She has dinner ready by six o’clock. The steam from roast chicken with carrots and mashed potatoes dances under the nostrils. Lamps and end tables are free of dust and clutter, kitchen countertops are shiny and slick, the sink is empty; not a hair is out of place on this woman’s head, and her lipstick perfectly kisses her wide smiling lips. She serves food to her husband and children, who are seated around the dining room table. Her children smile, laugh, and act affectionately towards each other and towards their parents.
Proverbs 31 should show us that we can’t reduce womanhood to domesticity.All is right in the perfect little word of this happy housewife, a scene akin to a family sitcom from the 1950s called Leave It to Beaver. June Cleaver was the iconic image of a 1950s housewife, and the show centered around her youngest son’s boyish mishaps and adventures. The Cleavers were the quintessential post-war American family: the dad worked, while the mom stayed home and cooked and cleaned. They embodied traditional family values and stuck up for morality. For the most part, everybody in the household got along. If there were any familial or outside skirmishes, they were confronted with ease and perfectly resolved. Watching the show can feel like entering a time warp to a by-gone era. It is pure, innocent, and clean compared to some family sitcoms of today. I’ve known some Christians who wistfully look back on the show and decry the perceived corruption of our modern world. They would say our society is now less “Christian” than the 1950s. But was the show truly Christian? Was the portrayal of a happy housewife through June Cleaver something Christian women should strive to embody?
It took a few more years for the June-Cleaver-1950s-housewife image to be shattered. Second-wave feminism was trickling down into society. This portion of the larger feminist movement centered around issues of sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and various other gender inequalities. The second wave of the feminist ideology was spurred on in America in the early 1960s, and one key player was a journalist named Betty Friedan. She was bent on disproving the cultural notion that a college education ill prepared a woman to be a wife and mother. So in 1957, Friedan wrote a questionnaire for her female alumni at her fifteen-year college reunion. What she discovered surprised her. She found that her classmates were frustrated, dissatisfied, and unhappy in their roles as wives and mothers. Friedan concluded that these women were trying to conform to a cultural image of a woman and that their personal lives were falling short. In 1963, Friedan called this image the Feminine Mystique, which was also the published title of her book.
In that work, Friedan alluded to a number of articles in women’s magazines in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which reported a “syndrome” that some women experienced: yearning, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Friedan argued that these feelings resulted from a societal expectation of women’s role and behavior. According to Friedan, women in her day were only supposed to find fulfillment in being wives and mothers. In her book Friedan sums up this feminine mystique that women of her time were expected to fulfill:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamt of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”
So, what was Friedan’s solution for frustrated and discontent women trying to live up to a stereotyped image? She looked to education as the key escape. In Friedan’s mind, a woman’s education must then lead to use and purpose in society. Friedan, consistent with most second-wave feminist ideology, held to the belief that women would feel more fulfilled outside of the home. Much of this thinking was coupled with leaving behind traditional gender roles to pursue education and career. Long gone were the days of June Cleaver and her black-and-white TV world. Women started going in a new direction.
Today, women look back at this time and tend to view it as either wholly positive or entirely negative. I know Christian women especially who think Friedan’s views are anti-biblical and feel as if we must harken back to Leave It to Beaver. Here we have two portrayals of women: a socially constructed image promoted in the 1950s and a woman liberated through education and career forging ahead in a larger societal context. Which portrayal is biblical? Is one right and one wrong? Does one undermine traditional family values and roles?
While as Christians we might not be able to embrace fully everything Friedan asserts in The Feminine Mystique or swallow all that second-wave feminism dishes out, we can and should be debunking cultural stereotypes of women. Friedan was correct in her belief that we cannot attain to a perfect image of a social construct—frustration will be a natural result. No woman is happy trying to fit herself into a mass produced image because we are flawed and real human beings with our own individual sets of strengths and weaknesses. The Bible shows this clearly through Old Testament stories. The men and women portrayed in the Bible are not perfect role models. Though we can and should seek to emulate some of their strengths, we are warned through their lives to avoid their weaknesses as well. Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife and offered her sexual services to the King (Genesis 20:2); Esther joined the King’s harem (Esther 2:12-14); and Rebecca favored her younger son, Jacob, leading her to deceive her husband so Jacob could get the birthright (Genesis 27). These women are complex and well-rounded, real and flawed. The Bible offers more reality than Leave It to Beaver, which is more of an American ideal founded in moralism than a representation of real Christianity.
Both Friedan and June Cleaver offer one-dimensional women—not the complex and well-rounded individuals in Scripture. Left with these two images we think we must choose one over the other. Friedan reacted against the social pressures of her time that prompted women to find fulfillment as a wives and mothers, telling women they could be fulfilled with education and careers instead. She believed women needed a bigger and better purpose for contributing to society, but she neglected the societal value and purpose in a mother’s role. There is value and purpose for women in the confines of four walls and value and purpose outside of them.
A woman who represents this idea well is actually the Proverbs 31 woman. I grew up subconsciously attaching the 1950s housewife stereotype to the biblical model found in Proverbs 31. But the woman described in this passage is far removed from June Cleaver. What Proverbs 31 does show is a complex and well-rounded woman, one who is divorced from neither home nor society. She looks well to the ways of her household (verse 27) but also goes outside the home as an entrepreneur (18, 24); she is also intelligent and wise with money as she considers a field, buys it, and then does the hard manual labor of planting a vineyard (16, 17). Not only is she strong physically, but she is strong in character by being generous and compassionate (20); she is not lazy (13-15, 27); she speaks with wisdom and kindness (26); and she is not anxious or fearful (25). Proverbs 31 should show us that we can’t reduce womanhood to domesticity. Womanhood here is not about a stereotype of an unattainable domestic goddess, but about pointing to a clearer picture of complete personhood grounded in Christ. As women we won’t find ultimate fulfillment in being wives and mothers or in career and education. As St. Augustine so famously said, “Our hearts is restless until it rests in you.” The whole and complete woman can only find ultimate fulfillment and rest in the person and work of Jesus Christ.