by Elaine Sommers Rich
Strangers At Home, Amish and Mennonite Women in History.
Edited by Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, Steven
D. Reschly, Johns Hopkins University Press. 2002. Pp.398. $39.95.
This collection of fifteen scholarly essays about Amish and
Mennonite women in history grew out of the historic "The
Quiet in the Land" conference at Millersville University,
June 1995. That conference broke new ground. A whole generation
of academically trained young women presented the results of
their research, much of it for doctoral dissertations. That conference
could not have taken place in 1950. The thesis of the book is
that ideas about gender, often changing, have strongly shaped
the development of Mennonite communities down through the centuries.
Part I, entitled "Practice Makes Gender," examines
the way cultural perceptions influence history. Hasia Diner writes
of how her position as an insider helped in her study of Orthodox
Jews, even as her position of outsider gave her certain advantages
in research about immigrant Irish communities. This section also
contains ethnographic studies of Old Order Amish (Diane Zimmerman
Umble), of eastern Pennsylvania plain dress for women (Beth E.
Graybill), of a new religious ritual of breadmaking at communion
time among Old Order River Brethren (Margaret C. Reynolds), and
of Lancaster County Amish women and the government during the
New Deal (Katherine Jellison). Part 2 looks at how views of gender
shaped the culture of five different Anabaptist communities in
the past: (1) Augsburg in the 16th century (Jeni Hiatt Umble),
(2) Paraguay in the 1920s (Marlene Epp), (3) Johnson County,
Iowa, in the 1960s (Steven D. Reschly), (4) the Hopi pueblos
in Arizona, 1893-1910, as impacted by Martha Moser Voth (Cathy
Ann Trotta), and conservative Mennonites in Croghan, New York,
post-World War II (Kimberly D. Schmidt). Part 3, "(Re)creating
Gendered Tradition" looks at how gender roles are continuously
changing. Royden K. Loewen's study of farm women in Meade, Kansas
shows how they changed in the 1950s from being co-producers with
their husbands to being economic consumers. Barbara Bolz contrasts
Quaker and Mennonite women's use of silence. Julia Kasdorf notes
the difference between official views of "plainness"
and the historical reality. Perhaps the most provocative essay
in the volume is the last, Jane Marie Pederson's about contemporary
Anabaptist women and antimodernism. What happens when women resist
the Ordnung? Has the embrace of evangelicalism enabled some groups
to feel that they are keeping their core values while at the
same time subordinating women? She notes that among the Old Order
River Brethren the "only distinct markers of group identity
and distance from the dominant culture are rooted in a highly
self-conscious commitment to maintaining a traditional gender
asymmetry. . . .Only the rejection of contemporary fashions for
women sets them apart" (p. 347). Pederson questions the
"consequences of overloading women as the bearers of culture
and morality" (p. 356). She looks forward to a creative
re-casting of gender roles. The twenty pages of works cited indicate
the extensive scholarship of the writers, although I was surprised
that Katie Funk Wiebe's Women among the Brethren (Hillsboro,
1979) was not listed.
Elaine Sommers Rich, Bluffton, Ohio, is well known for
her thoughtful column, "Thinking with . . ." in the
Mennonite Weekly Review.