The Highwomen Project Merely Cracks a Mold in Need of Breaking—in the World and in the Church
The Highwomen is the debut project from the country ensemble of Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Brandi Carlile. The album centers women’s stories in all of their complexities, which in the male dominated world of country music is an act of rebellion in itself. But it’s also an act in truth-telling—women are more than mothers and wives (and inspirations for all those country songs about love gone bad). These Highwomen attempt to redesign the role of women in the home, in country music , and in the world. They succeed in telling a fuller story of womanhood, but their redesign falls short of the beautiful and rich story of women told through Scripture.
The Highwomen treatise on womanhood begins with the title track, “Highwomen.” It tells the stories of several women: an immigrant mother fleeing violence in Honduras, a Freedom Rider murdered for fighting segregation, a woman ostracized for being a preacher, and an unorthodox healer hung at Salem for being a witch. Each woman suffers for rebelling against men interested in maintaining more docile and servile roles for the opposite sex. Such women have been silenced, but they never disappear because in every generation from the 1600s to civil rights there have always been women who find themselves on the opposite side of polite society. As Brandi Carlile belts out the in the final stanzas, these “daughters of the silent generation” will return “again and again.”The church should be a “crowded table” with a place by the fire for every woman—white, black, and brown alike—where she isn’t crammed into a narrow definition of womanhood and femininity.
In another song titled “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” the women sing honestly about needing a break from motherhood and being more than just someone’s mother. On “Redesigning Women,” they sing about running the world, while feeding babies, changing hair color, and buying shoes. Both songs are intended to be more honest portrayals of what it means to be a woman—the exhaustion of child-rearing, the power wielded beyond the walls of home, and the challenges of balancing it all. The Highwomen want to redesign our thinking about womanhood.
But that’s easier said than done.
The album intends to tell those stories in a way that is unique and breaks the mold women are often pressed into. And often succeeds. But the story told is still incomplete, as most of the stories in these songs involve women who are wives or mothers seeking to move beyond those roles. While The Highwomen takes a step outside of the box, its vision of rebellious womanhood is still quite limited. These stories of women are only written by white women, still treat men as adversaries, and still define women primarily as mothers and wives,.
While the Highwomen ensemble includes Yola, an African American rising star in country music, “Highwomen,” the song, was written by two white women and one white man. Additionally, the lyrics include the story of a Honduran mother fleeing violence for the United States, which is sung by Brandi Carlile, a white woman. Defining heaven as a “honky tonk” sets up heaven as a place that would likely be uncomfortable and unwelcoming to many women of color. So while it is laudatory that the Highwomen attempted to include some of the stories of women of color, the power is still in the hands of white women. Women of color can and want to tell their own stories, but often aren’t given the space or platform. Peruse the shelves of your local Christian bookstore or scan Christian living list via Amazon and one will find very few women of color among their authors. The space must be made for women of color to tell their own stories and The Highwomen still centers the voices and experiences of white women.
In addition to the mold shaped only for white women, the album also highlights a narrow relationship between men and women. The women envisioned by The Highwomen are rebels, punished by men for their refusal to conform. But, God’s design for human flourishing does not mean men and women should operate as adversaries but as “necessary allies,” a phrase from Aimee Byrd’s No Little Women. Byrd quotes John Mckinley who defines ezer
“as necessary ally, meaning the issue between men and women is neither equality or subordination, but distinction and relatedness… just as God’s relatedness to Israel [is] the necessary support for survival and military perils. The woman is the ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or thrive.”
Neither misogyny, the contempt of women, nor patriarchy, a system where men hold all the power and women are excluded, are a part of God’s design for humanity—but neither is enmity between the sexes.
A better, truer version of what it means to be a woman can be found in the Bible, and despite the church’s odd tendency to present the same narrow vision of womanhood offered by society, the fact remains that the stories of Jael and Priscilla remain a part of the canon. The problem is not with the source material, but with a church that presents a sanitized (and skewed) version of what it means to be a biblical woman.
The Proverbs 31 woman is exalted because her husband and children praise her at the gate, but not for her obvious leadership and entrepreneurial abilities. The definition of a Proverbs 31 woman has been so twisted that even the mythical version would not qualify in our churches by most modern standards, because she is too bossy, works outside the home, and is “too political” in her advocacy for the poor and needy. The watered-down gospel presented most Sundays suggests that Jesus cannot bear the weight of our messy stories. The Bible tells us about the woman at the well with her many lovers or the woman with the issue of blood, but when those flesh-and-blood women show up in our pews, they are more likely to be whispered about and ostracized than welcomed and celebrated. The Lydias in our midst are more likely to be silenced and have their gifts diminished than to be sent out to convert their households.
Limiting women to the roles of wife and mother does not just hurt single or career women; it hurts the entire body of Christ. Wherever women cannot live fully into who God is calling them to be, wherever he’s call them—boardroom meetings or bath times, classrooms or apartments—the entire body of Christ suffers. According to 1 Corinthians 12, a critical piece of the puzzle is missing whenever women hoard, hide, or hold back their gifts. If Shiphrah and Puah had not feared God more than Pharaoh, would Miriam have a basket to follow? Would Timothy have been prepared for the pastorate without both Paul’s mentorship and the faith he had learned at the knee of his mother, Lois, and grandmother, Eunice? What would the Civil Rights Movement have been without Fannie Lou Hamer or Diane Nash or Jo Ann Robinson? What Chinese pastor is leading worship in a house church because Lottie Moon first shared the gospel with his family?
The Highwomen on “Crowded Table” sing about making space for everyone at the table. The church should be a “crowded table” with a place by the fire for every woman—white, black, and brown alike—where she isn’t crammed into a narrow definition of womanhood and femininity. The CEOs and the homemakers—“those women who work hard in the Lord”—should be commended just as Paul commended Tryphena and Tryphosa. They should have a place in our churches where they can be fully welcomed to use their gifts for teaching, scrapbooking, and accounting in service to the body of Christ and to the glory of God.
There is no need to “redesign” the role of women according to Scripture; just for the church to fully live into God’s design through the testimonies of Deborah, Jael, Huldah, Miriam, Salome, and Mary Magdalene. The Highwomen want women to break the mold, but their new mold is not the freedom for all women as it hopes to be. Only Scripture offers a vision for the flourishing of women that shatters our societal molds—if only the church would embrace it.