I mentor wounded young women. As a writing professor at a small Christian liberal arts college, I recognize a certain woundedness in nearly every young woman I meet. Some of them, the ones on the lookout for their own kin, read between the lines of what I say in class as we work through essays, memoirs, novels, poems. They look on with glances and nods of recognition. Sometimes they talk to me or write to me about their woundedness and, in turn, I feel as if I’ve been given a sacred gift. This gift is a mirror of sorts, one that reflects the face of knowing and acceptance and love. We hold up mirrors for each other so we can see what has wounded us and we tell each other that who we are is enough. Then we look in each other’s eyes and find a certain sort of healing in knowing we’re not the only ones. There’s something holy about finding your sisters.
Wounded women spot each other in the masks of quiet perfection we wear in order to conceal the dirty frauds and pretenders we believe we are. We masqueraders feign to be the smartest, the prettiest, the thinnest, the most talented and well rounded, the most virtuous and nurturing, the happiest, the most and best of everything we believe we should be. We think, “If you really knew who I was on the inside, you wouldn’t love me.” The jig would be up. We’d be outed. We’re forever afraid we will disappoint. Others would finally see us for who we really are: not pretty enough, not smart enough, not organized enough, not sexy enough, not thin enough, not observant enough, not strong enough. Not enough. Never, ever enough.
As a writer, I’ve been on the road to self acceptance, moving toward the spaces between prettiest and smartest and thinnest and sexiest and happiest and most talented, most driven and hardest working. In those empty spaces between “not enough,” I find a place where the Accusatory Voice, the voice of blame and guilt for not being enough, quiets for a moment so I can find my bearings, a center. Those empty spaces tell me something about what it means to be a woman. And that’s enough. I point the young women I mentor to those spaces. I tell them to taste and see and know. They are enough.
Recently, one young woman who’s only begun to find the spaces between “not enough” asked me how she was supposed to live up to the ideal Christian woman, the Proverbs 31 woman. We are both members of evangelical Christian subculture and the Proverbs 31 woman is the epitome of womanhood, the woman we are told that we should all strive to be.
This woman is depicted in poetry in the biblical book of Proverbs, chapter 31:
The Wife of Noble Character
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.
Many books written for the evangelical Christian publishing machine teach us that we should be more like her, implying that we all fall short. Not good enough. She is perfection but we should strive to be like her. But no matter how hard we try, we all know she is our superior and we are her subjects. For a long time, I’ve been as suspicious of the interpretation of this woman as I’ve been of the evangelical notion that a man is the head of his wife. This is the problem we run into when we take all of scripture literally: we expect perfection rather than humanity.
I told my student that many popular studies try to interpret her and they make the Proverbs 31 woman come across like an airbrushed fashion magazine model. She doesn’t exist. I pointed her toward the sacred spaces where she could rest and find the quiet where she could stop comparing herself to women who are cultural constructs. The evangelical Christian publishing machine, however, would have us think differently. Many of the books and studies published about her are devoted to how to become more like the Proverbs 31 woman. Because of this, I’d long since rejected her. I refused to even read the poem. While my education in literature should have helped me work through my dread of this perfect woman, my feelings of guilt and shame overshadowed my education. I shunned her. In reality, it seems that she, like women throughout scripture, had been co-opted by the literalists.
It turns out I was wrong about the Proverbs 31 woman. Recently, I began reading Rachel Held Evans’s book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” I normally wouldn’t have even picked up a book with the words “Biblical Womanhood” in the title because I knew I would eventually find “not enough” within its pages. I never would’ve picked up a book that spoke about a woman calling her husband “Master.” But I’d heard Held Evans speak recently and found her different from the typical authorized versions of womanhood within the evangelical Christian publishing machine. The Proverbs 31 woman does, in fact, exist in each woman I know. In the original Hebrew, writes Held Evans, the Proverbs 31 woman is known as eshet chayil, the woman of valor, the woman who is valorous in her everyday life in all she does, no matter what she does. The poem is a song of thanks and honor often sung by Jewish husbands to their wives for all they do, no matter what it is they do. There is one command in the poem, and it is directed toward men. In verse 31, men are commanded to “Honor her for all her hands have done.” We don’t have to become like her. She is who we are.
I find that I no longer have to reject the Proverbs 31 woman for reminding me everything I can never be because what she does is not a prescriptive list of everything I ought to be doing. Instead, she is a reminder of all I am. Enough. Always enough. eshet chayil. Woman of valor, a sister who is a gift, sacred and holy, never to be shunned.