Bertha and Olga were fighting….Again. Not surprisingly, the fight was over money, specifically who would pay for “Papa’s” funeral. “Papa” was Rodolphe Petter, Bertha’s husband and Olga’s father. Bertha was Petter’s second wife and stepmother or “Mama” to his two children, Olga and a son, Valdo. It was 1947 and Papa had recently passed away.
OLGA: “Dear Mama:- …. I must confess I did not even like Papa’s picture in the back of the pulpit. You know we criticize the [C]atholics for putting up pictures of Jesus[‘s] mother…. As for the tombstone, that is entirely up to you. You know I have paid the major funeral expense…”
BERTHA: “Not True!”2
OLGA: “…I have paid the major funeral expense which came to a great deal….I cannot go in this further expense….Love and kisses, your daughter Olga.”3
The matter was not resolved to Bertha’s satisfaction for in 1950, three years after the above exchange, Bertha wrote:
BERTHA: “Dear Olga: Your letter of August 27, 1949 is still before me. It was revealing. It grieved me deeply. I have taken plenty of time to consider its contents.
You know very well that in any right marital relation, the wife is her husband’s first confidante. Where that is not the case, you discover the very root of much bitterness and misery…
Under such circumstances, I feel absolutely no binding power on any promises made to others….I still expect you to take care of the expenses with regard to the tombstone and funeral….I enclose a second copy of that bill.”4
This last point about the tombstone was also a topic of ongoing dispute as Olga had written in 1947:
OLGA: “….tombstones are not used in the larger cemeteries anymore…the marker which was there was entirely suitable I thot. Of course these people will now come and talk you into something, for you told them you were interested….Love and kisses, your daughter Olga.”5
The last word we have on this issue is penned by Bertha, this time in 1956, nine years after her husband’s death:
BERTHA: “Dear Olga and Peter…. I do not think that I should have paid for cemetery cost when he had definitely provided with you for that. I try to forget the unfairness, but it flares up.”6
The dispute over Papa’s funeral expenses, one of many, lasted almost nine years, 1947-1956. It was not the first time the two women had crossed verbal swords over family finances. In 1942 Olga wrote:
OLGA: “ Dear Mama: I am sorry, Mama, you cannot understand that any money or property that Papa may have accumulated before he married you, by law, goes to his children….The sooner you get over this, Mama, the sooner you will be happy….If we let “God run our business” everything would come out right, and all this fussing is a SIN. I cannot see it any other way. Love and kisses, your daughter, Olga.”7
The above exchanges characterize much of Olga and Bertha’s relationship. They also represent only a small fraction of the letters penned by these two extremely articulate and opinionated women. The letters illustrate the women’s tendencies toward assertiveness, a dominant part of their relationship. However, Bertha and Olga’s letters also document the life of a closely bonded and blended Mennonite family from the early twentieth century through 1960. Their letters also reveal Bertha’s pioneering intellect regarding women’s status as wives and mothers and her initial reluctance to become a wife. They illuminate a family that valued higher education and cultivated a shared love of languages. The longevity of the correspondence, from 1911-1960, testifies to the steadfast commitment of Bertha and Olga, one to the other. Their stepmother-daughter relationship endured over considerable time, distance, and difference of opinion.
Bertha and Olga stand in contrast to many of the women depicted in the Mothering Mennonite essays. Typically, Mennonite women are distinguished for their domestic pursuits, their reproductive work as wives and mothers—that is, cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children--and their submission to church teachings regarding silence. Though they thoroughly identified with the Mennonite church, Bertha and Olga somehow did not succumb to constructions of femininity that emphasized domestic production, reproductive capabilities, and submission of voice and spirit.
Olga, born in 1893, was raised on the Southern and Northern Cheyenne Mennonite mission fields in Oklahoma and Montana. Olga met Bertha when she was three years old, after Bertha came to the Mennonite Mission in 1896. Olga grew up with Bertha as a constant presence. The two women started corresponding after Olga’s birth mother, Marie Gerber Petter, died, in 1910.
When Bertha married Rodolphe and became a stepmother in 1911, she had the opportunity to engage in what at the time was perceived as women’s rightful place in the order of the universe. While married women had few rights, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American motherhood “held a comparatively exalted place.”8 Through the 1950s, motherhood was considered women’s “truest destiny.” The writer of History of Motherhood, 1900 to Present, remarks that until the 1960s, American women married young and usually had children within two years of the marriage. “Well into the 20th century, motherhood remained the most central feature of adult womanhood.”9 However, Bertha, did not find this paradigm convincing. She was not sure that she should marry Rodolphe, as this letter to Olga in 1959 demonstrates:
BERTHA: “Dear Olga:- You said that the marriage of your father and myself was not a happy one. Perhaps I am a better judge of that than you, as you were away at school and afterwards married.
It was only a day or two after we laid your dear mother to rest that your father asked me to be his second wife. I was leaving for a vacation trip[,] which accounted no doubt [for] why he did not wait.
That caused a great struggle for me[,] which I fought out at the Biblical Seminary in New York City that winter. It was not easy for me to give up my life of single blessedness, [author’s emphasis] and be in subjection [author’s emphasis] to another. Our letters flew back and forth as you may remember and it was mid-winter before I was clear that I should become his helper in his great work, and finally gave him a definite answer.”10
Given the times in which she lived, Bertha’s concerns about subjection are understandable. The average life expectancy for women in 1900 was 48.3 years. This was well before the advent of birth control or reproductive rights. 1911 predated the passage of the Suffrage Amendment by eight years and World War I by four years. Although WWI expanded women’s participation in the work force, well into the 1940s, it was illegal in many states for women to work for wages after they were married.
Bertha shattered all these molds. She was not a conformist. Instead, she was a path-breaking firebrand. She was the product of a congregation of Hessian Mennonites in Butler County, Ohio. According to the minister and lay historian of the congregation, Hessian Mennonites placed a high value on “education, progress, and… missions.11 Bertha was likely the first Mennonite woman to earn a college degree. She served both the Southern and Northern Cheyenne tribes as a Mennonite missionary. As the earliest female career missionary she was, in many ways, the First Lady of Mennonite Missions. She arrived at the mission field in Oklahoma Territory soon after graduating from Wittenberg College. She spent her entire adult life—over 60 years--on the mission field. Along the way, she developed a reputation for assertiveness. Her willingness to speak up, what historian John D. Thiesen has called, “her marvelous capacity for hyperbole” was not encouraged among either men or women in the Mennonite church.12 Her outspoken inclinations often resulted in zealous advocacy on behalf of herself, her husband, and particularly on behalf of Cheyenne women. This passionate characteristic solidified her reputation as strong-willed and difficult.13
When she married in 1911, Bertha was thirty-nine and not quite past her fertile years. As far as we know she was never pregnant. It seems from her letters that she had no interest in children. On the contrary, she was quite adamant about her career as a missionary, as this excerpt arguing for ordination demonstrates:
BERTHA: “Of all the missionaries’ wives working among the Cheyennes, I am the only one who has an extensive knowledge of this most difficult language. They have not even a working knowledge for use in everyday conversations. None of them has been active in the public and private teaching as I have for twenty-four years. It is natural that their homes and their children should have their first attention.”14
Her correspondence with the Mission Board and to the women’s missionary societies indicate that she had little tolerance for domestic work.
BERTHA: “Kindly understand me, I am not adverse to housework, to milking, to any kind of dirty work, but the churches cannot possibly expect me to do justice to my training….If they want me to spend most of my time in preparing three meals a day, seeing that the house is clean and that we have clean clothes for our bodies.”15
Instead of endless cleaning, Bertha preached, taught, and wrote. When writing for the Mennonite press in story after story about various Cheyennes, she recounted tales of Cheyenne women who were devout Christians and gracious to a fault, but also fearless and outspoken when circumstances required it. After a hard-won fight for ordination in 1920, Bertha advocated for ordination for Cheyenne women. The most public appeal appeared in The Mennonite in 1947.16 Bertha was impressed by Cheyenne women’s rights, noting in her writing that Cheyenne women owned their own “personal property,” usually in the form of horses.17 At Bertha’s insistence, the Mennonite Mission Board continued to pay her full salary and in her name after she was married.18
Bertha’s perspectives were not gained only after she started working among the Cheyenne. Her positive associations with “single blessedness” were lifelong. In 1896, newly arrived in Oklahoma, Bertha wrote to her cousin, Samuel Kinsinger, a missionary in India:
BERTHA: If the Lord wants me to have a partner in life, He will find one. I am not concerned. Really, I believe a woman missionary has fewer hardships where single than where married. Not so with the man….But for myself in my chosen vocation, I dread the hardships that would await me as a married woman, and truly prefer to [remain] single unless the Lord sees fit otherwise.19
Rodolphe’s proposal represented a rather large, jolting bump in Bertha’s nicely planned existence. After taking a number of months to consider her life as wife to Rodolphe she came to the conclusion that this is what God wanted for her.
In many ways Bertha was Petter’s intellectual equal, and the two embarked on a remarkably modern marriage. Petter referred to his first wife as his Martha, his domestic helper and Bertha as his Mary, his intellectual equal.20 Bertha’s ideas and life experience were ahead of her time. No doubt Olga benefitted from Bertha’s modern views, even as Olga chose a more conventional path for her own life.
Olga, as has been noted above, was the daughter of Rodolphe Petter and his first wife, Marie Gerber Petter. Olga’s parents were Mennonite missionaries from Switzerland and began their service to the Cheyennes in Oklahoma Territory in 1891.21 We can surmise from letters and from education levels attained by Olga’s parents and those of the other missionaries, that Olga received a good education on the mission. Olga was also an accomplished musician. In one of her college letters home to “Mama” (dated 1912 so in this case, Bertha) she noted that when the Professor of Music at Bethel College was unavailable, she was asked to play piano for college dinners and chapel. Perhaps Bertha taught Olga to play piano, as Bertha trained to be a professional pianist before accepting God’s call to become a missionary.
Shortly after Olga graduated from Bethel College, in 1915, she married Peter Schroeder. The Schroeders moved to Washington State where Peter had steady and lucrative work as a banker. In 1916, Rodolphe and Bertha moved to Montana and the two women continued their writing correspondence in the upper Northwestern states.
The letters depict a blended family that shared a love of languages and that ultimately, in spite of all their squabbles, were devoted to each other. Rodolphe wrote that his two children learned German, French, and Cheyenne on the mission station.22 From the casual smatterings of German and French in family letters one can assume Olga had a facility with languages, although she preferred to write in English.23 Olga’s father developed a reputation as an interpreter of Plains Indian culture and a translator of the Cheyenne language. Rodolphe was the first to put the Cheyenne language into written form.
Bertha’s facility in German, English, Latin and Greek, made her an invaluable assistant to Rodolphe. Four years after teaching in the mission school at Cantonment, she was approached by Rodolphe and Marie and asked to assist him. Bertha added Cheyenne to her list of languages and began her work as a translator. In 1915, the 1,226-page Cheyenne-English Dictionary was published, solely under Rodolphe’s name, though it is clear from Rodolphe’s Reminiscences that her contribution was significant.24 Observations made by other missionaries confirm that Bertha and an educated Cheyenne, Harvey Whiteshield, devoted considerable time to Rodolphe’s translating work.25 By 1935, the Petters completed a New Testament, translated from the Greek. This, too, was published under Rodolphe’s name, though one reads in Bertha’s correspondence that she devoted many hours to the translations. This was a scholarly family. Education, writing, working with language and translating was the family business.26
This was also a family with a great, deep love for one other. The two women expressed warmth in their greetings and closings, even when employing terms less than endearing in the body of the letter. Shortly after Bertha made her decision to marry Rodolphe, the two women began corresponding regularly. It is these early letters to “Dear Papa and Mama” and “Dearest Mama” that we see Olga’s genuine affection for her stepmother and the high regard she held for her parents. Surely, the women’s mutual long history and the isolated work on the mission brought them together. After all, Bertha had known Olga for all but the very earliest years of younger woman’s life.
At the very beginning of Bertha’s life with Rodolphe, Olga makes clear her welcome for her new mother, whom she greets in this first excerpt as Meneha, Bertha’s Cheyenne name which means “Doll Woman.”
OLGA: “Dear Meneha….The letter I got from Papa I am so glad for, but I can read in between the lines how very lonesome he is. Oh! I wish the wedding could be right away.
I have something to tell you. The other day one of the girls came into my room and looked at my picture. When she came to yours she said—“is this your mother, she looks like your mother.” I said no, but thot to myself, that she would soon fill up that empty place in my heart.”27
In 1911, after Bertha and Rodolphe were married, Olga wrote using her Father’s pet name, Gallette:28
OLGA: “My dearest Mama:--
First of all I want to greet you as my dear mama and then I want to wish you a happy birthday. May our dear Heavenly Father keep you many years, for us, who need you so much….With love and lots of kisses to you my dear mama and papa. Your Little Galette”
And in January 1912, Olga again reiterates her love for Bertha:
OLGA: “I pray and thank God for all He has given me this past year. Especially for my dear mama, and pray that this may be a blessed year for all of us. Avec beaucoup baisers, Votre Gallete.”29
Olga’s letters demonstrate how fully integrated Bertha was into the Petter family. Olga and Valdo were considered her “children.” Their children were her “grandchildren.” Bertha was never referred to by name or as “stepmother,” only “Mama,” and “Dearest Mama.” Constancy and fidelity to family was valued, no matter how distant or blended. Family relationships were stabilized by the active discipline of letter writing. In one of the most poignant examples of this, we find Bertha in a reflective mood:
BERTHA: I am glad to have sent you the original copy of that beautiful French poem your beloved father wrote to your mother on her birthday so long ago. You will perhaps reread it, as a message from him to you[,] his only a[nd] dearly loved daughter.
I have known you since you were three years old, so you have fitted into my life in a special way for many years, ties that have meant much to me. I feel rich in counting you as daughter, you[r] son as grandson, and his children as great grand children….With love Mama.30
These excerpts provide just a taste of the voluminous correspondence between Bertha and Olga. They also hint at broader questions regarding constructions of gender and motherhood among Mennonites. What are the salient images of motherhood in the Mennonite church? The woman handing her baby over to a passerby as she approaches the stake? Those, like the mother of the martyr Felix Mantz’s, who exhorted their him to stand fast for the faith? The hard-working farmwife? The Kitchen Ladies and quilt makers, those who’ve worked for the church without remuneration, position or much recognition? Mennonite women collectively reflect the values seen in the image of Dirk Willems saving the life of his pursuing jailer. Self-sacrificing women show up again and again in Mennonite memories, stories and scholarly literature, including within the pages of Mothering Mennonite31. These stories and images are true. Mennonite women are valued—but likely not lauded---for their passivity, charity and domesticity. They show their love through domestic pursuits—particularly food. However, many authors in Mothering Mennonite have wrestled with these constructions of Mennonite femininity.
Bertha, a thoroughly Mennonite woman, stands in contrast to these ideals. She was not self-effacing or humble. On the contrary, she was a tireless promoter.
BERTHA: “With his scholarly attainments, which God used, [my husband] has done a tremendous work. He has become a world figure. But were he looking over my shoulder as I write, he would frown on what I have written, for his humility makes him shrink from human praise. Thus I defer, and yet I often say that there is danger too of hiding one’s light under a bushel, instead of placing it high on a stand, so that its rays shine all about.”32
Bertha’s mother-work was not made manifest in meals or laundry. One cannot find a single request from Olga to Bertha for a recipe, (although one of Olga’s letter from Bethel mentions the delicious flavor of a dessert new to her: cherry-moos). We know from Bertha’s letters that she valued cleanliness and was frugal, likely a condition encouraged by the meager salaries of the Mission Board, but this is not where she devoted her efforts.
Bertha’s mothering instincts were expressed on the written page. She was a writer, a storyteller, an arguer and an advocate. Her mothering was not related in any way to a sexual-biological process. It was instead revealed through social engagement as a writer.33
Finally, unlike so many of the gendered constructions we assume of Mennonite women, Bertha and Olga felt free to disagree, to fight it out. Take a stand! Express an opinion! This was valued in the Petter family. As Olga remarked about her sister-in-law in one of her letters:
OLGA: Why does she not express herself? Even when she does not agree?34
Though Bertha and Olga often disagreed, sometimes quite vehemently, the women kept writing. In fact, Bertha, when embarking on a large project, wrote to Olga to secure her approval:
BERTHA: “Dear Olga…I feel an inner urge to write, just as I felt the urge to publish the grammar [Cheyenne-English Dictionary]….I hope you will give me your blessing in this task….I know that in very many things we do not see eye to eye.35
Bertha was a reluctant wife, a feisty but intensely loyal stepmother, and a professional writer. Olga was a true daughter to Bertha. She was not afraid to express herself, even when disagreeing. Bertha and Olga’s gendered constructions and identities were just as Mennonite as those of our zwiebach-baking, conformist grandmothers. Perhaps Mennonite story tellers and historians can mine the oral traditions and dust off the archival sources and begin to interpret the lives of those who even as they chose to fight it out or live on the margins, were just as deeply and passionately committed to the church and those who chose to fit in.