Personal story requested for upcoming book Proclaiming the Good News: Mennonite Women’s Voices 1972-2006; Dorothy Nickel Friesen and Lois Barrett, eds.
Article appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing, self-published by DYN 2020, 206-23
My mother Bessie King Yoder transferred her Kansas roots, a grad of Hesston College, to Iowa in 1931. There she gave public speeches and for over five of ten decades was “in demand” as a Sunday School teacher with adult women. She shared beauty through flower beds, exuded hospitality, and canned vegetables from a huge garden. She “ministered” with my professionally-trained father, meeting the public in contexts of grief. So, when I revised scripture misinterpreted by patriarchal leaders or advocated for women within Mennonite Central Committee, Mother, who feared that we would face flack, advised “Just do it.” Rather than cause conflict with church folk who conserved tradition, judged “all feminists as bra burners,” belittled Title IX let alone history enriched with her-story, her “just do it” avoided anticipating broader change. However, to enable women’s self-growth, pursue “the half that had never yet been told,” or engage fields formerly dominated by men called for collective action. ‘
Mennonite Women for decades served together via more than “sewing circles.” They encouraged each other and wrote books or articles in church journals to convey purpose or mission. They lived out truth as they understood it.
Our grandmothers had pioneered, prayed, made proposals to Conference officials, produced children.
The 1970s combined for me parenting two young daughters, disciplined seminary study including women-themed research, and diverse projects to promote women’s worth in church and society. Some women students at AMBS claimed the term feminist, commended women’s value in scriptures long semi-hidden, and discovered networking. Not to be feared or scorned, feminist means claiming equity for women and men: religious, social, economic. Genesis accounts affirm that created equally in God’s image, women and men together reflect Divine care to all of creation. Together students voiced concern, developed conviction, made choices.
As the representative for Mennonite Church women to Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section for three years, the privilege was mine to help initiate the MCC Women’s Task Force. Exchange with first (1972) Task Force friends (Luann Habegger Martin, Lora Oyer, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, Lois Keeney, and Ted Koontz MCC staff person) shaped my volunteer engagement for decades.2 We determined to prove that justice for women was a peace issue that merited attention among MCC’s broad Mennonite groupings. We wished for Mennonite women to claim their strength. We studied the past to provide future integrity for Christian human relating.
For me, Habegger Martin illustrates best the vision. Her fine skills as organizer and analyzer enabled our team efforts while she managed the MCC Washington D. C. office and studied at American University’s School of International Service. Her monograph titled “Women and Development” followed (MCC 1976). Her “knowing” the capital city enriched a seminar for Task Force friends on the “Family” theme. We more rural participants met several women of Congress and the ‘budding’ theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. In fairness, Habegger Martin elicited perspective, nudged TF members not to “worry about overexposure” through print for feminist causes, and complimented success. Before computers, she linked us through carbon-copied correspondence. She recommended forming an MCC Advisory committee to review employment policies and practice that I helped shape. And Luann shared an insightful report after attending “The People’s Meeting” at the United Nations’ International Women’s Year event in 1975 in Mexico City.
From its beginning, the TF linked personal with broad concerns. What became Women’s Concern “Report” addressed diverse topics. Numerous Mennonite women planned and edited issues; even more found voice through writing articles. All TF members expected to learn about the women’s movement local and global.3 Habegger Martin addressed insight from Latin sisters about broad, male domination within power structures, anti-American feelings, and direct calls for governments to stop spending money on weapons of death. We in turn inquired into male control within Mennonite colleges and church patterns. Since all ‘heads’ of MC boards were men, we asked questions. Why were women not perceived as leaders? How might we foster change for such imbalance of duty? Integral for all major religions, one IWY speaker had declared: “The liberation of women is meaningless unless it releases a dynamic group of women committed to peace.” An authentic expression of Luann’s life followed her death: her family gave MCC a million dollars for maternal and child causes with which she had worked in African locations. What a fine feminist!
Writing dispersed TF vision; research into church journals followed. Seminary student Barry Schmell noted 116 articles about women in The Mennonite between 1955-1981. Priscilla Stuckey-Kauffman noted 500-plus articles about women in Christian Living, Mennonite Community, Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sword and Trumpet, Christian Monitor, and Mennonite Life over several decades. I reported data from Gospel Herald at a Women in Ministry Conference.4 Three issues of August 1973 GH printed my series “Women: in God’s Plan and Man’s World.” That content followed research for the seminary course “Hebrew Life and Culture” for which I charted 175 references to women in Deuteronomy through II Kings texts. Research matters, but tradition lingers: editors misprinted the third article’s title: “Freedom, Hope, Independence” instead of “. . . Interdependence.”
During February-March 1973 the Canadian Mennonite Reporter carried a series of writers on “The role of women.” (Note: women “play roles”; men perform professions.) In public, women shared their experience, a key feature of feminism. Short statements prompted women readers to credit their own experience, men readers to affirm (or begrudge?) women’s power. Ruth Klaassen carefully assessed women’s liberation. She endorsed dialogue: open sharing, giving and receiving each person’s gifts, encouraged Mennonite women to “keep up the prime standard set by Anabaptist sisters in the faith,” with consequences. Mary Regehr Dueck noted being addressed as “Ms,” church leader disapproval of change, and church suppression results. Patty Shelly boldly stated that prejudice against women reflects “the whole way we see reality: God and ourselves.” She noted how language reflects beliefs and attitudes. Lois Barrett Janzen summarized activities and views related to seminary women at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Elkhart, IN—study groups, being pressured when addressing theology. Whether self-defined feminists or not, women sought change for more just human relating.
Women’s public “voice” often follows private, small group actions. “Women’s process” appears here. Invited, I sent seven pages of comments regarding a proposed document for the MC General Assembly 1973, titled “Women in the Church.” After the revised Workbook went to delegates (22 women, 255 men), I risked sending a three-page memo of “personal conviction” to all delegates whom I knew about scriptures, resources, and questions like ‘Why primarily men decide about women.’ I felt driven to share emerging vision; learning prompts duty. So also, invited by General Secretary Paul Kraybill in spring ‘75, Beulah Kauffman, Arlene Mark, Alice Roth, and I sent a memo to MC General Board members and a Study Group on Biblical Interpretation, welcoming genuine support for women in discussions expected at the July ’75 Assembly.5 We could not inhibit momentum.
To study original, biblical Hebrew and Greek has affects. Through disciplined effort I claimed texts for myself with new depth, gained tools for choosing among interpretations. No longer relying on traditional views, the life-long task became paying due attention to time and cultural distinctives of original speakers and hearers. All translation and interpretation reflect someone’s bias combined with facts. Point of view—what matters or is valued—shapes decisions about content. Research for the 1973 AMBS course “Women in Church and Society” led me to write a major paper on The Woman’s Bible compiled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-writers. Printed in the late nineteenth century, what about their century shaped writers’ views of a soul’s existence, clerical influence, or concept of God? While Stanton charged the Bible for degradation of women, my bias contends that translators, interpreters, and preachers (mostly men) often “propagate distorted teaching of biblical materials about women for reasons of self-defense or inadequate knowledge.”6
The Women’s Bible conveys how women’s experience can enrich insight into that sacred text. Reading about preacher Anna Howard Shaw (known then as the “greatest woman speaker”), I received her truth: “The great defect in the religious teaching to and accepted by women is the dogma that self-effacement and excessive humility were ideal feminine virtues.”7 During the 1840s Julia Smith translated the Bible five times, twice each from Greek and Hebrew and once from Latin.8 Lee Anna Starr’s The Bible Status of Woman9 written thirty years after Stanton added needed facts. Such mentors “call” me to examine reasons for current attitudes about women as inferior. I bristle over biased translations or preaching that overlooks women’s strengths. Therefore, I “respectfully took issue, took feminist risk” with John Howard Yoder’s “Revolutionary Subordination” chapter in The Politics of Jesus (1972). Aware that Yoder would evaluate my paper, I faulted his categories of sub and super people. Those designations harm; they validate difference in worth. I asked: When will the ‘super’ category (husbands) be revolutionary, called to “forsake and renounce all domineering use of status like a ‘super’ mentality?”
Further motivation followed the 1974 MCC Task Force’s packet of articles titled “Persons Becoming.” There, 26 Mennonite and three non-Menno scholars’ views appeared. Themes reflect concerns: “Introduction (Feminism and Women’s Liberation explained by Gayle Gerber Koontz and Dorothy Nickel Friesen), The Bible and Women, The Church and Women, Changing Male-Female Relationships, and (briefly) ‘Minorities Within a ‘Minority.’” Young voices discussed history, language, and peace; several couples shared writing; 1800 copies sold at $1.50. We were “making a difference.”
Resulting from a 1974 Consultation planned by General Conference Mennonite women held at AMBS, Herta Funk was hired half time to engage women’s issues within the GC Commission on Education. ‘If only my MC group had such vision,’ I mused! Intuition and shrewdness enabled her writing efforts: a brief history of women’s public tasks with Mennonite World Conference, “Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes in the Foundation Series” (Sunday School curriculum), and “Study Guide on Women: Part I Women in the Bible and Early Anabaptism, Part II Lesson Helps for All We’re Meant to Be.”10 Funk’s visits to GC women’s groups linked with her newssheets “Accent on Women.” A resource listing that she compiled ably reviewed 22 books and several films. Her speech to Church of the Brethren women—”Mennonite and Feminist: The Ongoing Struggle”—included responses that she gathered from 27 of us to questions about gains, struggles, and frontiers. Funk learned further with six thousand women and men from 81 countries at the International Women’s Year Tribune in Mexico City.
Whether for seminary courses or personal purpose, my typewriter flourished; research stimulates me. For a 1974 AMBS New Testament course taught by Josephine Ford, a Catholic, Notre Dame University woman professor, the lengthy John 4 text about a Samaritan woman’s theological encounter with Jesus drew my respect. That study in turn evolved into my writing a one-act play titled “. . . Talking with a woman. . . Can this be the Christ?” Worshippers saw a memorized production of it for a College Mennonite Church (Goshen) Sunday morning service. Personally satisfying: opportunity to redeem scriptural truth, actors’ enthusiasm for new insight into: Samaritan/Jewish conflict explained by Samaritan village women; the key woman’s strength conversing with a caring Jewish teacher; knowing that the woman’s multiple marriages could have been justified, partly due to cultural negation of women; Jesus’ straightforward “I am He!” response to her asking if he was “the Taheb.” (Samaritan term for the one awaited).11
For some Mennonite women, the 1970s proved refreshing; others among us clearly resisted change. With both MCC leadership and the Elkhart seminary broader than one Mennonite confession, we began to shape “a group cause.” We discovered networking, testing ideas with each other and trusting common concern for defining peace with justice. In the process we explored new vision of Divine intent for personal worth with duty to confront the harm of patriarchy in home, church, or society. We started believing in feminist thought, grateful for wise mentors. We claimed the usefulness of expressing voice through print.
Task Force exchange12 toward another packet of articles led instead to publication in 1980 of the 150-page book Which Way Women? Invited also to edit this collection, I gratefully included 42 Mennonite writers plus several journal reprints. Regrets from invited African-American, Hispanic and North American Indian writers reflect ongoing effort to broaden the base of voices plus minority caution toward feminism. To expose Mennonites to broader influence, WWW? content organized around International Women’s Decade, 1976-85 themes13: “Equality, Development, and Peace.” Those themes accentuate Mennonite, feminist, and global agenda. “WWW? offers opportunity to communicate, cooperate, even compensate” my Introduction states.14 Ever-open to more women, the book’s vision stressed information; awareness of need for distinct, feminist leadership training; gratitude for our global heritage (people of 48 nations had attended the 1978 Mennonite World Conference in Kansas); and further commitment as capable women to God, neighbor, and family.
Numerous letters about WWW? reflect energizing power. “Thank you for the LOVE of it. . . What a wonderful book! . . . When I finished WWW? I felt very proud to be a Mennonite woman. . . This is the best resource on women, women’s issues and responsibilities, that I’ve ever seen. . . I took time to read cover-to-cover the book. As a fifty-year-old member of the Franconia Conference (PA), I join with you (in centers of Mennonite academia) in the movement toward justice for all children of God.” . . . Thirty college students who read WWW? for a course signed a note of thanks for it. . . . Even my 75-year-old father’s only regret after reading the entire book was “size of print”! But an MC Lancaster Conference bishop wrote of “concern, distress, and amazement after browsing WWW?”: “The book betrays trust in MCC . . . is much in harmony with the political and ecclesiastical left. . . a writer casts doubt on the veracity of Scripture.” Aware that change triggers resistance, four of us wrote sensitive responses; no further reply followed.
The 1981 Bowling Green MC Assembly warrants in-depth comment. Discussion during 1970s Assemblies prompted awareness of issues; a ‘call’ for more direct action graced ‘81. Women, true with efforts that change slowly, felt motivated to affect it. A dozen Goshen-Elkhart women met to plan. True to feminist networking, each introduced herself before voicing her response to the “Leadership and Authority in the Life of the Church” document scheduled for delegate, open-mic discussion. Together we revealed women’s experience, clarified issues, shared silence, outlined tasks for Bowling Green, and nurtured desired outcomes. An Ad Hoc group of nine signed a 2-page memo to MC delegates and General Board members; Assembly leaders received forty-two unsolicited memos. At the Assembly, via pink sheets of paper alongside newsprint posted inside restroom stall doors in all dorms where women lodged, women were invited to a meeting the first morning, 7-8 a.m. “For women only,” we expected to discuss “women in church leadership,” a segment of the 45-page study. Curious men who justified their “need to report the Assembly,” were turned away. Newsprint from restrooms (48 sheets) later collected for archives reveal women’s views of—being Mennonite, liberation, the Bible as authority, women preachers, humility, the “helper” role, and creativity.
Highlights of Mary Schertz’ four-page summary of women’s activism at Bowling Green reflect. “Fires of female friendship” prompted commitment among Ad Hoc members. Two hundred women attended the morning meeting. (Gospel Herald reports 120.) After Anna Bowman and Diane McDonald invited all to address fears and joys, Alice Roth led discussion. Twenty-five women voiced views, “each adding her perspective to the richness of our being together. . . A recurring theme addressed change. . . Important as what was actually said, was the sense of women really hearing each other. . . simply being heard builds confidence and frees us to emerge with the strength and courage within us.” The Ad Hoc group had “determined to create space and time from which women could emerge with such vision.” During the later delegate session, addressed by many men and articulate, bold women, the document passed with a provision to name a committee to “further study issues of women in church leadership.”15 Obviously, the MC Church Personnel Committee chose none of the Ad Hoc group to that task. Such direct “overlook” prods further feminist concern for vision, justice, and trust in “qualified women.” An implicit change for future Assemblies appeared: only delegates could address public sessions!
Exchange continued between General Assemblies. Budding feminist women gathered informally in Kansas, Oregon, and Colorado, thinking toward Bethlehem ‘83. Thirteen women—Mennonite Feminist Caucus—met in Goshen, 1982, to build trust, pool knowledge, and dream. Issues emerged: Assumptions about women due to long-practiced, MC patriarchy; How creative women might change structures once “admitted”; Where power resides and how women claim or share it. (A major MC Board chair had said “he didn’t perceive of himself as having power.”) Feminist-oriented goals and workshop ideas for Bethlehem’83 plus people to lead them emerged. We accepted new tasks: writing news releases for church journals, preparing literature exhibits.16 Meetings took place for mutual clarity with male leaders or committees. Knowing what genuine effort for good will had transpired for a decade, calls for grace followed toward writers of a Gospel Herald article after Assembly. Titled “New voices at Bethlehem ’83, young women speak out,” the gist, chosen by an editor for bold type, quoted: “We are a pragmatic generation without the baggage of reactionary anger.”17 Understanding takes time!
Mennonite Women studied denominational roots. In addition to others, Dorothy Nickel Friesen, Barbara Esch Shisler, Jan Lugibihl, Beth Brubacher, Mary Jean Kraybill, Lois Barrett Janzen, and Mary Beyler all brought Anabaptist women’s stories to light for courses or church journals. Responding to historians who primarily report about men, women highlighted not being motherless.18 Learning from each other about worthy women within our holy heritage led to claiming personal tasks for today. Avid Anabaptist researcher for decades, Canadian Linda A. Huebert Hecht combined with C. Arnold Snyder in 1996 to edit Profiles of Anabaptist Women Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers.
Jenifer Hiatt Umble’s 1987 thesis “Women and Choice: An examination of the Martyrs’ Mirror” delves into accounts of more than 275 women. She comments on letters, personal testimonies, and eyewitness accounts of arrest or execution. She notes women’s spiritual activities: being strong examples for children, claiming scriptural depth, creating hymns, fleeing persecution, opening homes to refugees or for worship. Hiatt Umble discusses family life: marriage with a non-believer, infant mortality, and widowhood. As feminists do, she supports women’s history: distinct female experience, documenting content earlier ignored, women’s visionary pursuits. Of interest were Anabaptist women’s comments about Jesus’ mother Mary, their experience as prophets (Ursula or Barbara), “women apostles” (Bernhartz Maria), or leaders (Anna Egger and Katherine Valebs). Among many scriptures quoted, the later folly of nudging women “to keep silent” remained authentically absent!19 Such insight and freedom enhances women’s public, theological voice today.
Feminist students raise genuine theological questions. In “For the Healing of the Nations,” (1981) Mary Schertz examines myth, the female divine in the biblical symbol of “the tree of life,” the warrior-God, threat due to centuries-long Israelite worship of the Goddess Asherah, and more.20 Language for the Divine expands when alert to diverse images conveyed in Hebrew texts but ignored within patriarchy. Schertz names harm ingrained for women and men through excessive male reference to God. Confusion can surface with the appellative “Father” tied to a Compassionate Creator when abuse marks a human relative in life. My Hebrew scripture mentor and friend Phyllis Trible wrote Texts of Terror; what insight for those with “ears to hear.” Jesus’ balance of human characters in parables, his intentional focus on God’s Way, not his, opens eyes ready to see. Called to “go and tell” by Jesus after his resurrection, the woman’s pattern is followed today. Views of Teacher Jesus transpire via new feminist questions of Christology, via reading Jacquelyn Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus or pastor professor Carter Heyward’s Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right.
Diverse themes for disciplined papers shape a writer’s life-long views. Feminists raise new questions; we welcome ambiguity or multiple options. We accept rather than fear difference. Because earlier accounts failed often to include women’s experience, open-ended options emerged. Because Mennonite church history often examined Anabaptist accounts after noting the Early Church, it bypassed Church Fathers or Medieval centuries, plus Christian Orthodoxy. I learned lots with John Oyer’s seminary teaching yet left much unexplored when writing “Medieval Women Religious: Some Sketches.” Kim McDowell’s research at AMBS on “Teresa of Avila” appeared near the date when University of Waterloo Joyce Peterman’s “Teresa of Avila” appeared in Mennonite Reporter’s series for children. Ruth Heinrich’s voice spoke in “Creating a Language of Liberation.” While Christine Wenger’s broad, global study noted “Women in Africa,” Janette K. Zercher, Bethel College, Kansas, researched, aided by original questionnaires with resulting tables, “The Organizational Role of Women in the Churches of Three Mennonite Conferences.”
Zercher’s purpose: “to study the role of women present and in positions on elected and appointed committees in local Mennonite churches in a five-state area”—in GC, MC, and MB Conferences. Zercher’s hypothesis cannot be denied: men serve more important committees at the top of a church’s structural hierarchy, while women serve smaller, often male-chaired, committees at the bottom of that hierarchal scheme. Women’s leadership had not greatly increased in Mennonite churches during three-plus decades since Eva Harshbarger’s 1945 study. Zercher’s study declares: “tokenism” for women—with primarily children, flowers, or food—no longer reflects the free use of gifts.
Rare among MB women during the decades here reviewed, feminist Sandy Wiens envisioned an organization called WOMENSAGE. Marginally linked with Fatima, a Roman Catholic Retreat Center in South Bend, Indiana, Wiens prompted sisters Mary and Ann Schertz, Jan Lugibihl, Brenda Stoltzfus, and me to explore plans for writing projects and retreats beyond Mennonite structures. Friends signed up for a short-lived “newsletter to address issues of theology.” Women gathered to hear Carol Hull’s retreat talks on Spirituality; to shape a Mennonite version seemed wise. Publications emerged. Christine Kaufmann and Priscilla Stuckey-Kauffman volunteered many hours to create the historic “Mennonite Women’s Calendar 1984-86.” Many of us identified women’s unique data from among GC, MB, and MC affiliations, compiled documentation, offered photos, and supported the project’s goal: to make worthy women known. For most days of each month names of Mennonite women along with a year and brief detail of her significance crowd the space
To convey that women indeed were preaching by 1983, I edited Weaving Wisdom Sermons by Mennonite Women. Thanks to Womansage vision, Suelyn Lee’s graphics, and Mary Louise Bower’s printing service, thirty-five women’s voices in that book speak truth. Content shapes themes of Spirituality, Justice, and Story. Whereas Mennonite Dutch sisters had preached since 1911 and Ann J. Allebach was ordained in the U.S. in 1911, but not invited to preach with Mennonites, this book’s “cloud of witnesses” proclaims. Styles vary: one writer calls herself “a total rookie”; an African-American reports her extemporaneous pattern; another admits the ever-revising feature of sermons.21 Mentor for many Menno women preachers, Emma Richards from Lombard, Illinois, excelled with purpose, content, and delivery. She enabled others. What an honor when invited to her pulpit when a seminary student; my work with Psalm 8 remains a gift to her. Later in life22 she highlights having started “Women in Ministry” conferences. Her Weaving Wisdom meditation passes “faith from one generation to the next.”
Insight into transition for women and men becomes clear in Jan Lugibihl’s 1984 Master of Arts in Peace thesis. Titled “Feminism and Community at AMBS (1981-84)” honest discussion fills 125 pages; my personal memories could verify and expand it. Lugibihl describes the distinct ’81-82 year’s activities, interviews students and faculty, asks probing feminist questions, and reflects a Wisdom distinct. She observes the seminaries’ patriarchal model and how threatened men resist women’s bonding. She ponders authentic “community” and details plans for a Women’s History Week in March. She validates “women’s reality” like intuition as surely as logic when doing theology, the power of women telling their stories, the pain of being labeled one of “seven angry women” on campus. A part-time faculty member during that striking year, I recall that when someone referred to those “angry women” during a campus-wide forum, Nancy Lapp calmly responded, “And many of you seem to be angry at those so labeled.”
A notable part of the year’s addressing sexual issues, of brave women expressing voice, came with three seniors’ request for an alternative, “women’s only” MDiv seminar led by a woman, myself. Explaining their lack of space in which to be emotionally present, honest, and “free to spin out theological images without stopping to explain them” (among possibly judgmental men) in a context that expected self-disclosure, women risked petitioning administration. Presumed unfairly to have nudged the women, I was faulted by a President for not obstructing their wish. Having been a student with the original ‘73 Women’s course on campus, I observed in ’81 as a faculty member a distinct determination, by better informed feminists, to truly affect needed change within AMBS. Toward that stance came direct male resistance, faculty and student. My privilege to engage and learn with five women for that seminar shines in their signed message of friendship dated May of 1982.
Another highlight of that semester came with celebration of Women’s History Week. Sixty women shaped plans: a women’s art display, scheduling a woman to teach each course once during that week, women speakers for forum and chapel, hosting an international dinner, posting quotes by men about women along the full length of AMBS’s longest hallway.23 Lugibihl clearly explains student and faculty exchange: cautious, emerging trust; questions of women’s being spirit led, prophetic or troublesome; whether an institution that usually addresses the broader church could face self-scrutiny; whether conflict is good; how process can break down within “community”; views of power, control, injustice, caring; how or when to challenge tradition; how men might best credit competent women with scripture or theology plus counseling; whether women who in new ways find voice must learn also to comply in order to be “accepted.” So much more shaped the “growing pains” for finding voice during that year. History professor C. J. Dyck said to Lugibihl: “Our Anabaptist theology is very well-suited to a liberation motif of women . . . we should have done better than we did. . . Maybe the fact that we continued to operate and basically cared for each other showed that Community was still there, but it was hurting.”
Articles about MB Peggy Unruh Regehr, director of MCC Canada’s Committee on Women’s Concerns after 1984, appear in Mennonite Reporter by Irene (Plett) Jantzen, Wilma Derksen, and WD. From John Longhurst and Esther Epp-Tiessen’s recent Mennonite World Review account after Regehr’s death titled “Pioneer woman,” a window into her struggle appears. Leaders resisted her feminist theology, her calls for openness to women in leadership. Later, her sensitive attention to women who suffer abuse, who warn of readiness to give up faith due to treatment by a church reveal her being “ahead of her time, committed to justice and equality for women.” I honor Regehr’s pain, her networking as crucial to feminist effort. Those who work or write more alone, like MB Katie Funk Wiebe, likely convey less comparable energy or Wisdom for worthy feminist causes.
Mennonite college personnel resist and nurture feminist thought. Details from Goshen exemplify. Alert librarian Kathy Kauffman ordered fine feminist resources for students and community.24 My charting of data about faculty women in 1974 had noted the dilemma for students who might face only male teachers during four years. The Record (student newspaper) highlights justice for women almost yearly during the decades here reviewed. Women’s Emphasis Week brought guests to campus: actress Vinie Burrows (1981), Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel (1999). While professor emerita Olive Wyse urges student wisdom for choosing priorities, peace advocate Ruth Krall highlights both frustration and hope, 1982 Goshen College Bulletin, and social work prof Anna Bowman’s caring depth, quoted at length in the local Goshen News, led workshops about women and depression, mentored groups of us with strategy.
Having taught “Bible and Sexuality” at Goshen between 1981 and 1996, I note details. Credited for either Bible and Religion or Women’s Studies, course description anticipates feminist views. In addition to biblical texts with reading keyed to themes of female/male relating, required reading praised Leonard Swidler’s Biblical Affirmations of Woman and Sexuality and the Sacred, edited by James Nelson and Sandra Longfellow. Enrollment grew from 9 students to 34; more women enrolled but most fellows desired to fully credit women, in scripture and life. During one semester five alert daughters of Mennonite pastors kept asking: “Why haven’t we heard these perspectives before?” Discussion included sexual affirmation, orientation, and violation. Among guest lecturers one each term conveyed gay and lesbian insight. Students’ disciplined research ever-stimulated me: God-language, incest, Jesus’ radical friendship with women and more. Unknown to me until the end of one term, a southern Michigan MC congregation board sent a member to audit the course, to report back. Called with a campus ‘official’ to appear before them revealed the auditor’s skewed reporting, the fear of less traditional views. They faulted discussion of sexual orientation and no reference to the Virgin Birth. Students repeatedly asked: “Why do you stay in the church?”
Learning about cultures adds vision. Creating “Women of Strength Ancient and Modern,” a 24-minute slide set, proved enjoyable. In 1987 seven Goshen women combined slides from countries where each had lived for three to fifteen years with the ancient, acrostic poem of the woman praised in Proverbs 31.25 Women’s global, shared experience alongside scriptural Wisdom made our process rich. Church women’s groups rented to share the end product.
As is clear, during the 1980s Mennonite women increasingly practiced networking. More of us both shaped and trusted feminist truth including through theology and scripture. How I longed for publication of academic women’s voices. More congregations were trusting women as pastors but qualified women were also leaving Mennonite circles. Without a woman to edit MC journals other than Voice and predominance of men published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, how could educated women’s research and writing be ‘heard’ by readers? Computers made writing and communicating more accessible; competent voices published with non-Menno links. Had vision for or convincing patterns of distinct women’s leadership not fully evolved?
The 1990s to 2006
Causes emerge followed by changing times. The Mennonite Encyclopedia Vol V appeared in 1990 to update or expand on four earlier volumes. For that resource I researched and wrote about nine missionaries and three topics: abortion, gender roles, and head covering. To look at the past from a given date matters. When collective vision for change recedes through progress taken for granted, mediocre satisfaction with “things as they are” can return. Newness occurs through diverse, evolving professions; former activists scatter; individuals concentrate on shaping distinct agenda; a daughter’s study of feminist theory goes beyond a mother’s depth; communication finds new links. Newcomers may ask ‘Why’ of past change unaware of previous limits. Hopefully, recent decades that gave more attention to abuse, will lead again to broader-based themes.
Having lived in India multiple times after 1962, I increasingly depend on ecumenical and interfaith truth. On staff with diverse Christians at Woodstock School combined my budding feminism, healthy ambiguity rather than rigidity, and love for religious difference along with loyalty. To read interfaith books, respectfully attend Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Muslim worship, develop deep friendship with Bimla, Surinder, or Sreekala—who credit my Christian integrity while they remain loyal to other paths toward the One God—all enrich personal faith. A summer 1988 Fulbright study tour with university women attended to “Women, Family and Social Change in India” in several major cities. That opportunity helped me compare how India’s women experience worth, organize themselves, or alter ancient practice to fit today’s realities. It prompted a lectureship and my writing Strength, Struggle and Solidarity: India’s Women (1989). More book editing brought thirty-five voices of mostly Mennonite women with experience in diverse global settings into print: To See Each Other’s Good (1996) and Rooted and Branching: Women Worldwide (1998). Women tell stories about women; Laurel Voran’s artistic creations complement content.
From 1994-1997 my shift from collective to more personal growth transpired. Completing a Doctor of Ministry degree along with six men at Western Theological Seminary linked my Mennonite heritage with Reformed Church of America. Courses and thesis work engaged reading, workshop leading, congregation events, themes of interfaith arts, water, and goddess, women and Wisdom along with video creation.26 What stimulation! While earlier biblical training finds expression through teaching adult Sunday School classes, my convincing present and future direction focuses on the interfaith claim to what Christians call “the Golden Rule.”
Ecumenical need links with interfaith openness. Over several decades, I value year-long worship with Methodists in Detroit, combining Peter Gomes’ solid morning sermons at Harvard Memorial (Cambridge, MA) with Mennonites in homes for evening worship, and connecting closely with Disciples through grief ministry for Clinical Pastoral Education.27 Mennonite-only worship or theology causes restlessness for me. Relating for a year with eleven members of varied denominations in Goshen reinvigorated me.28 Highlights: acquaintance with churches throughout town, planning an ecumenical Pentecost service held at the Catholic parish, and creating materials distributed to churches. Materials focused: clustered Jewish holidays; “Toward Wholeness and Unity with Diversity” booklet of original poems, prayers, notes of Ecumenical Conferences 1910-1990, plus; “Different Drummers” script, with student Victoria Solomon’s illustrations, imagining a camping youth exchange; and adult Sunday School series at 8th St. Mennonite, with guests from four denominations. Open to difference, we feminists wish to avoid “one only” arrogance.
Study and direct exposure to Christian mission efforts in India29 both taught and distressed me. To claim and live out Christianity as a minority enriches authenticity and fairness toward others. Without negating the One God worshipped through varied sacred forms, terms, and rituals, I share Jesus our Christian Mentor who ever-promoted God’s inclusion. At the same time, I anticipate further Wisdom through Buddhist compassion or Sikh devotion for scripture. Not that all religions agree or reflect equal worth, distinct aspects are held and shared. My interfaith vision counters arrogance that “I alone know” or “Only my group has Truth.” Vision requires solid loyalty along with authentic openness. Missioner Fyrne Yoder taught me depth decades ago; she shares conviction about Jesus and “leaves the rest to God.” Such intent suggests trustful ambiguity—receiving difference alongside healthy critique of one’s own limits—fruits of feminist insight that enrich my growing, interfaith depth.
Encounter with the sacred occurs often in India. Located there three times during the 1990s, I once entered a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth. On prominent display were symbols of major religions. Four arms and multiple legs of a brass, Hindu god form stood posed to ‘offer’ support. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat ‘absorbed’ in contemplation. A wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly; the Jesus figure linked a common meal with covenant. En route to choose a table cover—with color and shape, woven threads, artistic craft—I stopped, there being no choice. Germane to selecting a cloth on which to serve flavored curries, a customer faces faith. Hinduism provides context for linking the spiritual and practical; I value such linkage. Not an intrusion, experience summons attention. Not to judge, symbols affirm that the One God, named Yahweh, Allah, or Ultimate, welcomes all nations and peoples.
Interfaith writing has taught me so much.30 I highly recommend three Mennonite World Religions professors at universities: Ronald Neufeldt (Calgary), Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger (Emory), and Chad Bauman (Butler). Neufeldt’s dissertation pursues scholar Max Muller’s insight: “To know one religion is to know none.” Difference compares matters with integrity. Joyce, daughter of 40-year GC India missionaries returned to village life for writing Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India, 1996. Her lived experience along with respect for the sacred provides genuine depth. Bauman’s dissertation reflects MC and GC missioning areas: Christian Identity and Dalit Religion in Hindu India, 1868-1947.31 Others often fault Christians for religious ignorance and arrogance. What vision might we muster for being “religious interreligiously”?
Needing to conclude this chapter about Mennonite feminist activism, I recall yet Judy Chicago ‘s “The Dinner Party.”32 Her artistic genius recalls many strong women through time. My hope here has been to make Mennonite feminist women’s collective and personal concerns and actions during several decades better known. The book for which this manuscript was first written noted reference to women within Mennonite surveys of 1972, 1989, and 2006. I am truly disappointed that no women designed or assessed questions for those surveys, that no items expect engagement with people loyal to diverse living faiths. Such reality reflects our being less prepared to live in North American cities where diverse religions abound, to converse wisely with global missioning.33 When capable women sociologists, theologians, and her-storians co-plan, conduct, and analyze denominational surveys, when women’s interfaith insight proclaims religious loyalty along with openness, results might better abound.34 What an echo of 1972 feminist advocacy!