Two Reviews about Mennonite Women

Mennonite Women: A Story of God’s Faithfulness 1683-1983 by Elaine Summers Rich, 1983 and Women in Search of Mission by Gladys V. Goering, 1980.

These reviews appeared in Mennonite Quarterly Review, Rich’s in vol. 60/2 April 1986, 207-09, and Goering’s in 57/1 January 1983, 74-75 and appear here with permission.

Three threads recur in Gladys Goering’s history of General Conference Mennonite women (Women in Search of Mission) determined to be involved in mission: 1. the solid bond established between congregational women and missionary individuals or families; 2. the varied resistance that Mennonite male leaders offered women; and 3. the profound cooperation and friendship that women gained from working together.

Identification with experiences of missionaries gave purpose to gatherings of U.S. and Canadian Mennonite church women. They claimed the missionaries as their representatives. So, to those representatives went support—via prayer and concern, correspondence, money and supplies. “Want lists” prepared by missionaries became tangible projects for the “back-up” crews gathered in small clusters in homes or by the hundreds in church basements.

Their central motivation was information, being knowledgeable through literature about situations in “home” and foreign missions. Goering notes complications that evolved. Church women, who calculated assistance through the number of items sewed or who had little more than egg money to offer, learned slowly to admit that sometimes cash was more beneficial. “Home” mission needs and people could be overlooked through attention to more adventurous foreign locations. The inevitability of change necessitated that organization leaders be both sensitive and visionary.

Those qualities combined to address Mennonite male leadership, too. Often ignored for their accomplishments or at times cautiously extended “permission” to venture into responsibilities that men assumed to be theirs to manage, women persisted. Culturally bound to fear women’s comparable competence or, even more, their autonomy, men resisted. But not all. While a few printers selectively published materials submitted by women, or administrators occasionally failed to inform women that a project for which they were collecting funds had been closed, other men facilitated the beginning of missionary societies in congregations, and more recently on the Commission on Home Ministries welcomed women members, expecting full participation.

Vision was also needed to guard against the too-hasty merger of organizations, against “letting” men do tasks, especially regarding finances, in women’s stead. History has proven the validity of such caution. Loss of identity and ownership often followed for other Protestant women’s missionary societies. Goering sensitively records these transactions. (Compare also Sharon Klingelsmith’s insightful portrayal of “Women in the Mennonite Church, 1900-1930,” MQR, LIV (1980), 163-207).

Individual General Conference women encouraged involvement with interdenominational and inter-Mennonite work in missions. These connections helped women to feel part of the whole. They increasingly claimed personal potential, affirmed each other, trusted organization, and experienced solidarity.

Gladys Goering helps readers to believe in a concerted search. Having explored the records, she documents materials with footnotes. Having felt the pulse of excitement and struggle, she introduces many individuals by name. Having a story to tell, she verifies it from among the four hundred plus mission societies or Women in Mission groups within the General Conference.

My suggestions for improvement are few. Some transitions between topics or paragraphs could be clearer, several grammatical points altered. Coverage of different time periods occasionally feels uneven. Additional background or an overview of General Conference mission work would be useful, especially for non-Mennonite readers. And vision for tomorrow could be elaborated.

But thanks, Gladys, for a story that we need to remember. You recognize change; you value exchange. We rejoice with you as international Mennonite women come to North America to enrich our lives, to help shape the future search.

Second review:

Mennonite Women by Elaine Sommers Rich is an important beginning in recognizing over half of the Mennonite Church’s faithful workers. What that suggests is that more will need to follow. In fact, if serious about portraying God’s faithfulness through women, WMSC (Women’s Missionary and Service Commission), the sponsor of this volume, should already be tapping other writers to pursue subsequent volumes.

Starting with a look at the bibliography, which I often do in evaluating a resource, I am grateful that half of the authors are women. That in itself invites me into the content, because I can expect women to be credible informants, able recorders of their own experience. A different feeling results when observing that only one-fifth of the resources listed in a recent “Bibliography of Mennonite Missions” have female authors. Similarly unbalanced is a Christianity Today listing of books published in 1981 on church history: twenty-two authored by women and ninety-five by men. So, thanks, Elaine, for being a woman ready to immerse yourself in the research necessary, including material from hundreds of private sources, to compile this window into our valuable heritage.

The format of introductory material followed by exhibits of specific women in such roles as wives, mothers, educators and mission workers is appropriate. Women and Religion in America, a multi-volume set that introduces the nineteenth-century scene, uses this style of documenting women’s story. Women of a number of other denominations are publishing comparable collections: notably, the two-volume Women in New Worlds out of the Wesleyan tradition; the Episcopalians’ collection of oral tradition; the volume focusing upon women ministers in the Universalist/Unitarian stream. Further, rich resources will emerge from the extensive archival records of the Protestant Women’s Union Missionary Society now being processed in Wheaton, Illinois. The point is that male historians have generally not duly attended to women in their recording of human experience. To rectify this distortion will take decades and volumes.

Rich’s research of a portion of Mennonite women’s lives during the first 300 years in the United States is most readable. More anecdotal than analytical, it allows the Mennonite reader to identify with the women included. For example, my human interest responded to reference to Aunt Emma, cousin Lydia, acquaintances Maude, Mary, and Minnie. But as is inevitable with such a collection, I wondered why no reference to long-term India missionary Esther Vogt or health specialist Ruth E. Bender. And why include an exhibit of women teachers when it is bound to be so partial. Yet, the same dilemma presented itself for those creating the “Mennonite Women’s Calendar for 1984-86”—the dilemma multiplied by its inclusion of General Conference Mennonite Brethren, and Mennonite Church women. Further, since Mennonite women are so definitely international and interracial, Rich’s title might have clarified the coverage limits.

Discomforting for me is how injustice toward women is handled in the book. Rich relates that “some confessed in church for the ‘sin’ of starting a sewing circle” and that the women “acquiesced graciously, but inwardly wept” when male officials “took over” the Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society in 1928. Rich notes an 1877 Herald of Truth article on marriage which “stresses partnership, not hierarchy,” but male headship has permeated Mennonite family and church life. These instances all leave me with the desire for more straightforward critique of such un-Christlike behavior.

Why are we free to credit Eva Yoder and Esther Bachman for confronting the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1778 but ever so cautious about calling ourselves—Mennonites in relationship—to accountability? One reason why women are still expected to acquiesce to male institutional/structural control is that the sin and distortion which that breeds for both women and men has not been adequately confronted. Since the gospel message does not sanction relational or institutional injustice, our recording of experience must take risks to address it. For this reason, I particularly welcome Sharon Klingelsmith’s July 1980 MQR article about Mennonite women.

As vigorous sales indicate, Mennonite Women appeals to many. For that, I am grateful. The cause to avoid women’s being left nameless—as on Mother Eberly’s tombstone, which names her sons but refers only to “two daughters’—is sacred. Knowing about medical practitioner Sarah, who delivered over 1,200 babies, about those who canned over 1,000 quarts of produce in one summer, about worthy models—outstanding businesswomen, deacons, Sunday School superintendents (for children, of course) and administrators who survived incredible schedules—knowing about such women motivates the reader. If not to canning, at least to make a solid contribution in life. Probably every major Mennonite community has its heritage of prominent quilt-makers, visionary missionaries, mothers who died in childbirth, widows with instinct plus to survive, book and journal readers and writers, single adult women who challenged the warped notion that personal fulfillment is limited to marriage, and volunteers who accomplished a myriad of jobs.

Mennonite Women makes and keeps some of these heroes more visible; hopefully, through the book’s inspiration “their tribe will increase.” Elizabeth Horsch Bender has carefully edited instead of being a prolific writer; closets contain women’s diaries, hidden; and many women still wait to be duly validated to follow their calling to preach. As Dorothy Kemrers, Mary Millers, baptizer Kates, musician Maryanns, and Phebes made mobile through pickups emerge in the century ahead, we can guarantee that they also will face opposition, diversity and need. We can also expect their creativity, dreams and bonding to make a difference.

Elaine Sommers Rich, your love for the women whom you chose to include for their rich experience is felt from cover to cover. Photos scattered throughout the book are also a gift, to help us remember. Thanks.

A few further resources to be noted:
Mary Lou Cummings, ed. Full Circle Stories of Mennonite Women. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Pr., 1978.

Christine Kaufmann and Priscilla Stuckey Kauffman, Project Coordinators. “Mennonite Women’s Calendar 1984-86,” SAGE organized, Fatima Retreat Center, Goshen, IN June 1983.

Ruth Unrau. Encircled Stories of Mennonite Women. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Pr., 1986.

Gloria Neufeld Redekop. The Work of Their Hands Mennonite Women’s Societies in Canada. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Pr., 1996.

Marlene Epp. Mennonite Women in Canada: A History. Univ. of Manitoba Pr., 2008.

Anita Hooley Yoder. Circles of Sisterhood A History of Mission, Service, and Fellowship in Mennonite Women’s Organizations. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Pr., 2017.