Several days ago I was discussing with a friend the two half-sisters in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Marian Halcombe is gracious, smart, strong, and capable, but ugly. Laura Fairlie is pretty and sweet, but somewhat weak and fragile. You can guess which one gets the guy. 🙂
That led to a discussion about the Victorian ideal woman and “damsel in distress” literature. I am not a feminist by any means, but I do like to see a female protagonist who does have some umph to her, who adds more to the story than a pretty face.
Being strong is not an unfeminine trait. In fact, Proverbs 31 says of the virtuous woman, “She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms,” and “Strength and honour are her clothing.”
She is strong in character: excellent, or virtuous in some versions (verse 10), trustworthy (verse 11), does her husband good (verse 12), kind and compassionate (verses 20, 26), characterized by honor (or dignity in some versions) (verse 25), praiseworthy (28-31).
She is strong in industriousness and initiative: She “works with willing hands” (verse 13), she gets up early to start work and serve others (verse 15) – she’s not still in bed late in the morning waiting on someone to serve her (except maybe on special occasions 🙂 ), she weaves and knows her products are good (verse 18-19), she works into the evening (verse 18), she makes nice clothing (verse 21-22, 24), she makes products to sell (verse 24), she looks well to the ways of her household and is not idle (verse 27).
She is strong physically (verses 17, 25): she plants (verse 16),
She is strong mentally and intellectually: she seeks good products and prices (verses 13, 14, 16), she plans ahead for bad weather (verse 21), she is wise (verse 26).
She is strong spiritually: she fears the Lord (verse 30).
We can sometimes get discouraged looking at her, but as I like to say, she didn’t do all of that in a single day. 🙂 And I don’t think we have to take up weaving, plant a vineyard, or have a home business to become virtuous women. But taken as a whole, the tenor of her life is that of strength, industry, and honor. She is definitely not a “damsel in distress,” but she doesn’t need to assert her strength by challenging her husband or stepping into his role.
Admittedly there will be times of weakness, when she is sick, pregnant, or just tired and weary. And there is nothing wrong with a husband helping and serving his wife: if he loves as Christ loves the church, Christ helps and serves us in many ways. And admittedly there are times she needs “rescue.” I’ve so appreciated the times my husband has come to my rescue when I’ve gotten stuck or over my head in a project, behind in getting ready for company, overwhelmed with a ministry activity, etc. As a family we all pitch in and help wherever needed rather than standing back and saying, “That’s your responsibility, not mine.” But I did have to struggle in early marriage with wanting my husband to help me in every little thing and having to remember that I am supposed to be a help meet for him. We are supposed to depend on our husbands in many ways, but he needs us to be able to stand strong in the Lord’s strength in many ways as well.
Back to literary examples, I think of Dora, the first love of David Copperfield. She was pretty, sweet, and charming, but childish and totally inept as a household manager. She even told him to think of her as a “child wife.” Her husband had to just accept and love her as she was. But Agnes, his friend whom he later came to love, was steady, capable, strong, and mature, and they could support and help each other. Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities came up in the aforementioned discussion as a weak Victorian ideal, but I disagreed: I think she had to be very strong to take in a father she thought had been dead and nurse him back to health in the mental state he was in after so many years locked up unjustly in the Bastille and then to go to France at the height of the French Revolution to find out what had happened to her husband when she feared he was in danger. Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility is another strong literary woman. She was steady, had to manage the household frugally even when the rest of the family complained, had to reign in her emotions to do the honorable thing, as opposed to her sister, Marianne, who gave free reign to her emotions and whims. Ma Ingalls is another: I honestly don’t know how she dealt with the sheer hard work of her life as well as the loneliness of being away from other people so much.
Besides literary examples, we have a plethora of strong women in the Bible. How could Mary, the mother of Jesus, endure all she did without His strength? There is Deborah, a judge who went to battle; Hannah, in grief over her barrenness, yet knowing to whom to turn; Priscilla, who helped her husband in business and in discipling; Mary and Martha, strong in different ways; Joanna and the other women who ministered to Jesus’s needs, and so many more.
We don’t usually step up to the brink of adulthood or marriage strong in all the ways we need to be. Strength of character has to be developed just as physical strength does. When you first start exercising physically, the first thing you notice is how weak and out of shape you really are, but starting to exercise even in weakness is the first step to developing strength. Often God develops strength in us by putting us in situations where we are totally weak. I could not have endured my husband’s many travels without learning to lean on the Lord for strength, but I was pretty much a basket case at first. I can remember the dismay of realizing as a young mother that I couldn’t just take to my bed when I was sick when I had little ones to take care of. I was probably overly dependent on my husband at first, but had to learn how to make decisions and take care of things while he was at work and out of reach.
In Climbing, Rosalind Goforth wrote:
It was while I had a large family of little children about me and mission work was pressing heavily upon me, while feeling burdened and that strength was insufficient, I sought to find in God’s Word whether there were any conditions to be fulfilled for the receiving of divine strength. The result of this study was a surprise and joy to me, and later a blessing and help to many to whom I passed it on, for every condition the weakest could fulfill!
Conditions of receiving strength
1. Weaknesses. II Cor. 12:9-10
2. No might. Isa. 40:29
3. Sitting still. Isa. 30:7
4. Waiting on God. Isa. 40:31
5. Quietness. Isa. 30:15
6. Confidence. Isa. 30:15
7. Joy in the Lord. Neh. 8:10
8. Poor. Isa. 25:4
9. Needy. Isa. 25:4
10 Dependence on Christ. Phil. 4:13
The key is in Hebrew 11:32-34: “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9-10).
The song “I Could Not Do Without Thee” by Francis Ridley Havergal says it well:
I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, beloved Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And weakness will be power
If leaning hard on Thee.
May you “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might” (Ephesians 6:10) today.