Work, Home, and the World of Proverbs 31

Work, Home, and the World of Proverbs 31 September 11, 2018

“God Calls Me to Motherhood and Art,” reads the headline of a Christianity Today interview with artist Hannah Anderson. “How Do I Do Both?” We can be grateful that the interviewer seems to side with Anderson in per passionate defense of her ability to both be a mother and have a career in the arts.

Unfortunately, the fact that such a question needed to be asked in the first place points to ongoing evangelical dissonance over women’s role in the home and in the world.

What about Proverbs 31?

10 A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax

    and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

There is actually a segment of the Christian homeschooling world that uses the Proverbs 31 woman to promote the idea that women should have “cottage industries” within their homes—say, making and selling quilts, or making and selling soaps, or some other such venture. They argue that the Proverbs 31 woman was a businesswoman, yes, and that is well and good—but that her work was inside the home.

These individuals draw a firm line between women find ways to earn money inside the home (likening them to the Proverbs 31 woman) and women who work outside the home. Depending on whether her studio is inside her home or outside of it, Hannah Anderson could qualify as a member of the blessed former group.

But this rather misses the point.

The Proverbs 31 woman worked from her home because that is how things were done back then. With only a few exceptions (sailors, soldiers, and merchants, perhaps), everyone worked in cottage industries in their homes, or on farms or in similar ventures. Even servants tended to live in their master and mistress’s house.

The ancient world did not have the same divide between home and work that we have today. Using the Proverbs 31 woman as a proof text for encouraging women to participate in paid work within their homes—but not beyond them—is therefore absurd. Work inside the house and work outside of the house—it was all the same thing. Anyone who would argue that we should return to that world, though, needs to apply such adages to men as well as women to be consistent. Where are the calls for the men to return to their homes?

Besides which, buying fields, planting vineyards, supplying goods to merchants—these aren’t exactly indoor activities. Translated into today’s world, we’re talking about real estate, agriculture, and manufacturing. (She’s not even at the market selling her wares from a booth,  remember—she’s supplying merchants.)

So much for making soap.

The author of Proverbs 31 didn’t write about a woman who worked for pay but only inside the home, as if to make some sort of point about women’s place. He wrote about a woman who worked—period—a woman who was proud of her work, and who was honored by those around her. And yet, here is artist Hannah Anderson, being asked by Christianity Today to explain how she can possibly be a mother and have a job.

Do you know what I think? I think that culture shapes religion as much as religion shapes culture. I think that evangelicalism became so entwined in 1950s gender norms that even starting to actually un-entwine the two has taken generations. And so here we are, in a world where, even today, seventy years later, evangelicals who assert that motherhood and paid work outside of the home can coexist are still on the defensive.

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