A Virtuous Woman

Ruby Pakistan by Orbital Joe, Flickr. Creative Commons License

At the end of the year that I turned 8, my Primary teacher gave each of us students a laminated card with a scripture that she picked out for us. Everyone’s was different. Mine said,

Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. Proverbs 31:10

I put this scripture up in my room somewhere, probably on my desk. It was an exciting discovery as well as a confusing one. First, there were verses about women in the Bible! In fact, reading it in context showed me that there was a whole chapter! It still felt scant to me, but at least it was something.

On the other hand, who was the question directed to? I took it to heart that my teacher and chosen this scripture for me, alone. After all, my friend Emma had been given a different scripture. Was I supposed to find this woman? Or was I supposed to be the woman? And what was it to be “virtuous.” My 8 year old self did not know.

It was always sort of back in my mind. I remember looking up “virtue” in the Topical Guide (it wasn’t in the Bible Dictionary) and being more confused at what it might be. Women would be referenced as “virtuous” and we were told to have “virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.” But I couldn’t figure out what it was. I wanted to be worth more than rubies, but I didn’t know how.

What I did know were little quips like “patience is a virtue.” So waiting is virtuous? Sitting around and doing nothing? Ok. Done.

My mother is an organist and we had an organ in our living room. It once belonged to an elderly ward organist who sold it to my parents before she died. It came with scores of sheet music, with one song titled “Who can find a virtuous woman?” As a teenager, I found this sheet music and thought, “Aha! I’ll figure this ‘virtue’ thing out now!” The first line of the song was,

Who can find a virtuous woman? Who can find a virtuous wife?

Ah, so maybe one can’t be virtuous until one is married? So more waiting, suppose. I decided to ask my mom how to be virtuous; the song came from her collection, at least. She didn’t really have much to say other than being good and stuff. At least, I don’t remember her answer being very memorable.

The thing that I really couldn’t wrap my head around as a child and as a teen was that if it was so great to be virtuous, then what do you actually do as a “virtuous” woman? It seemed like a lot of waiting. And it seemed tiring.

As an adult, I’m still perplexed as to what you have to do to be considered “virtuous.” It still sounds like a lot of sitting around and being pretty. I wonder what the Young Women could possibly do for value projects now that “virtue” is a value. Good works, I get. Knowledge I get. But virtue? Of course, I’m not sure how you do “divine nature” either.

I think this is possibly one reason why modesty is huge in terms of lessons and talks to young women. You can’t really “do” virtue. But you can put clothes on. And going to the store and spending money? Double plus!

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Maybe we should focus more on the “doing” values and “virtues” of the gospel. Maybe we shouldn’t be giving 8 year olds scriptures about virtue. Maybe we should skip “virtue” altogether since it seems to be something you can’t really judge yourself of.

And for the record, it seems that 1 carat rubies are around $1.5k. Not too shabby. I’m curious as to the price of women who are lacking in virtue.


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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11 Responses

  1. JD says:

    I feel like there have been many great talks on Virtue since the new value was added in YW, and an emphasis on virtue being about having high moral standards. That basically encompasses everything in the For The Strength of Youth, and following the guideline to seek after all that is “lovely, of good report, praiseworthy.” Our lives are not just defined by what we don’t do, which most Primary kids focus on, but on what we are seeking after- service to uplift others, learning, working to build the kingdom of God, viewing media that is uplifting, etc. If you read the verses in Proverbs 31 after the ruby verse, it lists all the things the woman does- works with different materials with her hands, does her husband good and not evil, has strength and honor, gives to the poor, clothes her family, buys fields and plants them. The list is long and full of good things that show it’s not just about what you don’t do.

    • TopHat says:

      Oh for sure! I’m now thinking that we need to “update” language. My mental references to “virtue” were the Bible and things like the book Little Women and even with that, I couldn’t figure it out. The word “virtue” is really not in a child’s vocabulary.

      I like your use of the 13th Article of Faith. That’s something my 8-year-old self would have been able to “get.”

  2. Leslee says:

    I’ve thought about this same question many times. Our English “virtue” comes from the latin “vir” which means “man”. Not in the generic ‘male’ sense, but it actually implies an ideal man with ideal attributes: courage, strength, fortitude, integrity, etc. In ancient Rome, ‘virtus’ was almost never applied to women because those traits were thought of as exclusively masculine. Ironic, considering that “virtue” is now almost as exclusively feminine and usually carries none of the original meaning in the lessons and sermons that we hear.
    Gender stereotypes swept aside, I much prefer to think of virtue in its original sense. A virtuous woman is a woman with courage, strength and integrity and any other ideal attributes. Modesty and patience may well go along with it, but virtue is a lot more than just putting your clothes on. 🙂

  3. kimb says:

    First of all, love the other two comments.

    When I was a young woman I was given a handout with this same scripture and similarly I felt very confused about what it meant. From what I remember, the yw lesson tied it exclusively to being morally clean, which did not sit real well with me.

    Years later I was reading in the New Testament and came upon the story of the woman that sought healing from Jesus by touching the hem of his garment. In Mark Chapter 5 verse 30 it reads, “And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?”

    I never thought of virtue as strength or power and I loved this concept that the word the scripture used to label the power to heal was virtue.

    Whenever I hear anyone use the word virtue, I now add the words, strength and power, which helps me think more about these amazing attributes and less about bare shoulders.

  4. Em says:

    What I first remember learning about virtues was from my parents LP of the musical Camelot, in which Mordred sings about “the seven deadly virtues.” The song is snarky and dismissive of virtues (Mordred is the villain) but it gave me a list of what virtues are. Courage, purity, humility, honesty, diligence, charity and fidelity are the ones that he lists. In one sense, those are still not things you can “do.” You can’t really just go out and do something humble. But they are a wonderful list of things to be, and you can actively cultivate them. I think we have a tendency to focus on purity, particularly sexual purity, as the main one but I don’t really think that does the term virtue justice. I definitely think we could emphasize some of them more as a church. Courage, for instance, gets almost no air time. Fidelity is another one that we tend to sexualize, but I don’t think it is just about not committing adultery. I think it is also about being a loyal friend, being true to your commitments etc.

    There are other lists, for example the classic “Fruits of the Spirit” from Galatians, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperence.

    I actually sort of love that virtue is a value because it gives so much scope for discussion of little discussed virtues!

    • TopHat says:

      I really like that list. I wish we Mormons had a similar list somewhere- as an 8 year old I had no resources to go for what “virtue” could mean! Add it to the Bible Dictionary, perhaps? Or have a list in the YW manual? I don’t think it has one that is so inclusive.

      • Heather Sather says:

        Mormons do have that list to follow. It is right there in the New Testament, which is sanctioned scripture. It would be nice if that reference were placed in the Young Women’s manual, but it is legitimate scripture.

  5. Valentine says:

    I was barely 12 when the 7 values and new personal progress came out (probably in 1985 or 86). I remember going to a big meeting at the stake center where we watched a video with Sister Kapp and we released lots of balloons into the air.

    When I came home and wrote in my journal about the event, I couldn’t remember everything exactly right and I wrote “there are 7 virtues” in the new program. I soon figured out I hadn’t got that quite right, but I think in my mind the 7 values were kind of synonymous with virtues.

    I have had the feeling the last few years that they are using “virtue” as a value to mean “chastity and modesty.” And I don’t love it, those things were already covered in the original 7 values IMO. Except that we didn’t used to make such a HUGE deal about modesty.

  6. Caroline says:

    Great post and great comments. I totally agree – the way “virtue” is used these days is troubling and limiting.

    • Heather Sather says:

      And, as Elizabeth Smart recently said, devastating to those of us who have been sexually abused.

  7. Melody says:

    Great post! Great comments.

    I have to be honest – I felt a little sick when “virtue” was added as a YW value. I agree that wonderful talks and sermons help illuminate the beauty of the YW program and when we define virtue in its true context, it is a lovely ideal. But if that is how virtue is being used here then it is redundant. For me – adding this value feels like an extension of the dysfunction within the church surrounding women and sexuality. I suspect there may be many young women right now who feel like you did when you were eight. “Virtue? Hmmm . ..”

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