Sitting alongside her grandniece one afternoon, Sarah Hartlzer, or "Aunt Toot" as she is known to family, opened an old saltbox and took out an ornate gold ring, engraved with flowers. Conscious of the baffled look on her grandniece's face, the old Mennonite woman remarked, "We weren't always plain."
Sarah Hartlzer's revelation, included in Julia Kasdorf's essay on Mennonite women's poetry, points to one of the central themes of a new collection of essays entitled Strangers at Home. Although the essays vary widely in their focus, most emphasize themes immediately familiar to historians of women—the centrality of women in community and religious life, the constructed nature of gender, the non-linear pattern of tradition, and the different ways women and men interpret gender. Through essays that examine Anabaptist communities since the sixteenth century, the contributors reconstruct the evolution of Anabaptist cultural tradition, particularly as it has impacted the lives of women. In three separate sections, Strangers at Home suggests that Anabaptist women have acted and been acted upon to secure community identity, maintain a sense of "otherness" from the outside world, and negotiate a livable existence between pre-industrial and modern society.
In the first section, "Practice Makes Gender," contributors wrestle with the ways their own identities make them outsiders and insiders in Anabaptist communities. Diane Zimmerman Umble, for example, found that her interviewees insisted upon evaluating her "family tree" so they could place this "feminist Mennonite woman scholar" in a context to which they could relate. Umble found her legitimacy among her Mennonite and Amish subjects rested on her fulfillment of traditional gender roles and in her relationship to men. Ironically, at the same time, Umble senses her ethno-religious identity threatens her legitimacy among her non-Anabaptist colleagues, who often assume an incompatibility between "serious" research and religious belief.
While being an "outsider" may create obstacles for a researcher, it can also provide insight. Beth Graybill draws on feminist analysis, particularly the concept of agency, to uncover the complexity of prescriptive dress codes for some Mennonite women. Although the dress code signals women's subordinate status to men, conservative dress also provides the women with a means of witnessing to their faith, a sense of security from the outside world, visible evidence of shared values, and a way to avoid the objectification implicit in contemporary fashion. Similarly, in observing the Old Order River Brethren breadmaking ritual, Margaret Reynolds found that the women who ceremonially make bread in silence cherish the sisterhood the ritual nurtures.
In the second section, "Creating Gendered Community," the contributors focus on Anabaptist women's roles in immigration, community-building, and schisms. Jeni Hiett Umble's essay, for example, suggests that gender shaped the way that sixteenth-century Anabaptist women in Augsburg held meetings and gained converts. In a fascinating essay on immigrant communities in Paraguay, Marlene Epp points to the crucial ways gender constructions shape social perceptions. Mennonite Central Committee considered the predominantly female communities of Volendam and Neuland "weak" precisely because they lacked male heads of household, breadwinners, and religious officials. While poverty and the grueling task of settlement indeed tested them physically and economically, the female immigrants endured the process through backbreaking work, as well as by consciously creating female villages and adapting marital standards to create new family situations. Both essays highlight the ways gender shapes women's activities in their communities and the ways women capitalize upon or adapt gender systems to move forward.
Other scholars in this section examine women's resistance to patriarchy and the impact of shifting gender roles on Anabaptist communities. Taking restrictive dress codes as their focus (as many of the contributors do), these authors note that dress codes frequently serve as a source of conflict. Steven Reschly argues that anxiety about the "flood tide of American individualism" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led male community leaders to tighten dress codes and familial roles for women, establishing what he calls "preservationist patriarchy." Kimberly Schmidt's study of a conservative Mennonite community in the 1930s and 1980s reveals how social anxiety over the Great Depression and Reagan-era farm crises challenged the community. While the economic hardship pushed Mennonite women into the public workforce, the move often led to an abandonment of the traditional cape dress and prayer covering. Women who worked "off-farm" found themselves at the center of a struggle between economic necessity and religious tradition and were often scapegoated as troublemakers. Both essays emphasize how communities invest their cultural identity and security in the plain dress of women.
In the third and perhaps most interesting section, "(Re)creating Gendered Tradition," contributors emphasize the malleable nature of tradition. Royden Loewen's engaging, "Household, Coffee Klatsch, and Office," looks at women's diaries, newsletters, and community histories to trace the evolution of gender roles among Mennonite women in the post-WWII era. Loewen argues that Mennonite women lost authority as communities moved from self-sufficiency in the 1940s to commercial farming in the 1950s. As women's productive roles on the farm diminished, traditional gender roles changed. Where once they emphasized gender mutuality and productivity, Cold War-era Mennonite farmwomen now defined themselves as "housewives" and stressed their "traditional" roles as consumers and caregivers. Economic depression in the 1970s forced many Mennonite women to once again embrace productive roles and turn to wage work. Community histories of the 1970s, though, reveal that women took pride in their professional accomplishments even as they continued to identify closely with their Mennonite communities. Loewen's essay suggests that Anabaptist gender "traditions" have not followed a straight path from orthodox to liberal, or from plain to worldly.
In an equally fine essay, Julia Kasdorf looks at women's poetry to expose the non-linear and contested nature of tradition. By quoting their poetry, Kasdorf allows readers to see Mennonite women not as silent objects upon which communities manifest their anxieties and construct their identities, but as individuals who have been and still are conflicted and decidedly unsilent (at least on the page). These writers struggle with issues common to all women of faith—how to reconcile the individual and community, negotiate the earthly and the spiritual, and acknowledge the constructed nature of tradition and gender without devaluing religious belief.
In a stinging final essay, Jane Marie Pederson finally states what many readers will be longing to read by the end of the book—Anabaptist women have borne the brunt of resistance to "worldliness." As Anabaptist communities worry about the press of the modern world, women find their lives increasingly restricted. Pederson claims that such a trend—the restriction of women's lives as a response to modernism—has "ceased to represent resistance" to the outside world and has, in reality, become a kind of "accommodation to the dominant culture." Like the Victorian Cult of Domesticity, narrowing codes of behavior and dress for Anabaptist women—and masking it as "tradition"—allows Anabaptist communities, particularly men, to assuage the guilt they feel over embracing modern capitalism. Communities use women to maintain visual evidence of their "outsider identity." As Pederson explains, "gender asymmetry" has become the only clear distinction communities have from the "dominant culture."
Pederson's essay is perhaps the most crucial in the collection for it summarizes the themes and, importantly, the shortcomings of the preceding essays. While she acknowledges that women and men often perceive the same gender system differently, Pederson argues that the meaning of these traditions can change. A dress code that once functioned to emphasize unity may decades later simply signify inferiority. Too many of the contributors stretch their analyses in a struggle to find female "agency" amidst increasingly patriarchal Anabaptist communities. For example, Reynolds claims that the River Brethren breadmaking ritual, while authoritarian in nature, is actually a source of power for women. Women, Reynolds argues, "have the literal power to make or break the group by accepting or rejecting social restraints." This sounds good, but do River Brethren women really have a choice? Is it realistic to suppose that the women—many without higher education and paying jobs—have the means to support themselves when faced with the social ostracism that would surely follow a rejection of "traditional" customs and gender roles? River Brethren women likely consent to silently make bread (and buttress patriarchy in the process) because they either agree with the patriarchal social structure or they recognize that rejection of the ritual would result in shunning and economic devastation. As a "tradition" barely a generation old, the breadmaking ritual is a prime example of how many conservative Anabaptist communities attempt to maintain their separation from the world by placing new restrictions on the lives of female members.
Beyond these feminist criticisms, Strangers at Home needs an introduction to Anabaptist anti-modernism and a short discussion of the ideological differences between the Amish, Mennonite, and Quaker traditions in the beginning of the book. Pederson outlines anti-modernism and Barbara Bolz juxtaposes Quaker and Mennonite "silence" in the book's final section, but non-Anabaptist readers need this information sooner.
Generally, however, Strangers at Home is a good read and an important addition to both Anabaptist and feminist historiography. As a Catholic feminist, I found the collection to be a good introduction to Anabaptist history, as well as an excellent source for articles on the nexus between religious belief and public behavior. Moreover, the essays provide further evidence of the diversity of women's experiences, the complexity of community-building, and the centrality of women in history. Finally, the candor with which the contributors address their own commitment to faith and scholarship is a topic today's students rarely tackle. These essays provide valuable insight into the ways one's multiple identities—scholar, (non)believer, rich, poor, middle-class, nomadic, rooted, gay, straight, celibate—leave their mark on the questions we ask, the manner in which we ask them, and the way we respond to the answers
Penelope Adams Moon
Assistant Professor of History