“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
This was the question stretched across banners in front of the White House, distributed on pamphlets, and spoken all over the country in the 1910s. Inez Milholland, an icon of the women’s suffrage movement, first uttered them. They were her last words before she collapsed, and soon died, while campaigning for women’s suffrage through the western United States. This is also the question that pervaded my mind as I watched the film Iron Jawed Angels.
Digging deeper into Prov 31:10–31 in context reveals it was never intended to be a how-to manual for becoming the perfect woman. In the context of Proverbs, this passage is the parting mnemonic incentivizing young men to pursue wisdom and marry wisely.
Over the past forty years, the remarkable presence of women in Prov 1–9 has drawn an equally remarkable number of studies, a gift from the rise of feminism and women in the academy. The combination of these two forces brings attention to the once invisible women in the text, figures generally overlooked or ignored as males have read and interpreted the text for other males. Now, however, the text again gives birth to these marginalized figures, providing them with bodies, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and especially, mouths for speech. Of 256 verses in Prov 1–9, 132 specifically mention or speak about women and another seventeen verses either introduce these texts or draw conclusions from them;hence fifty-eight percent of Prov 1–9. Yet, ironically, all this attention to women comes because of the writer’s interest and concern for young men (1:4), with a secondary appeal to older, wise men (1:5). For the sages, it would seem that the way to a man’s heart is not through food, but through women. After all, the author seems to assume, what better way to engage the attention of a young man than by speaking about or describing women?
King-James-Only advocates have taken a personal preference, elevated it to a theological absolute, and used it to divide liberals from conservatives, believers from unbelievers, servants of God from minions of Satan. Critics of inclusive language in Bible translation are doing the very same thing with their reckless, blanket denunciations of the TNIV.
The Bible sets forth an ideal and calls the ideal woman an eshet-chayil, which is the Hebrew for a “virtuous woman” (KJV) or a “wife of noble character” (NIV). This Hebrew expression occurs only three times in the Old Testament, but a study of these three passages is likely to reveal what the Bible supports as an ideal of Christian womanhood.