Women without Men is a crucial, groundbreaking book. Any scholar attempting to understand how gender informs Mennonite history, culture, and identity must read this book. This book is also a
must read for scholars of immigration, refugee populations, church history, and even military history. Although Women without Men encompasses many typical topics in Mennonite history, including ethno-religious persecution, war-time experiences, immigration, and building new communities in wilderness areas, Epp’s placement of women’s experiences at the heart of her study challenges mainstream Mennonite history. Her exploration of how women’s wartime and refugee experiences differed from male-centered accounts reveals disturbing gender biases in Mennonite institutions and culture. Of course, we all know that many Mennonite communities and institutions continue to promote male authority. This is not news. Epp’s analysis reveals far deeper attitudes and biases, which are much harder to tease out than are simple examinations of male versus female leadership, for example.
Epp’s research relied on the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization archival collections, local church archives and collections, interviews with survivors and their children, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) documents, letters from refugees and MCC workers, and interviews conducted by historian Cornelius Krahn during the 1950s. Epp’s story starts in the Soviet Union during World War II. Mennonite communities in the Ukraine were devastated during the war. Men were killed or trucked off by the hundreds to prison camps, never to be heard of again. The horrific persecution resulted in communities greatly affected by population disparities between men and women. In many villages only women, small boys, and elderly men were left. Women banded together to support one another, forage for food, work on collectivized farms, share childcare, and ultimately to leave during a Mennonite
Trail of Tears trek into Germany. In Germany, with MCC help, women set up refugee camps and attempted to provide a
normal life for their families in part by conducting religious services. Eventually, many families made their way to Canada or Paraguay and it is here that Epp’s analysis reaches deep into Mennonite practices and attitudes.
In the Paraguayan context, women refugees had precious little support from Mennonite Central Committee, which preferred to support families with males at the head. Since the male head of household was missing, the families who had survived war, famine, rape, death, and harrowing treks out of Europe were considered
weak in MCC correspondence and memorandums. One photo of an elderly woman refugee pictures her beside a mud oven, which she built by hand and from
scratch since bricks were not readily available in the jungle. This woman was weak?
In the Canadian context, women refugees from Russia were morally and religiously suspect. During World War II, women’s survival strategies could include forming affectionate alliances with non-Mennonite men, including Nazi soldiers who shared the German culture and language, and, frankly, had access to food. In addition, since many ministers were missing or dragged off to Siberian work camps, official marriage ceremonies were not performed. Many women never heard from their former Mennonite husbands who were taken away to prison and extermination camps. Should these women not have formed alliances with the few available men, thereby sentencing their children to even more severe hardship? Evidently, many persons in the Canadian churches were uncomfortable with these choices.
Epp carefully places the experiences of this relatively small population of Mennonite women within the broader contexts of war, immigration, and cultural accommodation in new lands. She also carefully places her work within broader scholarly frameworks. Scholars of other immigrant and refugee populations inform her analysis. Epp’s work contributes not only to Mennonite identity and historiography but also to a much larger body of knowledge. Women’s historians, those who study the Soviet Union and World War II, historians of immigrants and refugees, and church historians will all benefit from this work. Epp has entered the dialogue between Mennonite historians and historians of other groups and in so doing has served up a model for future work by Mennonite women’s historians.
While Women without Men demonstrates the value of placing the Mennonite story within a broader framework, the
insider history represented in the book also strengthens her argument. The daughter of a Mennonite historian, one can speculate that Epp most likely grew up with an almost intuitive understanding of the Canadian church. Her in-depth examinations of the Canadian Mennonite church suggest a lengthy involvement and intimate knowledge of Canadian Mennonite cultural, religious, and social practices.
The only suggestion for improvement, should Epp’s book be re-released by the Toronto press, would be to include more quotes from her memory sources and Krahn’s interviews. The interviews provided poignant reading throughout the book and more memory material would enhance the book.
One tantalizing tidbit of information comes to us in the conclusion when Epp writes that family stories of the women without men still inform the identities of their descendants. One wonders how these identities are different from other Mennonites who are farther removed from their immigrant past. Are there identity markers these women and their families share with other World War II refugee populations? Is this the topic of Epp’s next book? Whatever topic she decides to focus on next, by insisting on the inclusion of gender, Epp and other women’s historians are transforming Mennonite understandings of their history, culture, and identity.
Kimberly D. Schmidt
Eastern Mennonite University