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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 107–108 

Book Review

Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History

ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 399 pages.

Reviewed by Katie Funk Wiebe

In 1995, the first academic conference on women of Anabaptist traditions took place at Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Quiet in the Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspective,” it had two goals. The first was to uncover the quiet and not-so-quiet histories of women from Mennonite, Amish, and related ethnoreligious groups. Second, its purpose was to foster a dialogue between scholars of Mennonite and mainstream women. This landmark book continues that conversation with the publication of some papers from the conference as well as new ones to show how recent scholars have applied gender to analyze Anabaptist women’s history. It will be of interest to women’s studies scholars as well as to anyone interested in women’s issues.

Schmidt is assistant professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia; Umble is chair and an associate professor of communications at Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania; Reschly is an associate professor of history at Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri.

Nonconformity to the world is one of the key principles of Mennonites. But the duty to resist “worldliness” has fallen unequally on men and women. This group of essays asks the question, What has this protest against worldliness meant to women? And to men?

Most essays deal with the more conservative branches of the Anabaptist community and related groups, such as the Amish, River Brethren, conservative Mennonites, and Quakers, although several deal with the role of Anabaptist women in the sixteenth century and the “weak families” (without men) in the Green Hell of Paraguay. The fifteen essayists recognize that this pressure for women to bear the greatest burden of nonconformity is a complex issue given the wide range of Amish and Mennonite practices with regard to acceptance of technology, urban work, and lifestyles.

Several essays deal with the obvious: women’s dress, “the key visible mark of separation from the wider culture.” Dress includes prayer coverings, aprons, long skirts, and similar customs, most of which emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The conservative clothing showed the outside world that the women accepted {108} the rituals of submission to men and their conviction about distinct and separate male/female roles.

The collision between women’s conservative dress and the outside world occurred when women began working outside the home in factories during World War II and other off-farm employment. To reject the collision seemed to discard the values of humility, submission to men, and commitment to the religious community.

As the conservative communities accepted more modern technology, there often came an intensification of gender prescription, preoccupation with headship, and women’s subjection. Simply stated, modernity threatened male hierarchy. Women’s submission clarified men’s identity.

An interesting chapter describes the rite of public breadmaking, a recently created ritual of the River Brethren, as a symbol of women’s submission. It takes place during a love feast weekend. In a voiceless ritual assigned to them by the men, the women mix, knead, and bake bread for evening communion before the congregation, and then return to the margins of the group at the conclusion.

Poet Julia Kasdorf states that her study of literary works by Anabaptist women suggests that violence exists in the family, both psychological and physical. Although in Anabaptist men’s relationship to the state, pacifism is frequently named a key principle, nonviolence in family and social relationships is not, adds historian Jane Marie Pederson.

In a summarizing essay on Anabaptist Women and Antimodernism, Pederson ponders what will happen when deeply religious women ask, “How do I distinguish between the ‘traditions of men’ that would enslave me and the voice of God which frees me?” Will a new culture of protest not soon follow?

Katie Funk Wiebe
Professor Emerita of Tabor College
Wichita, Kansas

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