When future historians of Mennonites study the historiography
of the 20th century what will they conclude? Of course, this
type of conjecture is impossible to answer but no doubt Rachel
Waltner Goossen's book on women's experiences in Civilian Public
Service will stand out as a fresh and distinctive approach to
the telling of Mennonite history. Goossen's emphasis on the
female story and on social history methodologies is still new
in Mennonite historical circles. She, along with a few other
historians, is just beginning to scratch the surface of Anabaptist
and Mennonite women's history.
Goossen aptly employs social history methodologies. Her use
of interviews, questionnaires, letters, diaries, photographs,
and other archival resources produces a complex and tightly woven
narrative about Mennonite, Quaker, Brethren women and others
who, because of religious beliefs and humanitarian convictions,
objected to World War II.
We learn about Edna Ramseyer, a college professor when World
War II started. She encouraged young women at Goshen College
to train themselves for work at CPS camps. Many such women,
known as C.O. Girls or COGs, completed the training and went
on to work and live in CPS camps.
We also learn about wives and sweethearts of C.O. men. Many
of these women followed their husbands when they were transferred
from camp to camp. Their stories are about providing for and
raising small children on their own while their husbands were
contained in the camp setting. Many women, even those with small
children, had to find waged work because government compensation
for CPS men was greatly reduced from the amount allotted to men
in the armed services. Taking care of children and maintaining
households on negligible incomes were common memories in Goossen's
But Goossen's story is not just about how women contributed
to CPS camps, supported their husbands, sweethearts, and brothers,
and "made do" on limited incomes. Her "cultures
of nonconformity" analysis is interwoven with a gendered
critique of both American culture and church structures. Nonconformist
C.O. women challenged both church and societal prescriptions
about proper feminine behavior.
C.O. women were nonconformists in the larger American culture
because they advocated a pacifist stance instead of wholeheartedly
supporting the war. They were also nonconformists in church circles.
Many C.O. women wanted to substantially contribute to the work
of the church and to CPS camps and yet church administrators
were more interested in employing women to boost the morale of
men in the camps. Their work was not taken seriously by the church.
In terms of training women for work in the camps there was an
emphasis on nursing and nutrition, areas considered suitable
for women. At a time when women were stepping in to fill men's
vacated places on farms and in factories, and as a result truly
redefining women's work, it seems that church leaders were mainly
interested in tapping women's work but only if they remained
safely within a female sphere. World War II did not produce
a Mennonite equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, at least not among
As with many good histories some questions remain unanswered.
Goossen claims that the CPS experience was transformative for
women. We hear from interview material how crucial the experience
was, but it is unclear how being a CPS woman made a long-term
difference. Did the CPS experience produce female leaders in
our church? One wonders, for example, if CPS women were more
likely to pursue work outside the home after the war. How many
of the women that Goossen questioned had professional careers?
Or were CPS women, like the population as a whole, eager to
raise families and become homemakers after the war? This is
not a criticism of the decision to stay at home with small children.
It is simply a question about how far the culture of nonconformity
was carried. It seems that the CPS women's nonconformity did
not include a sustained challenge to gender role expectations.
In a similar vein, Goossen says that the CPS experience caused
women to form lifelong commitments to numerous peace and social
justice movements but few examples of such commitments were offered.
One also wonders about the day to day lives of the women with
small children who had to work outside the home. How did they
manage far away from home communities, without the help of extended
families, and on small incomes? One CPS mother noted how she
set up housekeeping in a "New Hampshire CCC barracks with
snow sifting across our bed during the winter" (p.60). The
culpability of church administrators who expected female support
for CPS men but did not lend aid to CPS wives and children is
mentioned but remains largely unexplored.
Goossen also mentions how female support networks flourished
around many of the camps. Did a women's culture evolve in these
situations? It seems so because often help was found in the
oddest of places. Especially intriguing was the story about
the women who helped each another even when one's husband was
a CPSer and the other's was in the armed services (p. 47). These
practical women set aside ideology in order to help one another.
The hints of more of these stories were tantalizing and perhaps
Goossen has the material and resources to pursue this "women's
culture" topic in more detail. This research agenda and
similar topics will surely be addressed at greater length as
Goossen and others continue to devote themselves to the discovery
and analysis of women in history.
Kimberly D. Schmidt, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History,
Washington Study-Service Year, Eastern Mennonite University
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January 2000