“Eishet Chayil.” The woman of valor. We never sang it in my home — it wasn’t part of our Shabbat tradition — but I’ve sat many times throughout my life at tables where the song was sung, the old dirge melody, ostensibly in honor of the woman of the house. Singing the song, I was always told, is a moment to pay tribute to that woman, a way for her family to appreciate their mother and wife.
But since adolescence, when I gained the ability to really think about it, I’ve been severely put off by Eishet Chayil. Each time I heard the familiar tune start up again, I’d sit there uncomfortably waiting for it to end. With time, it became clearer and clearer to me that I found the song that women are supposed to take as a tribute…problematic, to put it lightly.
What, in the eyes of those words from Proverbs 31, constitutes an ideal woman? Who is a “woman of valor”?
To her benefit, the Eishet Chayil is depicted as capable: She has business acumen, physical skill and strength. Much of the song is dedicated to the many types of labor at which she excels. But her labor and her skills, time and time again, are couched in context: She does not work for herself. She works for her husband, for his success, and for the success of his household. Her labor exists for the sole purpose of propping him up: While he’s sitting at the gate, interacting with the world and making a name for himself, she is tirelessly moving behind the scenes, doing the grunt work.
The things that are celebrated about the Eishet Chayil are twofold: her usefulness as, essentially, an employee (an appreciated employee, but still an employee), and her cheerful attitude about her role in life. She’s up working before dawn and late into the night. Her hands “work willingly” and she “repays” all of her husband’s good, “but never his harm,” smiling, cheerfully going about her duties, all of which revolve around servicing her household. The Eishet Chayil is described almost entirely in terms of her various labors, so we are barely given a glimpse into her inner self, but on the rare occasions when we are, it’s seemingly exclusively to confirm how happy she is to be laboring on behalf of others.
The one act the Eishet Chayil does that doesn’t revolve around her husband and children — giving to the poor — is in itself a problematic qualifier: Does one have to be rich to qualify as an Eishet Chayil? Could an Eishet Chayil be found among the poor she gives to, or is the valor of a woman inextricably linked to her class and to the financial success of her household?
At heart, the Eishet Chayil represents the ghettoization of women’s labor: When a woman works, it must be for others, not for herself. This notion, old as it is, extends well into today. Labor done by women in the workforce itself is financially less valued than the same work done by male counterparts, but in an even more pervasive way, women are expected to constantly do emotional labor, to always be working toward the wellbeing of others — because it is assumed that they, like the Eishet Chayil, are most naturally inclined toward that work, and are happiest when fulfilling their roles as caretakers.
What about an Eishet Chayil not entirely defined by her labor for others — one who works toward her own interests, toward her own goals? What about an Eishet Chayil not entirely defined by labor at all, defined rather by experience and insight, by a rich, complex interiority?
This Labor Day, while I think about the different types of work we expect from others and from ourselves, and how that work and those expectations shape our world, our experience of it, and our interactions with others, I will remember that I am not bound to that definition of the Eishet Chayil. I am free to formulate and to emulate an Eishet Chayil of my own.
Lana Adler is a Forward Summer Fellow working on opinion. Follow her on Twitter @Lana_Macondo