Review of Book on Canadian Mennonite Women’s History

Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History. Studies in Immigration and Culture 2. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-88755-706-4
This book tells the multifaceted history of Mennonite women in Canada by documenting their experiences as migrants, mothers, missionaries, citizens, and workers. Despite the long development of women’s history and feminist theory over the last half century, much of Mennonite history – like much of Canadian and other national histories – continues to be written from a presumably non-gendered but usually male perspective that subsumes women’s stories under men’s “universal” history. Thus, Marlene Epp, a historian at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, who has published several historical studies on Mennonite women in Canada, treads carefully as she attempts to convince her presumably mostly conservative Mennonite readers that a feminist reading of Mennonite history is nothing to be feared.
As a social historian, Epp is interested in the interplay between prescribed and lived roles. She explores Mennonite women’s everyday interpretations of, submissions to, and rejections of predominantly male prescriptions of their roles in the household and family, church, work, and education through a great range of sources, including women’s diaries, fiction, cookbooks, oral histories, and denominational newsletters.
Using a great abundance of ego-documents, ranging from diaries and letters to memoirs and oral histories, Epp surveys the diversity of Mennonite women’s settlement experiences. Whether early nineteenth-century pioneers of late twentieth-century return migrants, Mennonite experiences were similar to those of other immigrants and refugees. At the same time, Mennonite women’s experiences were often significantly different from those of men, being, for example, fully excluded from the decision to migrate in the first place. Although migration became a site on which gender roles became destabilized, more often than not, rather than changed and challenged, they were reinforced and even rigidified. Here, a brief case study may have perhaps shed more light on how exactly gender relations were negotiated in times of insecurity.
Mennonite women’s lives were predominantly shaped by family reality and family ideology. Although Epp claims that “the centrality of family to Mennonite community life offered women a venue in which they had substantial influence,” and that “a woman’s family was thus a source of comfort, enjoyment, and sometimes empowerment,” (61) Epp provides mostly evidence to the contrary, viz that family “could also be limiting and constraining, and indeed a site of fear and danger” (61-62). Most Mennonite women married young and became mothers, often of a dozen or so children. Family size decreased – along with mortality rates and – during the 20th century but lagged behind the Canadian average. Epp details girls’ and women’s experiences from childhood via courtship and wedding to childbirth, the use of midwives, and birth control (or rather, lack thereof). Single women had an even more difficult life. Most common among single women were those who did not marry, whether by choice or not. They found somewhat secure niches in Mennonite society (or outside of it), living together in households of sisters, caring for parents or other kin, choosing careers, and being invited to take on administrative roles in church. But there were always two sides to the coin: “While single women themselves often flourished in their independence, career success, and non-marital relationships, lifelong singleness was historically viewed in mainly disparaging ways” (103). Infertile women and childless couples were often stigmatized. Single mothers and other women who had children outside of marriage were ostracized, humiliated, or even excommunicated (98).
Family relationships were shaped by biblical teachings about women’s duty to submit to and obey her husband. Some women believed that “true liberation is found in voluntary submission to divine authority” (115). Many others, however, “resigned themselves” to the hierarchical order and an unsatisfying marital relationship (114). Strong religious objections kept divorce rates among Mennonites low until the 1980s. At the same time, some Mennonites acknowledged that Mennonite beliefs were “contribute to domestic violence.” It was thus more difficult for Mennonite women and their children to escape “severe corporal punishment towards children, wife-battering, incest, and sexual abuse” (112).
Although church and religion profoundly shaped women’s lives, they were nearly completely shut out of church administration until late into the twentieth century. They could work as minister’s wives, but not as ministers; widows contributed to the church budget, but had no vote and had to learn about church decisions from their sons; with a large influx of Mennonite women after the Second World War, sex-ratios became skewed, leaving a large majority of church members (the women) ruled by a minority (the men). Only mission work allowed women to preach and prophesy, albeit “far from home” (145).
Mennonite beliefs and culture were characterized by the principles of nonresistance (pacifism) and nonconformity (living separate from the secular world). Men and women lived these principles in gendered ways. Epp states that nonconformity to the outside world required a high degree of in-group conformity, and this was based on a double-standard for men and women. Male church leaders sought to display Mennonite nonconformity through women’s dress. Women contested such practices at various points throughout the twentieth century, but through disapproving stares at church and other occasions, women also enforced the rules of women’s expected conduct. While nonresistance was highlighted by men’s refusal of military service, women could live out this central tenet of their religion through relief work, auxiliary services, and even military service as well as new paid employment opportunities at the Canadian home front. Both men and women had to decide how to relate to the political world: would they seek political office? Would they vote? Would they accept state support such as family allowances? Practices ranged widely.
In the arenas of homework and waged labour, Mennonite women largely followed Canadian trends. They were, like all women, caught between their community’s and society’s negative views of women’s, and especially mothers’, employment outside of the home, and financial pressures in times of migration, economic crisis, or personal dire straits. In both arenas, homework and waged labour, women found ways of expressing their creativity. They did so too through other art media such as painting, music, and writing.
Rather than a radical manifesto against Mennonite women’s oppression, Epp’s history is the careful yet effective documentation of Mennonite women’s resistance and submission to as well as creative engagement with complex and often subtle forms of silencing, marginalization, stunting and shunning, abuse and violence. Much of this oppression has been the result of the “Mennonite ethos” that values notions of subservience (being “the quiet in the land”), passive acceptance of pain (“Gelassenheit”, yielding to God’s will), serving others (“discipleship,” following Jesus’s example of bearing the cross), rejecting the material world, and the hegemony of the community (Gemeinschaft).
A clear and fine prose is one of the benefits of the author’s awareness that it is not only her academic peers but also the wider Mennonite community who will read this book. Unlike many other studies in Mennonite history, the book does not only speak to readers interested in Mennonite history. More broadly, this is a history of “religious” women that contributes greatly to the largely ignored social history of religious lives in Canada. A major strength of this survey is the depth of detail that is provided through hundreds of individual life stories, captured in oral history interviews, diaries, memoirs, and other ego-documents, mostly from the Kitchener-Waterloo-south Ontario and Winnipeg-south Manitoba regions. Mennonite Women in Canada will be the standard work on this topic for a while, serve as an important reference work for women’s and religious history, and may become a springboard for further research.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg