Women of Valour – and Economic Worth

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For as much as Mormons appropriate from evangelicals, I’m surprised we’ve never stolen the Proverbs 31 woman.

In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans dedicates a chapter to the evangelical emphasis on Proverbs 31 as a guide to all things righteous feminine. “Visit a Christian bookstore, and you will find entire women’s sections devoted to books that extol her virtues and make them applicable to modern wives. At my Christian college, guys described their ideal date as a ‘P31 girl,” and young women looking to please them held a ‘P31 Bible Study.’”  The Proverbs 31 woman “looms so large over the biblical womanhood ethos” that many Christian view the passage “as a task list” to which they must comply in order to become perfect housewives and win the favor of men.

While my evangelical friends recited Proverbs 31 from heart, during my teenage years I never heard of it. It’s certainly not included in seminary scripture mastery. I have no memory of any general conference talks or any lessons in young women, Sunday school, or institute discussing the passage. Searching LDS.org last week, I discovered that former General Relief Society President Barbara Winder tried to elevate the passage in Mormon consciousness. giving multiple talks on the Proverbs 31 woman throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But her message doesn’t seem to have stuck around enough for me to have learned it in the 1990s and 2000s.

I did, of course, absorb the underlying message about perfect housewives, as propounded by both evangelicals and Mormons. It’s just that the Mormon texts were the Proclamation on the Family and gender-roles General Conference talks. I grew up believing a Mormon woman’s divine role was to nurture and her preordained place was at home.

Even as a child, however, I picked up on the fact that “home” did not literally mean “at home.” College was acceptable: a woman should seek out the best books of wisdom, and an educated mother was a role model and asset to her children. A woman who chose to attend or return to school, even with children at home, was to be celebrated.   (Education was also a useful “backup” plan in case of tragedy.)

“Staying at Home” also encompassed active community engagement. A mother was lauded if she served dozens of hours per month in Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, or other church callings. She was spoken of in reverence if she volunteered for the Parent-Teacher Association or as an election officer at the polls. She was honored from the pulpits if she regularly visited soup kitchens and nursing homes and Bishops Storehouses and shelters.

But one message remained constant.  “Home” did not include a salary.  Except in case of debilitating life circumstances, a mother was never to “work.” A career-oriented woman was a crass, selfish, riches-pursuing, children-abandoning, Babylonian sinner.

As a college girl at Indiana University I repeatedly found myself standing up for these religious conceptions of motherhood. I pushed back in liberal arts classes against those who condemned full-time mothers as a pox upon 1970s feminism. I complained about grad school applications that didn’t consider “mother” as an acceptable long-term goal. I wrote one term paper on the “Mommy Wars.”

Despite my public defense of home and family, I was nonetheless conflicted. After secular classes I often found myself wandering over to the Institute building, confessing that I needed to repent from the worldly temptation to become a career woman myself.

But then my rigid conception of 1950s-housewives-as-paragons-of-religious-perfection began to crack. One night in October 2006, my evangelical Lutheran boyfriend and I were immersed in our weekly Bible study.  After I offered some insight, he whispered a word of sincere (and sappy) praise. “You remind me of the woman in that passage in Proverbs,” he said. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”

His words were unfamiliar. I didn’t recognize the passage. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense: he had attended a private Baptist high school where Proverbs 31 was constantly emphasized, I had attended Mormon early-morning seminary before public school, where it wasn’t.

But at the time, I mentally scrambled. I’m competitive in all things, including scripture, and I wasn’t about to let my boyfriend out-quote a Mormon. Maybe I didn’t recognize the verse due to a difference in Bible translation? Maybe this was my lack of diligence in studying the Old Testament coming back to bite me? I latched on to a faint echo of one lyrical phrase I had heard a couple times in seminary and at EFY. “That reminds me of another verse,” I responded. “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”

“That’s it, that’s the same passage,” my boyfriend exclaimed. He then reached for my Bible, flipped to Proverbs 31:10-31, and read all of it aloud.   Highlights:

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.

She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

I was stunned. I had no idea such an ode to the power and independence of spiritual women existed, anywhere, in the Bible. I had only quoted verse 10 because I only knew verse 10. I had thought the “virtuous…rubies” phrase was from an isolated verse about sexual purity. I’d never bothered to look up the full passage. I had surmised it was some proof-texted, decontextualized quote that if I read in full would likely offend my tender ears like pomegranates in the Song of Solomon.   [1]

I was right, in part. It had been decontextualized — but where the sexual reading was the wrong one!

That night I read Proverbs 31 over and over again, amazed at the “virtuous woman.”  Sure, she engages in “classic” feminine activities — she cares for children and sews her own clothing and shops at the food market and treats the poor and needy with kindness. But she also makes merchandise, sells linen, negotiates over the purchase price of fields, oversees vineyards, preaches with wisdom, and is known for her honor and strength. She is not a mere shadow of her husband – her husband is respected among the elders and at the city gates because of her. It is “her own works” that “praise her in the gates.”

Suddenly the Mormon dividing line between “selfish careers” and “selfless service” seemed ridiculous. What on earth were we doing, valuing the exact same management and leadership skills in inverse proportion to how much a woman was paid!?!

It only took a modicum of my attention for the disparity to become acute.  A Relief Society president who dedicated 30 hours a week to balancing a budget, planning activities, coordinating compassionate service, managing a network of volunteers, and attending interfaith community events was praised.  But a single woman with a Masters of Public Administration working 40 hours a week in nonprofit management was a tragic spinster?

I’d seen the subtext phenomenon more times than I could count. Even if church members accepted that a woman must work, our culture seemed to value her job less if she made more money.  A nonprofit secretary or public school teacher was viewed as morally superior to a middle manager at Deloitte or a female executive at Google.

However did we become a religion of unironic Jane Austen worshippers?  Was Mormon / Biblical Womanhood nothing more than a grand attempt to recreate Victorian society?  Where a true “Lady” could have large and ambitious charity projects, but was debased if she participated in politics or contributed to the marketplace?  Was our unwavering focus on “stay at home mothers” – where we didn’t actually mean “at home” we just meant “volunteer and unpaid” – part of a mass societal prejudice to devalue the economic value of women’s worthwhile labor?

Because that’s squarely not what Proverbs 31 instructs. Proverbs 31 is couched in militaristic and noble language. It is a command to men to wake up and realize wives and women are already their equals. Most Bible translations today do not translate the passage as “virtue,” they render it as “valour.” We are women of valour. We are fierce and independent and competent. We perform invaluable labor both at home and in public. Whether we choose to make our primary vocation at home or in the workplace, the Bible recognizes that we are economic contributors to the household.

This realization marked a radical shift in my personal theology of womanhood. My journal from that night expounds for pages on the whole new world that had just opened up to me, alongside my sappy gratitude to my boyfriend for opening my eyes.  I even inscribed a little note in the old seminary scripture margin for Proverbs 31. Bradley, October 27, 2006.  It marks the day my entire conception of “Biblical Womanhood” changed.

***

[1] My perception was understandable. The Old Testament seminary guide strongly focuses on the “virtue” verse alone, with the rest of the passage treated as more of an afterthought. The Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual skips over Proverbs 31 entirely. And three years after my 2006 realization, the Young Women added “Virtue” as a value. The “Virtue” value only uses the “rubies” verse as its anchor and heavily emphasizes sexual purity.

*Photo Credit:  Tore Bustad

Comments

  1. From my quick googling, it looks like the whole passage is referenced in Personal Progress value experiences under both Divine Nature and Virtue. Virtue was added after my time as a YW, but I do remember being aware of Proverbs 31 when I was in YW, probably because of the Divine Nature value experience? Although maybe I just read it on my own for seminary and it made an impression.

    And isn’t Personal Progress going away now? So that will probably mean even less encouragement to read the passage.

    I think the Personal Progress inclusion is significant, but overall, you’re absolutely right that Mormons don’t really seem to care about Proverbs 31.

  2. Rexicorn says:

    I encountered this passage often in YW and EFY, though it was usually in the context of value and almost always framed as part of an argument about how useful a good woman is to a man. I always bristled at it for that reason, as the whole thing became a passage about the commodification of women (starting with her literal dollar value). Taking it out of the context of so many other statements that place women’s value contingent on a man, I see your interpretation of it now. The woman portrayed here has agency and receives praise for her own efforts and outcomes. I suppose I’ll think about it differently now.

  3. Thank you, thank you. I did know the first verse (and find it amusing that the Christmas lights at Temple Square are red in front of the Relief Society building), and wonder why, in our push to make virtue mean sexual purity (which is and has been horrific), did we cut off the remainder of the Proverb? It seems like the loss in the 80s was part of the attempt to regain what was appeared to be lost in the mythic 1950s (which seems to be having a hopefully last gasp currently).

  4. I needed this today. Bless you for writing it.

  5. I attribute some of the problem to translation. The Hebrew word used in verse 1 (“virtuous” in the KJV) is ‘chayil’ which refers to energy, strength, ability (I understand that it is traditionally a masculine adjective). The same word appears in verse 10, there rendered “excellent.” Not incidentally, Ruth is described as ‘chayil’ woman.

    How about banning the word “virtuous”? It’s such a problem.

  6. Anna K. says:

    Excellent. I most appreciate you pointing out the inconsistencies in how various tasks for women are perceived, with salaried tasks being valued the least. I would argue there is also a hierarchy *within* paid work for women, with a whole bunch of low paid, work-at-home type positions approved of, but any well paid job outside the home at risk of disapproval. This is a sloppy analysis because it doesn’t take into account the actual impact on any children in the home. How is it that an away from home job that comes with good health insurance is automatically considered worse for children than a Lularoe business, which may come with debt and kids being parked in front of screens for 20 hours a week while mom promotes her business on social media? It’s illogical–speaking of the cultural perception, of course, not any individual woman’s choices. And BTW this is coming from a SAHM trying to grow an at-home business (a small piano studio), so, you know, I can say this. ;)

  7. Virtus in Latin means manly valor–the translators meant to attribute strength and fierceness to her! It’s sad that in our contemporary teachings “vitue” has been watered down as a euphemism for female chastity. Particularly upsetting when it was added to the YW values. We SHOULD celebrate these strong active qualities in women!

    I want a girl with a mind like a diamond
    I want a girl who knows what’s best
    I want a girl with shoes that cut
    And eyes that burn like cigarettes
    I want a girl with the right allocations
    Who’s fast, thorough, and sharp as a tack
    She’s playing with her jewelry
    She’s putting up her hair
    She’s touring the facilities
    And picking up slack
    I want a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket.
    I want a girl who gets up early
    I want a girl who stays up late
    I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity
    Who uses a machete, to cut through red tape
    With fingernails that shine like justice
    And a voice that is dark like tinted glass
    She is fast, thorough, and sharp as a tack
    She’s touring the facilities and picking up slack
    I want a girl with a short skirt and a long, long jacket
    I want a girl with a smooth liquidation
    I want a girl with good dividends
    At City Bank we will meet accidentally
    We’ll start to talk when she borrows my pen
    She wants a car with a cup holder armrest
    She wants a car that will get her there
    She’s changing her name
    From Kitty to Karen
    She’s trading her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron
    I want a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket

  8. Emily U says:

    marianneeileen, I’d never thought of that Cake song as a paraphrase of Proverbs 31, but wow! Brilliant!

    And Carolyn, “Suddenly the Mormon dividing line between “selfish careers” and “selfless service” seemed ridiculous.” Yes! Great post.

  9. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    marianneeileen wins the internets for this month. I love that song. (Incidentally I used “short skirt/long jacket” in the “What I’m Looking For” field of various dating websites back in my single days.)

    Anna K: sometimes I wonder if the Church avoids going after MLM/”direct marketing,” which I have seen wreak havoc on wards as it vampirically drains social capital, because it knows that doing so would do damage to the Utah economy that would make the commodities crash of the ’80s look like a minor blip.

  10. A fun historical fact I learned when I gave a talk about virtue as a YW: before the 1590s, the term meant “power”. If that passage of the OT is from William Tyndale’s translation (which is very possible; the KJV is 60-80% his translation), the verse should be read along the lines of “a powerful woman”. Rendering it as “valorous” is an excellent way to express the sentiment in an understandable manner.

  11. We have a lovely needlepoint of Proverbs 31 that my wife stitched when she was a teenager and I’ve always appreciated the message those words convey. Thanks for adding further nuance to those words Carolyn.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    As a couple have mentioned, English virtue derives from Latin virtus, which most fundamentally means “manliness” (from vir “man”). The Hebrew word in the Proverbs passage is chayil, which means strength, power, might, valor, ability, uprightness, integrity. Something like that is certainly the connotation of the word in this passage in Proverbs.

  13. I really like this, Carolyn. Thanks for pushing us to expand our look at this chapter from the out-of-context sexual purity prooftext.

    On this point you made (echoed by Anna K. above):
    “Even if church members accepted that a woman must work, our culture seemed to value her job less if she made more money. A nonprofit secretary or public school teacher was viewed as morally superior to a middle manager at Deloitte or a female executive at Google.”

    I’ve seen it argued before that a big reason for this is evidence of planning. If you’re a manager at Deloitte or an executive at Google, you likely planned and went to lots of school and worked your way up in your career. So a woman working in such a job is seen as wicked because, from the get-go, she was planning and expecting to have a career. A woman working in a lower-skill/lower-paying job, on the other hand, is seen as more righteous because she was clearly planning to be a SAHM, but was only pushed into the paid labor force by circumstance.

    I think you see the same line of reasoning in Mormon kids being less likely to use condoms when they have sex. Because if you bring and use a condom, clearly you were planning on it. But if you don’t, then you can at least say it was a heat-of-the-moment decision, and at least you weren’t so wicked as to plan to break the law of chastity.

    Both outcomes are unfortunate. We shouldn’t blame women for wanting careers, and we shouldn’t set kids up to not use condoms if they’re going to have sex. But I think there’s at least some version of logic that accounts for how these conclusions are arrived at.

  14. I haven’t spent any time with P31 either, but this is how I read it, skimming through it, thinking about how life and the types of jobs that were available at the time this was written were different than the type of society we live in now:

    A good woman is worth a lot.

    Her husband loves her.

    She loves him.

    She works hard.

    She brings home the bacon.

    She invests her earnings wisely.

    She gives a generous fast offering.

    She has a job consistent with the society she lives in.

    She speaks her mind.

    She loves her family and supports them.

    Her family supports her in her decisions.

    She goes to church and is obeys the commandments.

    She can spend the money she earned however she wants.

  15. Rexicorn says:

    With teaching specifically, there was a very intentional effort to make it a lower-paying job around the time teaching became compulsory. This was done in 2 ways: 1) It changed from a profession to a “vocation” or calling, done for moral reasons rather than economic ones; and 2) It changed from a majority-male profession to a majority-female one. Early 19th Century reformers were pretty explicit about being able to pay a woman less than a man. For more, see Dana Goldstein’s book “The Teacher Wars” or check out her NPR interview: https://www.npr.org/2014/09/02/345104706/a-lesson-in-how-teachers-became-resented-and-idealized

    In general, I find the impulse to pit economic value and moral value as competing things to be…suspicious. It’s often an excuse not to put money toward something (or someone) that needs it.

  16. D Christian Harrison says:

    You know how when you buy a Prius, suddenly you see Priuses everywhere?

    Well I came across a video this morning, and a commenter called the female in the video a “Proverbs 31 woman”, and I had to share:

  17. This is very eye opening, thank you.

  18. Stacey W says:

    Wow! I love this, thank you!

  19. Wendy Wood says:

    Carolyn, i always enjoy your writing. Again, I marvel that your father, who clearly grew up in the same household as I did, could have raised you with the belief that a woman’s worth is inversely proportional to her pay. That is not the basic message that was considered doctrine in our home. Clearly, the dogma was there – at church, seminary, and at all social events in our safely enclosed Utah universe. Perhaps we were raised by parents who were more revolutionary than they seemed. Of 7 daughters, I think only one – maybe 2 – bought into the “little woman” mystique. I did ask my mother once if she thought I had raised my daughters to be too independent. She laughed and said, “Look where you came from, did you really think you had a choice?”

  20. @Wendy: To be clear, that teaching had absolutely nothing to do with my father! My father’s message was constantly “if anyone tells you you’re less smart or less capable because you’re a woman, you have my permission to put them in their place.” It’s one reason I WAS so ambitious in high school, college, etc. But somehow from the rest of Mormon society I still believed that college would be the pinnacle of my independence and professionalism — that unless I never married, my religious duty immediately after graduation would be to never work.

  21. Carolyn, with new comments bringing this back to mind, I feel that I should give credit where it’s due. In rereading the OP I find that I copied much of the sense (although none of the words, so far as I can tell) in teaching last week. There’s surely some element of parallel development, but I suspect your piece here has become part of my “how the world works” gestalt.