As I settled onto the couch with my girls on Election night, I tried to decide what motherly mask to wear over the mix of fear, dread, and resignation I felt. Hilary Clinton was going to be President, and the only thing less terrible than that was that Donald Trump was not. As a woman with vivid memories of the first Clinton administration during her college days, and now as a mother of three teenaged daughters, there was hardly an axis of my life though which strong objections to a Hilary Clinton presidency did not intersect. But my girls knew little of her history or her platform, and ever since the frat boy–meets-TMZ circus that was the Republican primary debates and Trump’s nomination, we’d kept their media exposure about the election to a minimum.
So I settled for calm ambivalence. We were about to watch the first woman elected President. I held little hope that she’d be close to the best kind of first, any more than I had for her predecessor. But she was going to be the woman who would shatter the hardest and longest-lasting glass ceiling in American history. I wanted to honor the moment, and let that be what my daughters saw.
What they saw instead was Hilary Clinton defeated, Donald Trump elected, and my composure fail me as I wept from equal parts distress and relief. “I’m sorry Donald Trump won,” I said through my tears. “But I’m not sorry that Hilary Clinton lost. America needed the first woman president to be a much better woman than her. Maybe one day, that woman will be one of you.”
The hope that one day one of my daughters could be the President is one that I never thought I would be permitted to express. I was raised in the conservative complementarian branch of Christianity, attending both churches and schools that taught that a woman’s primary, presumptive calling was to marriage and motherhood. I was taught that the guiding principle of my educational and vocational aspirations was not primarily my gifts or interests; it was how my degree would permit me to support myself until I married and stayed home to raise children. My education might be redeemed by enriching my parenting, but aspirations for how it might benefit the world outside my home were discouraged.
I settled on an English degree, believing a foundation in liberal arts would offer the broadest opportunity in both the work world and in the future as a wife and mother. I was right. After I graduated, a series of providences lead me to work as a technical writer for a software company, and then into other roles in marketing and sales. I was surprised by how much I loved the work, and was gratified by the mentoring and encouragement I received, not to mention the generous salary I was earning. But anytime I was on a first date, or just talking about my work with friends at church, I made sure to temper my enthusiasm about my job. In my circles, women who were successful professionally were branded “career women,” suspected of being overly ambitious, and likely unwilling to lay their success aside to be wives and mothers.
Thankfully, several years into my not-a-career career, God crossed my path with that of a Christian co-worker who saw my abilities and interests as a relational asset, not a risk. Still, two years into our marriage, when our first daughter arrived, I submitted my resignation and became a stay at home mother without regret. I had joined the elevated ranks of Christian women who could quantify the cost of their sacrifice to stay home with their children in six-figure salaries and lost opportunity for advancement. It never crossed my mind that my workplace might lose anything with one less Christian woman in it.
Objective data on the movement of professional Christian women like me into and out of the workforce is hard to come by. But the data about women as a whole is notable, particularly when it comes to roles in public service. The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicate that women comprise only 34% of workers in justice, public order, and safety. Prior to the most recent election, only 20% of the seats in both state and national governments belonged to women.
Complementarian Christian logic would argue that civic institutions that are so notably uneven are as they should be. When men lead the way inside them, and woman work outside them by shoring up the home and family, everybody flourishes. But events over the last several years, and this year in particular, suggest otherwise, e.g.:
- The criminal enablement and coverup of serial child abuse at Penn State (edited 2018 – and MSU);
- The suppression of sexual assault reports by city and campus police at Baylor University;
- Judicial underreach by Stanford alumni judge in the sexual assault case against Stanford swimming student Brock Turner
- The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to numerous incidents of police shootings of black men and women, and ensuing civil unrest and violence
- And the Election of 2016, when a man who boasted of his inability to keep his hands off womens’ bodies, will now have his hands on the nation’s nuclear codes.
Plenty of digital ink has been spilled about how Hilary Clinton’s campaign went wrong, as though her loss was simply a matter of tactics, or a fundamental disconnect from key demographics. Far less has been dedicated to how she herself was always the wrong kind of candidate (whether male or female) to defeat Donald Trump, let alone lead a nation with integrity and moral courage. In the aftermath of the election, I found myself asking what might have happened if the woman who ran against Donald Trump had been that different kind of woman I told my girls I hoped for.
I thought about a woman like Deborah.
The book of Judges describes the period after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, moving through continual cycles of capitulation to worship of foreign gods, divine discipline, and then deliverance. During that time, different individuals served as judges over the people, acting as both civil magistrates and military leaders. In Judges 4, we discover that one of those individuals was a woman named Deborah, described not only as a judge, but a prophetess as well. Deborah served as judge during the time when Israel had been sold into the hand of a Canaanite king named Jabin. Judges 4 describes how Deborah commissions an Israelite leader named Barak, in the name of the LORD, to engage Sisera, the wicked and oppressive general of Jabin’s army, in battle. Deborah prophesies that God will deliver Sisera into Barak’s hands, although not through his own efforts, but that of a woman.
In the ensuing battle, Barak’s men slaughter Sisera’s army, and Sisera flees on foot to the tent of Heber the Kenite, who is an ally of King Jabin. When Sisera arrives, Heber’s wife, Jael, receives him with womanly gestures of hospitality – soothing words, a relaxing drink, and a warm, safe place to rest. But when Sisera sinks into an exhausted sleep, one of the most epic plot twists in the entire Old Testament unfolds. Jael walks softly over to the sleeping general, tent peg in one hand and mallet in the other, and literally nails Sisera’s head to the ground. Then she walks out of her tent as Barak runs by, and notes casually that the man he seeks is inside.
Some contemporary Christians may wrestle with what seems to be the presumption of Jael’s actions, not to mention their brutality. But we should note that Deborah does not. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and out of her dual roles as prophetess and judge, Deborah, along with Barak, exposits the reasons behind Jael’s actions and pronounces the verdict over them, not just with words, but with a song. In language that presciently echoes the kind used by our President-elect, Deborah quotes Sisera’s own mother as she waits for her son, who surmises that Sisera and his men are busy collecting their spoils of war, amongst them the wombs of Israelite women. General Sisera is indeed between the feet of a woman, Deborah sings, but for the very last time. In the matter of the God of Israel vs Jael the tent-dweller, Deborah pronounces the verdict, not merely of “Not Guilty”, but “most blessed”.
The common complementarian perspectives I’ve read argue that Deborah served as an exceptional leader for an exceptional need. And yet, if the rhetoric around this election year is an indication, the church in America may be in that exceptional place again. Basic societal constructs like marriage and gender have been upended. A politically inexperienced and morally bankrupt billionaire is now the leader of our nation, and of the free world. The questions of how we as God’s people are to seek the welfare of the city in which we are exiled have never been more important to ask, and the answers will surely be many. Hopefully amongst those answers will be a willingness to consider how we might raise up more Deborahs to serve God’s people, and the nations in which we live, instead of simply acquiescing to more Hilarys and Donalds.