Mothering Mennonite — edited by Rachel Epp Buller and Kerry FastMothering Mennonite
edited by Rachel Epp Buller and Kerry Fast
Demeter Press

My grandmother washed the windows of her home every Saturday. Money earned from her elaborate wedding cakes, baked in her farmhouse kitchen, bought implements for the tractor and kept the farm solvent during the Depression and World War II. She bore five children and at a recent memorial service, celebrating 105 years of life, was remembered by her children and grandchildren as a productive, energetic, playful, and deeply religious woman. But how, exactly, was she Mennonite? How was she a Mennonite mother? Does the fact that she farmed, raised children, and lived her entire life in a Russian Mennonite community in south-central Kansas automatically qualify her as a member of the Mennonite Mothering club? How was she different from her non-Mennonite farm women neighbors? What distinguished her life, decisions, and mothering practices as particularly or peculiarly Mennonite?

As a Mennonite minister’s wife, my mother has a reputation in several Mennonite communities as a hostess par excellence. She is also known for her seemingly endless support of my father’s career and the churches they served, her spotless home, and her wise counsel as a family and marriage therapist. Does the fact that her Mennonite ancestry extends back generations and that she has served the church in various capacities generously and without complaint for her entire adult life qualify her as a Mennonite mother?

It is safe to bet that the definition of an ideal Mennonite mother for most of Mennonite history was bounded within the life parameters of these two women: It involved reproductive capabilities, domesticity, and an unwavering and unquestioning commitment to the church and broader ethno-religious Mennonite community. For Mennonites, motherhood has been considered primarily a biological process associated with child bearing and rearing, what women’s historians have termed reproductive work. By raising children within the church my grandmother and mother certainly qualified as Mennonite mothers.

Mothering Mennonite challenges these traditional notions and takes being a mother out of the realm of biological destiny and into the realm of social construct. In the book, being a mother is not just defined in traditional heteronormative and biological ways. The term is broadened and embraces new social, cultural, and political frontiers. One does not necessarily need to have experienced pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing in order to be a Mennonite mother. The book’s diversity of approaches to the topic exemplifies the newness of the field and the very fluid nature of the topic.

Mainstream histories and explanations of Mennonites are still limited by patriarchal perspectives, even after forty years of woman-specific research and publications. Early multi-biographies, the Stories Of books by Mary Lou Cummings, Ruth Unrau and Elaine Sommers Rich’s Mennonite Women, opened the door for an inclusion of women in church history, if not a gendered interpretation of Mennonite history. Subsequent authors valued the merits of gender as a category of analysis and unpacked women’s experience on the mission field, in churches, as farmwomen, privately in families and politically as nonviolent conscientious objectors. In spite of these efforts, women are still routinely overlooked in too many accounts. As Marlene Epp has observed, Mennonite women exist in a low-lying fog, their lives obscured.

Mothering Mennonite marries these two previous pushes at female inclusivity. Each chapter in Mothering Mennonite is devoted in one way or another to specific women. In this way, the chapters are akin to the efforts of the earliest authors such as Cummings, Unrau and Rich. Many of the authors in this volume celebrate traditional Mennonite mothers. In these accounts, when compared to mainstream American culture, Mennonite women appear as primarily domestic and thrifty, as exemplified in tattered More with Less cookbooks, large gardens, and hanging laundry. These women were also typically silent in the church.

However, editors Buller and Fast have gone beyond the story-telling and biographical approaches of early authors to include gender theory and assessments of the social constructions and meanings of Mennonite motherhood. They situated their book within the history, literature and anthropology of mothering. This broad approach resulted in many chapters that did not rely on patriarchal definitions of womanhood to assess women’s contributions to their communities and families. This second group of authors questioned traditional constructs. They celebrated the lives of women who dared to challenge, either overtly and verbally or covertly and silently through their life decisions and actions, the traditional constructs that bound female behavior and choices.

The rejection of patriarchal definitions is especially provocative in the discussions and affirmations of domesticity, yet a third approach found in the book. Many of the essays in Mothering Mennonite indicate that, like my grandmother and mother, to be an ideal Mennonite mother, a woman must practically attain the status of a domestic goddess. These women, the mothers and grandmothers of many of book’s authors, are known, lauded and remembered for their cooking, cleaning, childbearing and raising. However, in a neat, even ironic twist, instead of being marginalized by their domestic work, as has so often been the case, some women in Mothering Mennonite achieve a central place in their families and communities. Their physical labor very tangibly recreated the ethno-religious Mennonite communities in which they lived.

One author, Tracey Leigh Dowdeswell, asserts that giving up domesticity as a key definer of motherhood, as assimilated Mennonites have apparently done, has devalued women’s place in the community. She argues that in the place of community mothering, wherein Mennonite mothers aspire to community ideals, scientific practices and spaces have invaded Mennonite culture. Mennonite women do not mother as distinctively, or effectively as they once did. Dowdeswell writes, While some Mennonite mothers have now found means of empowerment outside the home, scientific motherhood has caused a concomitant loss of women’s status within their domestic lives, one that may not have yet been fully regained. This assertion, that domesticity can be empowering for women in select ethno-religious communities challenges mainstream women’s history. The cautionary note one must add is that in order for women to be empowered in such a way, the home must be the central location of power within that select group. Can one seek empowerment and find status in devalued loci? Likely not.

The book is divided into four parts: Picturing Mothers and Daughters, Mothering Across Generations, Challenging Mennonite Motherhood and Mothering in and Around Culture(s). The final section in particular makes the case that mothering need not be defined exclusively within realm of reproductive process.

Motherhood represented in this volume, especially in the fourth section, contributed to Mennonite communities in non-traditional ways, often pushing at the Mennonite community’s boundaries. These women were barely able or unable to contain themselves within structures and strictures of the community. They often heralded the way for following generations of women. Their boundary pushing paved the way for the next generation of boundary-pushers.

As with so many books published by Mennonite academics, it would be good to see future authors grapple with and respond to the broader fields in history, anthropology and literature. Only a few essays cited scholars outside the Mennonite academy. Most of the scholars cited in footnotes are familiar in Mennonite circles. In this regard, the essays are uneven. While a few of the authors cite those outside the Mennonite academy and struggle with the insights of non-Mennonite scholars, (for lack of a better term) some of the essays seemed self-serving, both to the author and to the Mennonite community. These authors seemed to be speaking solely to other Mennonites and not to scholars who might share their concerns or agenda, albeit for other groups of women.

Ultimately, however, the book’s argument, that to be a Mennonite mother is to be a transmitter of culture and religion, is a significant contribution to our understanding of mothering. Mothers are the reproducers not only of family but also of heritage, cultural understanding, religious commitment, and community longevity. Yes, some women are defined primarily by their abilities to biologically reproduce the family. Their work as wives, mothers, cooks, and hostesses continue to sustain their/our people. However, more recently women as historians, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians and storytellers have entered the streams of dialogue that reproduce community values. The answer this reader gleaned from the volume is that to qualify as a Mennonite mother, she must be committed to sustaining and reproducing the Mennonite church and community in which she lives. (If mothering is a social construct that embraces many forms of reproduction, than perhaps she is not inclusive enough—but let’s save that for another book). As such, she maintains her central place as a transmitter, an entangler and un-entangler of the both twisted and twining threads that make up Mennonite culture and religion.