A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Proverbialist Manifesto

Joe Carter has drawn some flak in his combox for a post called "Don't Marry a Proverbs 31 Woman," in which he points out that what modern conservative Christians hold up as ideal in a wife is not actually what Proverbs 31 holds up as the wifely ideal. So before I launch off on my own rantings, let me say: Joe Carter, I salute you! Thanks for pointing out the inconsistancy between the Proverbs 31 woman and the model of femininity found in certain conservative Christian circles.

This is an issue that concerns me deeply, as a woman, a wife, a potential mother, and a wannabe scholar. Though the jumper-wearing homeschooling SuperMother may be a stereotype common among evangelical Christians, she can also be found in conservative Catholic communities. The "Piously Papist" model of the SuperMom can be identified by the scapular or Miraculous Medal around her neck and the lives of the saints books on her bookshelf, but she often shares with her Protestant sister the idea that women are ideally intended to stay at home and take care of their children. She may even believe that even childless women fulfill their feminine role best by staying home and maintaining the household.

Sometimes SuperMom's actions are motivated by necessity, current family situations, a strong vocational call to homemaking, or by a well-considered, prayerfully- made decision that this is what's best for her family, right now. In that case, I have no quarrel with her, though I might wish she'd come over and make brownies for me. However, sometimes I get the sense that certain SuperMoms are motivated primarily by the belief that this is what God wants women to do: that women are inherently supposed to stay home and care for the household, because, darn it, that's what the Bible says, and that's what Christian women have always been called to do. In other words, their view of the good wife stems from a theology based more on "50’s-era faux nostalgia" than on a Biblically or historically informed view of women's work.

The truth is that in the past, women did often stay at home- but they did not spend all of their time teaching their children, playing with their children, or monitoring their children. Nor was all of their effort devoted to the task of cleaning and shopping. Instead, they raised livestock, grew vegetables, made butter, spun and wove cloth, and produced handcrafts. If they lived in the city, they may have worked behind the counter of their husband's shop, handled simpler tasks of his trade, helped managed his workers if he employed them, or even worked beside him, along with the rest of the family. SuperMom of the past was, in other words, a vital part of the family business, and if her husband died, she might very well take over his job for him and keep running the family workshop or store.

In other words, SuperMoms of the past were economically productive. They produced goods or services which were often bartered for other necessities or exchanged for money. Yes, they did shop and cook and bake, care for and teach their children, but that was only part of their working lives. After the industrial revolution, however, a strange shift began to occur. Suddenly, the ideal SuperMom became a woman who was primarily an economic consumer. She bought groceries and home furnishings. She made sure meals were prepared well, and she maintained the attractiveness of her home. Often she managed her husband's money, and helped maintain the family budget. But unlike the SuperMom of the past, she did not contribute to the budget by earning money or producing raw goods.

Initially, Consumer SuperMom was a class-based ideal. Only upper- or middle-class women could aspire to be economically unproductive. Lower-class women still worked for wages, as they always had, and they often worked outside the home. By the nineteenth century, however, this view of the ideal woman as a maintainer of the home rather than a producer of goods and services was being touted as the ideal for all classes. In the 20th centuy, she was given a face on '50s television: she was June Clever or Donna Reed, the pearl-clad mother who makes the house run well. In the 1960s, her image exploded. Many women abandoned the '50s model of Ideal Woman as a consumer-maintainer rather than a producer. As Joe Carter points out, sadly, these women also abandoned character traits such as chastity, trustyworthiness, etc. Endorsing feminism often meant endorsing sexual immorality.

Perhaps more tragic yet, some conservative Christians decided that traditional Christian morality was somehow bound up in the image of the Mother as Homemaintainer and Childrearer. If "feminism" meant immorality, then anything opposed to the traditional values must be dangerous, maybe even unChristian. And because cultural memory is short, people looking for "traditional values" looked back over their shoulder only as far as the nineteenth century (more often, only as far as the first half of the 20th century), ignoring the work that women had done for centuries as craftspersons, gardeners, weavers, tailers, shopkeepers. (Those models are still there in Dickens, by the way: but they are lurking in the lower classes. Haven't you noticed how often the good publican in the novel has a jolly wife in the kitchen who helps him run his business?)

I do not believe that the '50s model of woman as Consumer-Maintainer is at all supported by the Bible. Certainly, the Proverbs 31 woman was economically productive. I think that she -not '50s SuperMom, or her Conservative Christian disciple- is the ideal, what God desires for women in general: for them to support their household economies with their skill and their labour, as they always have. In some cases, or at some stages of family life, that may not be possible. Still, I believe that the economically-productive wife is the true historical and Biblical norm. And that's why I sometimes dare to call myself a Catholic feminist, though I do so with fear and trembling, knowing that my co-religionists will think this means I support women's ordination, "abortion rights," pre-marital sex, or homosexual marriage. I don't support any of those things- as my readers know, I don't even support the use of contraception. But I also don't support those aspects of "traditional gender roles" which were invented after the Industrial Revolution. In the eyes of the conservative Christian world, that makes me something of a feminist.

Perhaps a name change is in order. If the Proverbs 31 woman is, as I believe she is, the Biblical spokeswoman for a model of womanhood as economically productive, maybe from now on I should simply call myself a Proverbialist. It's much less threatening a word than "feminist," and it's more specfic than the phrase "Christian feminist," which is often used to describe any number of heresies about sexual ethics. Plus, calling myself a Proverbialist allows me to use a very catchy title for today's blog. What do you think?


Anonymous Becky said...

I think you're making a mistake here by defining a "proverbs 31" woman to be restricted to economic productivity. You seem to be saying that it is thus better to be economically productive than not. I think that Proverbs 31 would say that it is better to do work than to live a life of leisure, but that is not quite the same as economic productivity. Even in the first half of the 20th century, a housewife (especially on a farm) would provide for her family by making bread, growing vegetables, sewing clothese, etc. These were just as much "providing" as though she had an outside job, even if they didn't bring in money. It was modern conveniences that dealt the death blow to the productive "at home" woman.

But elevating "economic productivity" above work-at-home creates a serious problem when it comes to the care of children. In times past, work could be done while caring for and teaching children. With the industrial revolution, that has become much more difficult to manage. Which of course is really why the issue is such a big deal.

Also, I would argue that what is described in Proverbs 31 is NOT a "career woman." Not everyone that works outside the home is a "career woman" (or man for that matter). This seems to imply that the career and advancement are the highest priority, or one of the highest priorities, in an individual's life. I know some people like that, but not many. For a couple raising young children, their children and family need to be a priority, for both of them. Not that you're saying they shouldn't, but anyway. . .

3:24 PM  
Anonymous giggling said...

Hi Teresa! Thanks for your comments. It was surprising to me how you write of the "ordering of the family" and yet are unfamiliar with my point on complementarity, but I may just have been unclear.

This is from

"The 'men are producers, women are consumers and maintainers' model is not a Biblical model for division of labor: it is, rather, a result of the Industrial Revolution." -TeresaHT

What's interesting here is that you seem to be stuck in the Industrial Revolution mindset as well, with your IR distinctions of producers of goods, consumers, and maintainers.

But in today's society, it seems that the "goods" that people produce are not necessarily physical commodities that you seem to elevate in importance above "services" that people produce.

Services, after all, are what you are describing as somehow lower in importance than the production of physical commodities. Yet what is your justification for such a distinction?

Isn't it true that companies exist today whose sole purpose, for example, is to go grocery shopping for you and deliver them to your door? They are called service industries and there is simply no reason to say that what they sell are less products than shoes are to Nike.

I seriously believe in light of examples such as this that your own Industrial Revolution perspective limits what you view as production, and therefore taints your view of the legitimate production that wives do (not to mention those employed in service industries).

"I'm sorry, but I'm not getting your point about complementarity. I must be missing something." -TeresaHT

My point is simply this. If men are different than women, these differences may affect which vocations are proper for them. So my question is again:
"In other words, in the Christian worldview, are there differences between men and women that would legimately result in differences between vocations? If so, what are these differences and how do they affect the range of legitimate vocations for men and women?

7:49 PM  
Anonymous giggling said...

Hi again,

So I read your whole post, and I largely agree with it. I don't believe the Bible commands all mothers to stay at home full-time. I do believe the Bible calls parents to put their family above their careers, however that may work out in their lives. I also believe that practically speaking, this generally means that women will stay home more often. Why? Because families will agree this is the best in their particular situations in the society we live in.

I take issue with how you reach your conclusions. You argue that it's a result of our historical economic culture, and while that may be, that argument is not adequate because our culture is not necessarily out of line with Scripture. In this case it is, but instead of supplying Scriptural arguments, you provide histori-cultural arguments that, as I think I've shown, do not survive criticism.

I'm encouraged however that you are grappling with these issues; keep the thoughts coming!

8:11 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

Becky wrote:
I think you're making a mistake here by defining a "proverbs 31" woman to be restricted to economic productivity. You seem to be saying that it is thus better to be economically productive than not.

I'm not saying that no one can be called a Proverbs 31 woman unless she produces saleable goods or earns money for work. (See my second post later in the day.) However, I am saying that the Proverbs 31 woman did do this. It seems to me that this is closer to the historical norm for women's work. Thus, while I realize that every woman today will do that kind of work, it seems to me that this is actually the "default" position for women's work.

Undoubtedly, part of why I'm fixated on this issue is that I'm a Victorianist. In the 19th century, there was a real shift to the idea that it was the man's job to go out and earn money, and it was the woman's job to use the money, spending it wisely. Men produced, women consumed. And they managed: they managed the finances, they managed the servants (because in the 19th century, this life style only worked if you had servants), they managed the household. They didn't earn money, though, and they weren't supposed to engage in business.

Although we don't have the same societal restrictions on women entiring the public sphere today that existed in the 19th century, I think that concept has gotten translated into some of the language about a woman's place being in the home. And I still see this 19th century pattern at the heart of the "housewife" image: housewives shop, they clean up, they organize, they take kids places, and they teach. But when they spend money, it's money their husbands earned: like the Victorian woman, 50s housewives contribute to the household economy only as consumers and managers, not as producers. This isn't at all what the Proverbs 31 woman does. It isnt' the kind of work women used to do. For both those reasons, I don't think it's reasonable to act as if "maintaining and consuming" were work somehow assigned by God to women. That's the view I'm arguing against. Maybe few people actually believe it in that crude of a form, but I think there are some out there who do.

This isn't to say that it's always bad if a woman has to be a consumer-maintainer-manager rather than also producing. But it is to say that this division of labor (in which men produce and women consume) is in no way "God ordained," or natural. It is one way of dealing with our current abysmal work conditions. It isn't, however, the only way, and it may not be the best way.

Also, I would argue that what is described in Proverbs 31 is NOT a "career woman."

I think different people mean different things by the phrase "career woman," so I'm not going to argue about that. I think we can just dismiss the term, because I don't think that's what's really at stake here.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

But in today's society, it seems that the "goods" that people produce are not necessarily physical commodities that you seem to elevate in importance above "services" that people produce.

Good point. I do consider service work to be real work too. The more I talk about this, the more I realize that "economically productive" is not really the idea I'm trying to get across. As someone on one of my message boards suggested, "economic activity" comes closer to what it meants: it means that the individual in questions provides goods or services to the community.

The important distinction to me (as it seemed to be to Joe Carter, jugding from his comments) is the distinction between work done within the household and work which added value outside the household unit. Perhaps part of the problem with my language is that I was too focused on providing for the household, and not recognizing that my belief about the relation of household work to the broader community was shaping my thought.

Yes, housewives who concentrate on rearing children may indirectly contribute to the communal good through the good they contribute to their household, but Proverbs 31 seems to indicate that this isn't the only kind of work the "ideal woman" would do. The Biblical ideal seems to include direct economic activity as well as production for the household.

10:53 PM  

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