Being a believer in gender equality, I'm tempted to skip over this passage in Proverbs on the virtuous woman, or, as the NRSV puts it, the capable wife. On the surface, it appears to be sexist and patriarchal, deriving from a cultural context far removed from modern society and no longer applicable today. It has often been interpreted from the point of view of male superiority--sometimes even by women!--and of course it does reflect a time and place that is geographically, temporally, and culturally distant from modern Western life. However, I believe that if examined from a proper perspective, today's reading from Proverbs has much to say to modern believers, men as well as women.
Proverbs 31:10-31 is a Hebrew acrostic poem, in which verse 10 begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each subsequent verse begins with the next letter in the sequence. (The first letter in the Hebrew word for "woman" is aleph, also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; cf. Psalm 119 and Lamentations 1-4 for other examples.) The Hebrew words for "woman" and "wife" are the same, a reflection of a culture in which marriage was considered the normal state of affairs. A similar situation obtains in English, where the modern English "woman" is derived from the Old English "wif-man," whose meaning is fairly obvious. The poem praises a woman for her devotion to her husband and family, for her industriousness, her strength, her business sense, her concern for the poor, her confidence, her support of her husband, her dignity, her confidence in the future, her wisdom, and her fear of the Lord. If you change "husband" to "wife" in this list of attributes, it is evident that they would then describe a worthy husband. Changing the word to "spouse" covers same-sex couples as well.
The poem, then, is clearly applicable to married people of either sex, and if the specific mentions of a spouse are omitted, or perhaps if "friends" or something similar is substituted, it applies to single adults as well. Each of these attributes is a proper subject for discussion at length, but I want to focus on the first and last lines of the poem, beginning with the word that immediately follows "woman" in Hebrew.
The word translated "virtuous" in the KJV and "capable" in the NRSV is a word that, when used as a noun, is rendered elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as "wealth" or "army." As an adjective it is often translated "strong" or "skillful." The translation "good" in the RSV and the Living Bible misses the point, and KJV's "virtuous" is not much better. The word denotes a person of power and ability, someone to be reckoned with. It carries with it connotations of worth and value (hence the use of the same word for "wealth"). That the person figuratively described with such a term is a woman is noteworthy; the only similar references are in Proverbs 12:4 (is the current passage a poetic exposition of that verse?) and Ruth 3:11. Although the connotations may not be exactly the same in Hebrew and English, I think an appropriate translation of the first half-verse of this poem is "A strong woman, who can find?"
Read from this perspective, it is no wonder that the poet ends with the exhortation, "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." In contrast with the attitude of many men of his day--and many of the present day--the poet calls on men to acknowledge both the contributions and value of the "strong woman," not only in private, but in the city gates, where the business of the city was conducted. Anthropologists suggest that our ancestors living in Paleolithic times may have lived in groups that were more or less sexually egalitarian, a condition that disappeared with the invention of cities. It has taken millennia for women to regain some measure of gender equality, and in some parts of the world, and in some religious groups, men are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their domination over women. When confronted with the culturally and ethically backward purveyors of such views, we would do well to point to the poet of Proverbs 31 and borrow his (or her?) words--"A strong woman, who can find?"--and offer the answer, "All around you!"