16 To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
This is the traditional take, supported by several of my commentaries.
Although God’s grace was manifest in this particular way [the promised seed, Christ] toward woman—despite her being the vehicle through which Satan gained control over the world—she was nevertheless to be the subject of special judgment, though even this would be for the ultimate good of humanity. Eve shared in the curse on Adam, since she was also “of the man”; but in addition a special burden was placed on her in connection with the experience of conception and childbirth, the pain and sorrow of which would be “greatly multiplied.” It had been appointed to her to be the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20), but now her children to all generations would suffer under the curse. Their very entrance into the world would be marked by unique suffering, serving as a perpetual reminder of the dread effects of sin.
The function of reproduction and motherhood, originally given as the joyful fruition of God’s purpose in her creation, but now marred so severely by her “lust” for withheld knowledge, which conceived and brought forth sin and death (James 1:15), would thus be marked by unique suffering in its accomplishment. Furthermore, she who had acted independently of her husband in her fateful decision to taste the desired fruit, must henceforth exercise her desire only to her husband and he would bear rule over her.
It is surely true that, in the Israelite economy outlined in the Mosaic code, and even more in the Christian relationships enjoined in the New Testament, the role of the woman is eminently conducive to her highest happiness and fulfillment … In nominally Christian countries, of course, and even in many Christian homes and churches, the proper roles of husband and wife have often been distorted in one direction or another. This can best be corrected by simple obedience to God’s revealed Word on such subjects (see Matthew 19:3-12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-10; Ephesians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 3:11-12; 5:14; Titus 2:4-5; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Peter 3:1-7, etc.). Morris, pages 122-124
Taylor has a more modern take.
The ideal state is for man and woman to be co-heirs, co-equals. There is nothing in this passage that prevents us striving for that. Remember, this is a curse, not a command. Over the ages, Christians have misinterpreted this verse as declaring the rightness of women’s inferiority to men. In fact, the opposite is being stated. God is saying that there will be natural tendency for men to rule over women, but that in fact this is not how matters were intended to be. … The curse merely explains that something went very wrong to cause the world to be unequal. — Taylor, pages 111-112
Wechsler, as always, digs deeper and finds a more satisfying take.
As God moves back up the chain of responsibility that was shamefully “up-ended” by Adam and Eve, God shifts from pronouncing judgment to the issuing of chastisement—which latter is always motivated by love and intended for improvement (CF. Psalm 119:75; Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6). His chastisement of the woman consists of two parts: the first is that He would “greatly multiply” her pain in childbirth, the ongoing reality of which is abundantly evident. Noteworthy, however, is God’s use of the expression “greatly multiply,” which implies that there was intended to be a certain degree of “pain” even in the ideal (i.e., pre-Fall) state! … Pain, which is in essence simply “an unpleasant sensation” serves a quite positive purpose, and one for which it need not be of an intense kind—to wit, it tells us when we have “pushed” our bodies too far or applied them beyond what they were meant to do or bear. With respect to childbirth in particular, pain serves the purpose of informing the mother that the baby is coming, for which process she must be physically prepared and able to adjust her body as necessary.
The second part of the woman’s chastisement is that her “desire shall be for” her husband—the “desire” here being not the emotional desire that was unquestionably present in their pre-Fall relationship, but rather the psychological desire to dominate and control her husband. This this is so is clear from (1) the contrast with the following clause, “but he shall rule over you”—which, it must be stressed, is not intended as God’s “ideal correction” to the woman’s desire for masterly, but is in fact also part of God’s chastisement, according to which the man will likewise seek to exercise mastery and control over the woman (the ideal being that they were to rule together, with final authority and responsibility resting with the man; and (2) the word here used for “desire” is used again in the very next chapter (the only other occurrence of this word in the Pentateuch!) where it is again followed by a contrastive clause and paralleled by the same verbal root for “rule” as in 3:16—i.e., God’s warning to Cain (4:7): “[sin’s] desire is for you, but you must master it.” Such parallels are clearly intentional, and hence intended to be similarly understood—especially given the larger structural and thematic-theological parallels between God’s response to the sin of Adam and Eve in chapter three and that of their firstborn son Cain in chapter four. — Wechsler, pages 107-109
What to make of all this. That God wills that husbands be the head of their household is irrefutable. That God sees men and women as equals, but with different roles, is also irrefutable. Taylor’s take conveniently ignores all the verses (many of which are included in Morris’s quote above) that make these things clear. His explanation smacks of “explaining away,” not “explaining.” His use of the word “inferior” to describe women’s traditional role is a straw dog argument.
Wechsler’s take works for me. That God intended husbands and wives to be in a mutually-beneficial, loving, respectful partnership (under the headship of a loving husband who always has his wife’s best interest as his goal) is clear. That this isn’t often the case is also clear. That the curse creates a tension in the relationship makes sense.
That the Pauline verses linked above show the best way to reduce that tension also makes sense.