Kendra is one of the very few women I know who, like me, doesn’t carry a purse. It’s one of the many, many things I appreciate about her—my compatriot in our fight against the tyranny of purse wearing. Attaché case, book bag, backpack: none of these feel so cumbersome, so heavy, so alien as a purse. I’d rather stuff my pockets full of cell phones and wallets than have to keep track of something dangling unnaturally off my arm; or, better yet, I’d rather let my husband carry my stuff than have to drag a purse around. (See, I do let my husband be chivalrous.) Whenever I’ve bent to society’s whims and tried the purse, I’ve felt like a clown, like somehow I’m just acting the role of a dainty feminine bon vivant, hiding all her most delicate secrets in a prissy bag—when what I really want to do is slouch into a chair, throw my crap onto the table, and slurp a beverage.
But this post is not about purses. Or only partially so.
One of the many apparent virtues of the Proverbs 31 woman is that she successfully manages a business, for “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard . . . She sees that her trading is profitable . . . She makes linen garments and sells them” (Proverbs 31:16-19, 24). The prominent evangelical interpretation of this passage is that the Proverbs 31 woman works—but not outside the confines of her home. And therefore, if someone is to be a Proverbs 31 woman, she needs to find an at-home business, something she can do while simultaneously caring for the kids and the husband.
This theme has been carried as well in the ideologies of pseudo-secular-religious figures like Dr. Laura and Dave Ramsey, both who seem to preach a similar stay-at-home business model for women, arguing mothers (at least) should find some kind of work inside the home if the family needs the financial boost. Or, if the family is really struggling financially, the man should find a second and third job to help support the family. Never mind the many problems with this approach: that the husband may never see children who are his, too, because he’s run ragged working all the time. That the children may never see their father. That a stay-at-home business may not insure that a mother will be able to care for her children (or her work) with the kind of focus needed. Believe me, I’ve tried to grade papers with kids playing at my feet—or, these days, whining in my ears—and I know I can’t give the good work my students do the attention it deserves., nor can I attend fully to my kids.
Now, you may be asking, what does this have to do with Kendra and Melanie and purses? Hang with me: there is a connection.
In my recent web explorations, I ran across a site for “Proverbs 31 Bags,” an entire line of biblically-inspired purses that women can sell from their own homes as consultants for the Thirty-One franchise. The line of bags is extensive, from purses in all shapes and sizes, to small wallets and large tote bags and organizers. The premise behind the Thirty-One purses seems to be that 1) women are busy managing their homes, and 2) The Proverbs 31 woman uses her “savvy business skills . . . to serve others, do good deeds and prosper,” and 3) “girls” must shop. Never mind that a good number of grown-up “girls” I know detest shopping, and that the images of a mall-bound woman getting her jollies from buying stuff is a laughable stereotype. I wonder: how does selling purses help me serve others, do good deeds, and prosper?
So here’s one of the things I find annoying about the myth of the Proverbs 31 woman. It’s built on the shaky premise that women should not work outside the home if they have children, and that to do so would be anathema to scripture. And, this reading of Proverbs 31 argues that if a woman needs to work, she must find some kind of employment inside the home, whether her desire to work is for financial reasons, to support the family, to give her self-satisfaction, or because she can’t stand one. more. episode of Thomas the Train.What is a woman whose skills are not marketable within the home to do? Apparently, given the preponderance of at-home businesses targeting Christian women, sign on for a Christian-based franchise that allows you to sell stuff to your friends and neighbors, at inflated prices, all in the name of following God’s word, of doing good deeds and prospering.
Please understand that I’m not critiquing those who have at-home businesses, who excel at what they do, and who feel like they are meeting a need that might not be met elsewhere. Nor am I critiquing those who choose to stay home with their children, rather than working outside the home: I hope that’s clear in an earlier post. What I am critiquing is the message that women have to stay home, should work from the home, and therefore must take on jobs that do not in any way fit their gifting: and that this message is somehow biblical. I, for one, would be miserable trying to sell anything, let alone trying to do so with two boys nearby, swept up in their daily burp contests. And I truly don’t think God longs for us to choose vocations that make us miserable, that don’t fit with the gifts God’s given us. Selling Thirty-One products would make as much sense to me as, well, carrying all my of my stuff inside my own purse, rather than in my husband’s pocket.