Skip to main content

She does make exceedingly good cakes...

Her children rise up and called her blessed... (Proverbs 31:28)

A character almost as sure to put in an appearance on Mother's Day as Father Christmas at Christmas or the Easter Bunny at Easter is the Proverbs 31 Woman. And, just like Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, she is often invoked as an inducement towards good behaviour – albeit among adult women craving approval, rather than children craving Hatchimals (I'm told) and chocolate.

She is quite something, this 'woman of valour' (as described by her would-be mother-in-law): trustworthy, hardworking, resourceful, loving, kind ... a profitable businesswoman, a respected and effective people manager, a compassionate minister of charity ... well-toned, well-dressed, good-humoured, wise ... an all-round praiseworthy wife and mum.

Quite something. Quiiiite ... yeeaah, oh dear, I really do have quite some way to go to begin to match up. As for other women of my acquaintance – well, even those you'd think would feel entitled to a bit of smugness seldom seem to need help coming up with impossible standards to feel guilty for failing to hold themselves to.

Except – as Rachel Held Evans dedicates a whole chapter of A Year of Biblical Womanhood to emphasising – Proverbs 31 is not, for all the zeal of evangelicals to strip the Bible down to a compendium of instructions, "a task list through which a woman earns [praise]" (p76). It's an ode! A poem describing and praising women for what they are (albeit informed by a particular cultural positioning) – celebrating a broad diversity of skills and attributes perceived as 'feminine', and gratefully declaring the value of women's routine contributions within the household-based economy of the day.

Which, incidentally, is something that our supposedly more 'enlightened' neoliberal society resolutely declines to do. What with the domestic–public polarisation induced by industrialisation, and our tendency under capitalism to define 'value' almost exclusively in terms of economic productivity, we have come to dismiss 'traditionally feminine' work, such as caring, as noneconomic and therefore entirely secondary. Paid care jobs are woefully underpaid, and care within the home is belittled (few phrases upset me more than "just a housewife"). Nonetheless, 'unskilled labours of love' remain critical to the flourishing of economies and to the stability of wider social systems. Whilst it is true (and good) that women are being increasingly 'liberated' into the public sphere, it is also true (and not so good) that a) many are being forced into it by economic hardship and/or the fact that it is the only sphere in which respect and honour can be earned, and b) the continuing devaluation of domestic labour (which still needs to get done somehow) hardly incentivises even the most well-meaning of men to take on an equal share, leaving many women more-or-less obliged to work 'double shifts'. Neoliberalism markets this as "having it all". Hmm.

It seems to me that re-valuing the 'traditionally feminine' is just as key to equality as is broadening the range of expressions of womanhood that are accepted and affirmed. It also seems to me that Lemuel's mother's ancient composition does both! And, what is more, it encapsulates a further nod to equality within its poetic form: according to Held Evans' research, "the structure and diction employed in the poem closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior" (p75). To a community well-versed in lauding male judges, kings and fighting men – heroes sent by God to lead His people to victory and success – it serves as a pointed reminder that heroism appears in many guises; that women's contributions, even when culturally-typically less prominent in nature, are no less pivotal to communal 'success', and certainly no less to be honoured.

With that in mind, and in light of the occasion, here is a poetic attempt to celebrate a hero of my own...

An If–
If I could keep my head when all about me
      Were losing things and blaming it on me;
If I could trust myself when they yet doubt me
      And cast aspersions on my memory;
If I could field unfair demands with patience,
      Forgive the over-bending of my ear,
Distribute words of kindness with a vengeance,
      And counter sullenness with stubborn cheer; 
If I could muster up a smile of welcome
      For every unanticipated guest,
And, should they be in need of help, to help them
      (Sometimes when I had better rather rest...)
If I could hold a meal (or six) on stand-by–
      A sempiternal simmering of stews,
A freezer-full of foraged fruit and fish pie,
      And tins of things too tempting to refuse; 
If I could mend whatever needed mending–
      The tears and tears, the rifts and the bereft;
If I could make with artistry unending,
      An eye for beauty and a hand that’s deft;
If I could sound the mysteries of the onion,
      And pit against each ill its herbal cure;
Expound on Bojo, Bardot, Bono, Bunyan,
      With tidbits harvested from Radio 4; 
If I could do all this and not parade it,
      Content to give celebrity away;
(If I had yet to learn to not degrade it,
      Well–that's a lesson for another day);
If I could do all this when skies were sunny,
      And seek to do it still what storms may come;
I’d be a woman to inspire many,
      And–which is more–I'd be just like my mum! 
Carolyn Whitnall, 2017.

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. (Proverbs 31:25-26)

[Thumbnail image cc. from JeepersMedia on Flickr].