Looking for a Strong Female Character (In Proverbs 31) - October Issue
In what way is the woman in Proverbs 31 inspiring? In what way does she challenge us to stretch ourselves, and what characteristics does she have that we could develop? I have already talked about how she presents an exciting example to us. But we all know many women, many wives and mothers, many who do the same or similar activities as laid out here. And so if she is supposed to be an ideal, there should be some characteristics that stand out about her—some aspects that opens our minds to wider possibilities. Well, this female ideal is unique in many ways, when compared to other female stereotypes throughout history. And one way is how she lays before us an example of strength.
Strength is not the first word I associate with women, but it is the first association brought out here, in the very first line: “A woman of strength, who can find?” She draws our eyes to the quality of female strength specifically.
Strong and Weak Stereotypes
What is a strong woman? On one hand, we have many talking heads in media calling for more “strong female characters” in entertainment. On the other hand, strength is not typically the first female trait that comes to mind. If asked to come up with a list of feminine qualities, and you weren’t too afraid of going with the honest associations that came into your mind, you might come up with words like delicate, soft, gentle, meek. Asking for strong female characters is seen as one way to counteract this, to create new stereotypes that counteract the old. But too often “strong females” are interpreted as physically strong, as demonstrated by the number of “kickass” female characters who keep up with, surpass, or beat up men. But this kind of knee-jerk, opposing reaction to the stereotype of a weak female often glosses over the reality that women actually live.
Women live their lives under the awareness that they will never be as strong as men. There is a limit to what we can physically do, and aside from a few exceptional women, most of us will burn out measuring our strength against men’s. Because of this, some of us can conclude it is not worthwhile to develop our own strength and capacity. Or others may choose to highlight only these exceptionally strong women as a defense against perceptions of weakness, in a way that makes regular women feel inadequate.
Another way we do not feel strong is in our awareness of our vulnerability—we live knowing we can be overpowered and harmed by others with more strength. We structure our lives because of our awareness of our vulnerability, not walking alone in the dark, or holding our keys in our fists when we feel threatened. So no, I don’t believe that physically strong female characters in media are enough by themselves to encourage and inspire us in our regular lives.
However, it does not follow that in order to be a woman, we must emphasize our weakness. There has been a growing awareness through time that strength in women is a benefit and not a drawback, starting with the nineteenth-century encouragement to throw off tight-laced corsets and be physically active. Nowadays, the capacity of women is recognized on a society-wide level, and women are encouraged to develop and use their abilities to accomplish what they set their hand to do. And Proverbs 31 gives no support to ideas that weakness, fragility or delicacy are defining characteristics of womanhood.
It is at this intersection between “kickass” female stereotypes and the experiences of regular women that the woman in Proverbs 31 stands. This passage is “a heroic poem which recounts the exploits of a hero,” or, “an ode to a champion.” In this way, she stands alongside Achilles and Beowulf. And yet she is not unreachable or alien to us in our everyday life. In fact, one thing many commentators notice about her is the mundane normalcy of what she is described as doing, even as the passage uses phrases such as “girds her loins” as she does these things. We might expect a woman who does “great things for God” would have more in common with female superheroes than with us. But we can relate to the strength needed to consider a field and buy it—or, in more modern terms, decide to launch a business, or plant and harvest a garden, or challenge ourselves with an activity we have never tried before.
Let’s take it a step further and compare the Proverbs 31 woman with some older female stereotypes—she may be rich and of high status, but she does not spend her days in the cool shade of her porch, being fanned by servants. She has not retreated from the world to seek the safety of a carefully ordered life, buffered from anything that might jolt her poor nerves—an image of femininity that would be unreachable to most of us, even if we did desire such a life. Instead, her strength is demonstrated by taking up the task of living, including the hard things, and by working with her own hands.
In other words, she demonstrates that strength is a non-gendered Christian quality. It is not men with strength, and women with fragility. But both draw on God’s strength to use their full capacity.
Christianity has never been about strong men and weak women. Christianity has always been about strong men and strong women.
A Woman of Strength
We’re not used to hearing the first verse of this passage quoted as, “a woman of strength, who can find?” It is more recognizably quoted as, “a wife of noble character.” The description is translated in various ways: a wife of noble character, an excellent wife, a virtuous woman. Literally, it is a woman of valor, and the description is the same description given to Gideon (“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor”) and Ruth (“I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.”) When we read it translated as “virtuous woman” we might not quite get all the overtones of power, competency and initiative this word carries. But it would be misguided to read this chapter and come away thinking this woman is not empowered (she is a woman of power), or that she is a passive housewife experiencing a lack of control over her life.
And it doesn’t really matter if the power this woman possesses does not come through in every translation, because further verses in the passage underscore it: “She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” and “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” If there exists any strong female character, it is this female character! She is the purest demonstration that strength and women can, in fact, go together. But what does it mean that she is strong? What does this equip her to do? Well, we’ll take a good look at what she achieves next month, when we study her impact.
However, it is clear that while she is described with power, capacity and strength, this is not reduced to the physical ability to bench-press heavy weights. It is not an ability to defend her home from intruders, or protect herself through hand-to-hand combat. The various translations demonstrate the meaning of this word is much broader. Her strength is her competency at what she does, and her capacity to consider a plan and complete it. Strength in this passage is not only physical strength (though a certain amount of physical strength would be necessary for her to accomplish all the things she does), but also includes competency and strength of character. And when we talk about “strengths” we tend to use this term in a broad way as well.
Strength of character in particular is important, as she is “a woman who fears the Lord.” When we think of that other “worthy woman,” Ruth, we understand it was her character that brought her notice, and not only her unflagging energy while gleaning for grain.
Lastly, don’t forget that this passage is directed to a man—a king, instructing him on what kind of wife to look for. A strong woman will not be a drawback for him. “She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
Strength in Action
There is, then, such a thing as female strength, in that woman can develop and exercise their strength. There are some aspects of this that are uniquely female, such as the ability to bear a child, but in a more general way it is women intentionally developing their capacity, skills and character. Developing one’s individual capacity is something everyone can do, regardless of what your starting point is.
Sometimes women don’t realize how strong they are. They may hesitate to do things by themselves, or to take initiative to develop an idea of theirs, or to build on their skills and talents. There is nothing wrong with depending on other people, as humans are made to interconnect and rely on the strength of each other. But sometimes, if we habitually rely on others, we forget what we ourselves can do. In Proverbs 31, it does not mention her consultations with her husband over her initiatives, such as buying a field or planting a vineyard—this is not to say that she did not consult her husband (and I would argue most likely she did, and it says he trusts in her completely and her plans always brings him good). But it does demonstrate that the emphasis in this passage is that this woman can have an idea and carry it through. She knows her strength, and does not shrink away from taking action. She makes plans, and then puts in the grunt work necessary to bring her vision into reality.
This is especially true when it comes to our own faith life—we all need spiritual leaders to follow, but we also need to be able to study, learn, grow, tell truth from error, and so on, even when not directed by someone else. When many sections of Christian publishing target fluffy, easy, devotional reads to women, we can get a glimpse at what some marketing bodies think of the readers of these books. But we can also counteract these stereotypes by growing in our own faith.
Strength can be used wrongly, of course. Strength can be used to bully. Strength can be used to overwhelm others. This is true of female strength too, and there can even be extremes such as female-on-male abuse. However, strength and gentleness are not contradictory. After all, 1 Peter 3:4 still applies: “let your adorning be… the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” If you can think of strong men who are gentle, you will know strong women can be as well.
Am I a Strong Female Character?
There are two responses to this idea of strength. The first is to glorify the strength of women as if this strength did not come first from God. To elevate the strength of women to the point where we almost require women to attain the same level of strength as men, or to speak as if female strength always surpassed men’s. We are afraid to betray our gender if we speak of our fragility. A broader understanding of strength is a good defense against this. The other response is to feel intimidated because we personally feel so very beaten down and weak. There are many of us who hate hearing about how strong women are because we don’t feel able to take even another step.
Can you tell I relate more to the second? I have never considered myself the strongest, and because of health reasons I’ve spent the past couple years feeling very weak. To the point where, when certain types of men have expressed the idea that women are inconveniences, I felt like I agreed, in that I wasn’t sure I could help anyone much. It is a modern cliché—“the strong, female hero”—but I tend to notice all the ways I am not strong, physically and otherwise. And then I am reminded of verses like 1 Peter 3:7: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel,” and I feel like a weaker vessel. “A woman of strength, who can find?”
In this regard, it’s worthwhile to remember that weakness is not a gendered characteristic either. What does Paul say about weakness? “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” he says, because as he says elsewhere, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He knows his weakness points him to the power of Christ. We all know what it is to be weak, and we all need to know where to turn to be strong.
The modern female hero can feel intimidating and unreachable and alien, in a way the woman in Proverbs 31 is not. Female superheroes might be fun to watch, but they do not change how I live. But Proverbs 31 is different. Proverbs 31 inspires me, because she is both like me and better. She challenges me to reach higher, through Christ who strengthens me.
Want more? Read Part 1 here: Who's Afraid of Proverbs 31?
This is Part 2 :)
Part 3 is here: A Woman of Impact.
Part 4 is here: A Woman Without Fear
Part 5 is here: What She Is and Isn't
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Recommended Reads for October:
Here are my top recommendations for interesting and uplifting links to get you through the month ahead (just one this month!)—read at your leisure:
On Hope in a Tough Situation: Still Life