For a long time, I wanted to be her. You know who she is—the church woman who you believe embodies Scriptural womanhood. She’s that woman who always dresses in a stylish and feminine way, yet has modesty. She wears floral perfume. She serves on committees or in ministries which require a feminine touch, like decorating the altar for special services. Or she volunteers with the children, bringing a motherly touch to her teaching. If she teaches Sunday school, she is always patient and kind with the children. They never seem to exasperate her. She takes the same approach with her own children (and sometimes her husband). She makes it seem easy to do her duties in high heels and a skirt. She manages to be explicitly beautiful on the outside, but serves to remind you that your “beauty should come from within.” She is demure and sweet. She is appropriately shocked by coarse humor and would never make a suggestive joke herself. Everything about her delicately pleads “womanhood.”
The problem is, very few of us really are that woman. She doesn’t exist. Some of the women we believe to be her are only pretending. Some of us can’t even manage the image. We prefer jeans to dresses, can’t stand high heels, and like to give our opinion to anyone who will listen. We lose it with our kids and find that some Sundays, even the class we teach drives us nuts. We serve in messy, “unfeminine” roles within the church. We swear like sailors and don’t bat an eye at telling dirty jokes (in the right company, of course). The Proper Christian Woman is a damaging myth. Most of us fail to live up to that standard, yet the message we hear is that we should be more like her. The more often we receive this message, the more guilt we pile on.
Thankfully, this has been replaced with another model: The Proverbs 31 Wife of Noble Character. She, of course, is different. She doesn’t appear to be the sweet, silent type. She works a day job and then comes home to tend to her home and family. She serves her community by caring for the needy. She is intelligent and godly. She has inspired a new generation of women to boldly…do it all.
Wait. This is sounding familiar. Wasn’t this what our mothers were told back in the 1970s? That they could do it all, have it all, be everything to everyone? Women were told that it was liberating for them to have power careers and also juggle marriage and motherhood. Not only that, women were told that their mothers and sisters fought long and hard, and they had better grab their opportunity and be grateful, dammit! Women who wanted to choose only one of those things demonstrated a lack of proper regard for the work it took to make their lives possible.
I don’t doubt that there are some women who make career and family work simultaneously. I have known some who did, though they did it their own way and without malice towards women who make different choices. If you’re one of those women, I applaud you, celebrate you, and thank you that you make it safe for the rest of us to choose. But for those women who feel like they are worth less for taking the either/or route instead of the both/and one, or for those who are struggling to have their cake and actually enjoy it: You are worthy too. You are not worth less because you couldn’t or didn’t want to have it all. You are not a bad person for making a choice or for bravely trying to keep your head above water. The reality is that having it all, for most of us, is as much a myth as the “proper church woman.”
The myth of the Proverbs 31 Wife is just a secular concept with a Christian label. I doubt that the original intent of the writer was to create the image of the perfect woman. The writer is listing traits, not describing a single individual. Yet it has been, and is being, used to clobber women for being something other than ideal.
We need to stop trying to create the perfect woman. There is no such thing. The perfect woman is neither Betty Crocker nor Rosie the Riveter. We have the right to find out who we are apart from tired stereotypes and mythology. We deserve to be treated with respect, not because we measure up to some unattainable ideal but because we are human beings. We have voices—not a single voice—and we need someone to listen. We need to be heard by our spouses, children, and churches. We need to stand up and be who God intended us to be.