There are so many issues these days that have pitted woman against woman. Natural birth or hospital birth. Homeschooling or public school. Stay-at-home mom or working mom. Any of these topics could have otherwise prim Christian ladies suddenly dripping venom. It's because we're defensive. We're a little insecure about whether or not what we're doing is valuable and OK. I can feel like I'm not valued as highly in churches because I'm not a stay-at-home mommy. Stay-at-home moms can feel like what they do isn't valued by society in general. So we're all a little on edge.
Many, if not most, of my good friends are stay-at-home mothers, and I think they are wonderful. I am not questioning whether or not that is a good choice. What I do question is the argument that has sometimes been put forth that the Proverbs 31 woman is a scriptural mandate that woman should not work, but should be at home with her children. I think this is a misinterpretation of the passage.
First of all, we are dealing with two very different cultural realities. The current norm in some sets of American culture is for women, once they have had children, to quit their outside jobs in offices or schools or wherever and stay at home to raise children. They typically live with their nuclear family: one husband, a couple of kids, but no aunts, uncles, grandparents or servants.
The reality and culture at the time the Proverbs were written was quite different. The woman in this passage is even more different, as she is at most a queen and at least the head of a large and wealthy estate. Her concept of "home" is not a 2,000 square foot building in a suburb of a city. It is an estate comprised of many buildings, quarters, stables, and peopled with children, grandparents, extended relatives, and servants of many kinds.
It wouldn't have occurred to her to consider whether she should work "inside" or "outside" of the home, as that was not how life was delineated then. Her estate was her home, and she would often have been working "outside" of her family's quarters. Her work at home wouldn't have been feeding the babies breakfast, cleaning up after breakfast, doing the laundry, doing some grocery shopping, then cooking dinner for when her husband arrives. There's nothing wrong with those tasks, but that is simply not most likely what her life looked like.
She seems to have served as estate manager, and her tasks included managing servants, ensuring the food was ordered and all were fed, sewing (and most likely leading a team of sewers, based on her income), trading her wares at market, managing estate income, buying real estate, deciding how to use the land, and hiring workers to plant the land. This daunting list has lead some to believe she either is not an actual woman, but a composite (as who could possibly do that much?) or that she has a vast household of servants helping her to fulfill these tasks. Whether she worked "inside" or "outside" of the home is a moot point. She certainly worked hard.
In the culture at that time (and throughout much history and many cultures), the babies and children would have been under the care of a nanny or governess or whatever you would like to call her. The P31 woman would not have been a stay-at-home mom in the sense in which we conceive of it, as she most likely had others helping to care for the children as she took care of all of these other responsibilities.
She also wouldn't fit our modern conception of a stay-at-home mom, as she earned a serious income through selling or trading the garments her estate made. Modern translations have verse 11 as, "Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value." (NIV) This translation has really lost something to the older more literal translations as it focuses us on the abstract value the wife brings. To some degree, I think we focus on the softer, more abstract value a wife brings (she's cuddly and pretty) as they are more palatable.
The more literal translation focuses on the material value she brings: "The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil." (KJV) Literally, the husband (perhaps the king) does not need to go out for spoil - i.e. engaging in tribal warfare to get booty - because his wife is financially providing for the family. Some Bible commentators theorize that he need not go out for spoil because she is thrifty and doesn't waste money. This is perhaps implicit it the passage, through what we can deduce of her character, but it is not explicit.
What is explicit is that she is earning money. And not just a few bucks here and there from selling a sweater or two on Etsy. She makes enough money to buy a field and plant a vineyard "with the fruit of her hands." I don't know how much land went for then, but in today's terms, it would take a whole lot of sweaters to buy and plant a vineyard. The husband does not have to go out for spoils because while he is "at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land" (presumably engaging in political affairs), she is earning an income.
Many modern men would shrink from this viable lady, finding such a formidable earner intimidating. Luckily, her husband doesn't find her intimidating and mannish, but as worth far more than rubies.
Dorothy L. Sayers has pointed out that it is no wonder that modern women desire to work outside of the home, as the modern home has shrunk:
"Let us accept the idea that women should stick to their own jobs - the jobs they did so well in the good old days before they started talking about votes and women's rights. Let us return to the Middle Ages and ask what we should get then in return for certain political and educational privileges which we should have to abandon.
It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and - which would not please Lady Astor, perhaps - the whole of the nation's brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling, and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the women's jobs - and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is all very well to say that woman's place is the home - but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. ...
The fact remains that the home contains much less of interesting activity than it used to contain. ... It is perfectly idiotic to take away women's traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being - one cannot repeat that too often - and a human being must have occupation."
At the time in history that Proverbs 31 was written, there were certainly conceptions about what was the proper sphere for women and what was the proper sphere for men (such as domestic businesses vs. political and military business). But these lines aren't consistent with where we draw our lines today as the basic structure of society has changed. Some would like to present Proverbs 31 as the outline of "proper" business for women, as did Bible commentator Matthew Henry:
"She applies herself to the business that is proper for her. It is not in a scholar’s business, or statesman’s business, or husbandman’s business, that she employs herself, but in women’s business: She seeks wool and flax." (Emphasis his.)
Notice that Henry sees this passage as an example of business proper for a woman only so far as what was in line with culturally accepted traditions of women's work: buying sewing materials. The same deduction is not made regarding verse 17, buying and planting land. And he goes so far as to say that this passage supports that scholarly work is not woman's work, though this is clearly not in the text. This commentator's addition to what the Bible is saying is obvious to us now, as it is not our current culture to think education is only the man's sphere. But in what ways are we adding to or deleting from Scripture what is comfortable based on our own current culture?
Regardless of how much some may want it, the Bible does not give us a list of occupations proper for a female. Many of our conceptions of what is proper are based on culture, not on the Bible. Our income level, the technology available to us, and our cultures vastly change what is seen as the proper sphere for a woman.
None of my above arguments support which lifestyle is better, "working" or not "working" (working in quotation marks, as we know that stay-at-home moms work very hard). But what they do show is that using the Proverbs 31 woman to support that the modern American conception of the stay-at-home mom is the only way for a woman to live her life does not stand up to scrutiny.
What are we to do when Scripture doesn't give us a exact list of how to order our day-to-day life? Seek God. Know his principles through his Word. Pray hard. Honor him. Not culture, not tradition, and not the expectations of others. Live in such a way as to give God glory, according to his Scripture.