The origins of what is now the Labor Day holiday in the United States lie in the conflicts around the early labor movement. These days, for many of us, Labor Day is less about celebrating the dignity of the working man — and woman — than it is about getting in a last family outing to the county pool or other seasonal local attraction, or maybe firing up the grill and enjoying a Monday off from labor. At Louisville Seminary, it’s the day for the Community Picnic.
Whatever the festivities, they are behind us now. But the recent Day honoring Labor prompted some thoughts on the number of women in the Bible who are depicted as workers. Sarah cooks for the visitors by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:6); Rebecca interrupts the work-day’s routine to draw water for a caravan of camels (Gen. 24:15-21); Zipporah and her sisters are shepherdesses (Ex. 2:16-21). Rahab was a sex worker (Joshua 2:1 ff), Ruth an immigrant field laborer (Ruth). Today, Abigail would probably be driving a truck (1 Samuel 25:18-19).
The poetic Woman Wisdom of Proverbs never stops working, hewing pillars, slaughtering animals, mixing wine, and reminiscing about her days as a master artisan in the construction project of creation (Prov. 9:1-2, 8:22-31); her valiant twin, the Woman of Worth, is an omnicompetent woman of business who teaches on the side and still has time for her family (Prov. 31:10-31) — perhaps illustrating that the concept of the “super-woman” is not at all new.
Women in Jesus’ stories are baking (Matt. 13:33) and sweeping (Luke 15:8-10), while women in stories about Jesus sometimes seem pretty fully occupied (Luke 4:38-39; Luke 10:38-40). Paul meets people like Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14).
The main point of a quick and superficial list of this kind is to make us notice something we often fail to notice, because it is so familiar: everywhere we go, all our lives, women are at work. Sometimes they are doing something out of the ordinary, but ordinarily they are doing whatever it is that “women do” in the place and time they find themselves. For many reasons, this “women’s work” often vanishes into the background of life. When that happens, people fail to perceive it as what it is: work, work on which others depend, sometimes the work of a lifetime. What is in Scripture is what is in life: people — women included — are at work. Having a day to honor that seems, upon reflection, a good idea.