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The Radical Shift When Women Lead

So, you want me to explain why I think Hillary Clinton should be president without mentioning her gender. And I get it. I’m not sure why you need me to defend her against someone as unqualified as her opponent, but I do understand the question. I hear you when you say that Hillary’s gender can’t be the sole reason to elect her. I didn’t want Carly Fiorina to be president. Her vision for our country was wholly at odds with mine, and her gender didn’t outweigh that. Arguing that we should not elect our next president solely on the basis of gender is a totally understandable argument.

However, taking gender out of this electoral equation ignores an important fact: there is value in having a woman occupy the highest office in America. I have seen firsthand the radical change that a community undergoes when a woman steps into a traditionally male place of leadership, and the presidency is no different.

In synagogues, there is often a gender-based default when it comes to how people spend their time. Men, for the most part, are in the sanctuary. Women often are too. That is, until a child needs help in the bathroom, or a group of kids gets into a fight that needs breaking up. Then a woman will step out to take care of it. These are things that fall under the category of “nurture,” a role women have occupied for centuries.

Traditionally, this structure was modeled by the rabbi and his family. Of course, the rabbi of a congregation can’t just step out of the service when a child needs help. That wouldn’t make any sense. So, the rabbi’s wife steps out. For most of Jewish history, rabbis were men so this gendered dynamic has been difficult to shake.

I imagine the conversations that sought to discredit the original female rabbinate sounded a lot like the outdated expectations that are used to question and invalidate female political leadership: Women not emotionally stable enough to be leaders; women just don’t have the right kind of knowledge; women bleed out of their... wherever. We’ve heard these arguments before, and not shockingly, we’re hearing them again.

If we go to a shul with a female rabbi, several traditional dynamics have changed.  Women get to hear a sermon by a rabbi whose experiences of the world may be closer to their own; women get to hear from a rabbi who, only a generation before, would have had to make childcare her first priority in shul.  For a little girl to look up and see a rabbi that is like her is already a huge blessing, and for a daughter to notice her mother leading a community in prayer is important in a whole other way. These images are impossible to make real without the sacrifice of a partner. Someone has to step out when the baby’s cries become overly disruptive or to help set up kiddush when the congregation is in need of a couple hands. When a woman takes on a leadership role and her partner is willing to take on the caregiver role, men begin to feel more comfortable doing the same.

Today, when we do step outside of the sanctuary, we see mothers and fathers sacrificing their prayer for another, legitimate, holy act: parenting.

In my limited experience, female rabbis have changed the culture in our communities, and that change has been brought about by these rabbis’ talent, spiritual leadership, and their female-ness. When a position of power has historically belonged exclusively to men, we cannot pretend that having a woman assume that role will not change things. Since our country was founded, we have never had a female president. Women have only been considered full citizens for 96 years. We can’t imagine what these next four years could look like.

If Hillary is elected, young women will see her in the Presidency, and Bill––what will his position be? Traditionally, the first spouse takes on a project which falls under the category of “American family life.”  Laura Bush focused on education, Michelle Obama on childhood nutrition.  Will Bill take on a similar project? If he does, it has the potential to create a radical shakeup in how such projects, and other traditionally feminine work, are perceived. Removing gender from this division of labor leaves more room for choices,  this is a positive for women and for men.

Men and women traditionally have had very different requirements and expectations in Jewish law. In many cases, women on the journey to the rabbinate were up against the intense barriers of halakha and these women in the rabbinate faced formidable challenges. In some denominations, the barriers have been entirely removed. In others, the challenge remains. America––what’s our excuse?

The time has come. Women have been waiting 240 years to be represented in the highest office in the land. It’s 2016. Let’s make it happen. Let’s widen the opportunities possible for men and women everywhere.

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Clinton Family Portrait
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Clinton family at Hillary's Secretary of State Swearing in, 2008.
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How to cite this page

Fish-Bieler, Hani. "The Radical Shift When Women Lead." 9 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/radical-shift-when-women-lead>.

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