Several years ago, I read a book entitled “Defining Women,” which attempts to “explore the ways in which social institutions, practices and discourses define women and their position in present day society.” A colleague had recommended and loaned me the book, after a discussion with her about society’s definition of womanhood. This colleague believed that woman’s identity has always been expressed in relationship to man, and voiced out her resentment at having to, for instance, write down her marital status every time she has to fill in a form – single, married or divorced. She mentioned that she had read “Defining Women” for her degree course in Sociology and suggested I read it.
‘Defining Women’ postulates that women are always defined by society in relation to men and that “masculinity and male behaviour are always the reference points” for defining women. It also states that women are more obviously defined in familial terms as carers and nurturers, and that women derive their identity and status from the gendered categories of mothers, daughters and wives. I understood why my colleague was resentful. After all, I would like to think there was more to my existence than being a daughter, wife and mother.
The Simple Fact
I prayed for wisdom and decided to share my thoughts with my husband. (Thankfully, he recognises that being his wife and a mother to our children is only part of God’s plan and purpose for my life). As I discussed my thoughts with him, I realised that the statements made by the book were facts that have ruled and directed woman’s destiny for centuries. The simple fact is that many women, even Christian women, define and identify themselves only in terms of their statuses as wives and mothers.
Of course there are cultural variations all over the world, but generally, society tends to regard women as such. In Ghana, for instance, a woman maintains her identity as daughter until she marries. Then people begin to identify her as “Mrs…” In fact most Ghanaian women thrive on being called “Mrs.” This identity is further redefined when a woman starts having children. Then people begin to refer to her as “So and So’s mother.” Her first name is lost and with it, a new identity is created!
Please don’t get me wrong! I am not speaking against motherhood or marriage. I enjoy being my father’s daughter, as well as a wife and a mother and consider these roles a very important part of my life. I count it a blessing and a privilege to be married and also have children, but I refuse to limit myself to just being that! I refuse to be identified only as such, and my husband and children are okay with that.
However, I strongly believe that when a woman identifies herself and focuses her life solely as a mother, wife and/or daughter, she limits herself – her potential, scope of influence and achievements. This kind of definition influences her life-choices and lifestyle, determines her boundaries and minimises, obscures and underutilises her strengths.
Is That All?
The question to be asked is, “Is that all God purposed and planned for women?” If God’s only purpose is for women to be wives, mothers and daughters, what happens to the identity of the single and/or childless woman? What happens when the mother’s children grow up and leave home? What happens if the wife is widowed or divorced? How would the unmarried, orphaned and childless woman identify herself? These are serious issues we ought to ponder over. And what has scripture got to say about all this?
There are several examples in the bible of women who rose up above their cultural definition and identity of woman. Deborah was such a woman. She was the wife of Lapidoth and she described herself as “a mother in Israel”. Yet Deborah did not limit herself to these descriptions only. She extended her boundaries and rose up to become a Judge in Israel. God used her powerfully in a, seemingly and culturally, masculine role. (Judges 4:1-9)
Lessons From A Great Woman
Our best example, however, is the woman described in Proverbs 31:10-31. Now, I am not going to get into a debate about whether this woman exists or not, or whether we can attain the high standard she sets for us, as Christian women. I make reference to her because I believe there are many great lessons we can learn from her.
One such lesson is that she did not take her position as wife and mother lightly. She was very resourceful, loving and organised, and invested time and effort to maintain and sustain her family, home and household. She provided food, clothing and maintained a warm and lovely household. The bible tells us that her husband, who was ‘known in the gates and sat among the elders in the land,’ praised her. Her children also appreciated and valued her, and “rise up and call her blessed”. There is absolutely no doubt that she did not neglect her familial position and role as wife and mother.
Yet, this woman also found time to reach out to her community. The bible tells us that, “she stretches her hands to the poor, yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.” I believe people in the community knew her by name and could turn to her at a time of need. She was kind and caring enough to extend her love and care outside the boundaries of her home. She recognised and believed in who she was, and touched her community with the fruits of her labour. Indeed, she was a blessing to society.
How many of us can match up to that? How many of us can break out of the mould we find ourselves in and reach out and touch someone else’s life? Mother Theresa was a nun, a woman who did not marry or have any children. Yet, she left behind her a rich legacy by reaching out to her community in India. She got her identity from God and used the virtues He had placed within her to touch many lives. The world still remembers her after her death.
My God, What A Woman!
Apart from taking care of her household and reaching out to her community, the woman described in Proverbs 31 was very industrious. In modern-day terminology, she would certainly be described as a businesswoman or entrepreneur. She made wise investments. “She considers a field and buys it, from her profits she plants a vineyard.” She was into agriculture – could that be you? “She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies sashes for the merchants.” She was also in the clothing business – could that be you? The bible describes her as “like the merchant ships.” Merchant ships often brought a diversity of merchandise from faraway places. This portrays her as industrious and versatile – could that be you? She was a confident woman who carefully and productively managed all that was put in her care. It is really amazing the variety of things this woman was involved in. Yes, that could be any of us!!!
Of course, she drew strength from her relationship and walk with God. However, I also believe she succeeded because she identified and defined herself in Him. She defined her purpose for her life by the blessings, gifts, talents and opportunities given her. God blessed her with a husband, so she was a wife. God blessed her with children so she was a mother. God placed her within a community, so she was a neighbour, a friend and a pillar of strength to her society. God blessed her with wisdom for business, so she put that to use and became a successful businesswoman. God blessed her with dressmaking skills so she became a dressmaker, etc.
She had little time for what was mediocre and commonplace, “she does not eat the bread of idleness.” My God, what a woman!! We certainly have a lot to learn from her!
Let Her Works Praise Her
Another lesson we can learn from the life of this woman is found in verse 31, which says, “Give her all the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.” The ‘gates’ was where the elders, judiciary and administration sat. It was a communal area for public meetings and public justice. The ‘gate’ was also a public forum where community business was discussed. It was the marketplace, where traders met to sell and exchange goods. It was the Administrative Centre for the community. Hence the ‘gates’ was an important place in the city or town. We have already been informed that this woman’s husband had a prominent position there.
However, the scripture requested that her works should praise her within the ‘gates,’ offering her a place of prominence and recognition in the important place in the city. She deserved the same respect her husband had attained. She had broadened her definition of herself as a woman and earned the peoples’ respect. She was no longer only a mother and wife. She was everything that God had created and purposed for her to be.
What a role model! Like Mother Theresa (who was unmarried and childless), this woman (who was married with children) was celebrated and honoured by her community and society. Of course, this epitome of a woman deserved to be praised, honoured and celebrated!
Our Works Will Be Tested
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.” – 1 Corinthians 3:11-13
As Christian women, our identity must only be found in Jesus Christ. As we discover who we are in Him, we must redefine ourselves accordingly. We realise that we have been set free to pursue and fulfil His purpose for our lives, and His purpose for our lives extends beyond ourselves and the boundaries of our homes, households and comfort zones. For when Christ gave the command, He said, “Go Ye!” And we must obey Him and go forth and proclaim, display and demonstrate His Kingdom in all spheres of life!
One day, our works will be tested and may we, like the woman in Proverb 31, receive praise from our Lord Jesus Christ. But before then, you may well need to tackle the question, “How do I define myself as a woman?”
In Christ’s love and service
Apostle Jennifer Abigail Lawson-Wallace