists rejected the way their mothers pursued careers and have left the corporate world or academia to come home. Now, some of their own daughters are likewise pursuing home and family as a career, while others are in corporate or professional careers or academia, like their grandmothers were. Still others are pursuing an indie business lifestyle, which allows them to work from home and to combine work and family. Rather than swinging along with cultural trends, we each need to pray, study, and form deep convictions about what pleases the Lord and builds the family.
No matter how I might put into practice what I see in the Proverbs 31 woman, I hesitate to wave her around as a symbol in some culture war. She is so much more than that!