The email arrived, unexpected, in her inbox. It was a good friend asking to introduce her to a mutual friend, a man she might find interesting, when she was home for the holidays. EmmaName has been changed. looked up from her iPhone and then began waving it around with a confused look on her face.
“I just accepted a new job here on the East Coast — my dream job with a huge jump in salary — and now a friend wants to introduce me to a guy living across the country?” Emma said, slightly exasperated. “What am I supposed to tell him about my future plans? What about my job? Should I downplay it? Can I even do that? I love my work — it’s one of my biggest passions.”
The circle of women listening to her pushed their coffee cups closer and leaned in to offer their ideas. The older ones, well aware of the blessing of proactive friends, encouraged her to go on the blind date — there’s no harm in meeting someone. The younger ones speculated about the challenges of a long-distance relationship — was it worth it to meet someone when so many miles are in between?
As I listened, however, I thought about her immediate mental leap from the possibility of a date to her professional success and what problems that might introduce right from the start for a dating relationship. Emma’s concern was not entirely without merit — historically. As one historian notes, this has been called the “independence effect,” and it did once have a considerable effect on the marital chances of women:
Women, the theory goes, search for mates who are good providers. But what if a woman has good earning possibilities of her own? A related theory, called the independence effect, predicts that she will have less incentive to marry, and men will also find her a less attractive mate. Moreover, if such a woman does marry, she will be more likely to divorce than other women.
For centuries, the independence effect did have considerable predictive power in Western Europe and North America. Until the 1950s highly educated women were less likely to marry than less educated women.
But for women born since 1960, things are different. College graduates and women with higher earnings are now more likely to marry than women with less education and lower wages, although they generally marry at an older age.Stephanie Coontz, Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), pp. 284-285.
Today there’s an additional bonus: Women’s education and job experience also seem to stabilize marriages — again, contrary to the independence effect concept. After the turmoil of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the marriages of college-educated women actually became more stable in the following decades. By the mid-1990s, college-educated American men and women under 45 had considerably lower divorce rates than those in other educational categories.Coontz, Marriage, a History, p. 291.
But historical trends aside, there’s still perception, and perception varies across different church cultures, regions, and age groups. Over the years, I have spoken with many young men who have been intimidated by a woman’s accomplishments, feeling that they need to out-perform her in all areas of life in order to be able to be a spiritual leader in marriage. Thankfully I do hear less of that idea now than I did 10 years ago. But I also know from dozens of nosy — um, “helpful” — conversations with single guys that they don’t need more reasons to be afraid of a woman’s expectations for that first date.
So in this conversation with Emma, I too pushed my coffee cup across the table and added my two cents: “I don’t think you should at all feel apologetic for the work you do. It’s a very important part of who you are and how God is using you right now.”
A Shout-Out at the Gates
Years ago, when I was a new believer, one of the older women discipling me told me that a single woman ought to be fruitful and productive for God’s glory right where she was and not put her life on hold — “because it’s a man’s job to interrupt a woman’s plans with his offer of marriage.” I think she may have been quoting Elisabeth Elliot to me, but I can’t be sure. I do recall jokingly asking her if the single guys knew that was their job to interrupt us with marriage proposals!
However, there’s a reality that single women face that many single men may not fully appreciate — and that’s the need to plan for two futures simultaneously. You don’t know what the Lord has in your future; you only know what’s in front of you right now. So you make decisions prayerfully, thinking about what these next steps might look like if you get married and have a family one day, or if you don’t. Ephesians 5:15-16 counsels all believers to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (ESV). Making the best use of the time means doing something with what God has put right in front of you right now. You don’t want to live life doing very little as a single woman because you are waiting on a preferred future. You are not guaranteed your dreams. But you are guaranteed God’s wisdom if you will ask Him for it (James 1:5).
That’s why I love our friend, the Proverbs 31 woman. That portrait of fruitful feminine productivity is the final word in a book of Old Testament wisdom literature. She is not a modern creation. As I wrote in my most recent book, The Measure of Success, we need a fresh look at this archetype of wise daily living:
This poetic tribute is a jumble of feminine qualities—addressing relationships, productivity, fruitfulness, and financial savvy—with only one short verse about beauty. It’s easy to overlook the fact that this chapter has a lot more to say about her work than anything else.… The key to all of this is that this woman “works with willing hands.” She does not see her obligations as a burden. She delights in the work she is given. Moreover, she is enterprising, energetic, strong, and hospitable in those tasks. She sees that “her profits are good,” which literally means she “tastes” or savors the fruit of her achievements.
This success does not diminish her husband — quite the opposite. Verse 23 says he is known in the gates of the city. Typically the city gates were where community’s administrative business was handled. For her husband to sit there meant that he was an influential man, a man known or respected by other leaders. He is respected in part because his wife’s daily actions reflected well on the family’s reputation. This is why he praises her, saying: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (v. 29).
This virtuous woman is praiseworthy because she has “done excellently.” It’s her hard work that earns her commendation. Motivated by a love and respect for the Lord — her crowning virtue — her work is fruitful, praiseworthy and excellent. The fruit of her diligent labors mark the final sentences in this Old Testament book of wisdom.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
This biblical perspective obliterates all the bad advice that’s ever been given to single adults. An accomplished woman is a blessing. This passage, written by a wise king, nearly shouts at us, “If she is supposed to be your wife, then she’s your collaborator, not your competition! All those accomplishments could be your gift in marriage.”
The Collaboration of a Godly Marriage
Back to my friend, Emma. She is a godly woman, devoted to the Word, eager to be a witness for Christ, and to disciple others. Her reaction may tempt others to think of her only as a “career woman” who doesn’t really want to get married. That would be inaccurate. In fact, it’s usually inaccurate for any woman. But I know Emma to be fruitful in many areas, not the least of which is her job. Her work is important to the cause of freedom. So it’s not like she’s choosing personal glory and success over a potential future husband and family. She wants to be married and have a family. But she’s aware that her profession has required a great deal of commitment to date, which might be misunderstood.
In the end, we all encouraged Emma to accept the introduction, be open to meeting a brother in Christ, and not hide or downplay her career. We encouraged her to think of her accomplishments as evidence of hard work “done excellently.” That diligence, that faithfulness, that productivity is a reflection of her character. The man she marries one day will benefit from the skills and capacities she has cultivated through hard work. The children she bears one day will also be cared for by hands that work willingly and faithfully. Shaped by the discipline of professional productivity done in faith toward God, Emma would be a fantastic partner in the collaboration of a godly marriage.
The rest of us are praying that her husband comes along quickly and appreciates that part of her right from the start.
Copyright 2015 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.