World & More
Lifting the Fog
A Review of Mennonite Women in Canada
Mennonite Women in Canada: A History, by Marlene Epp. University of Manitoba Press, 2008.
When I was invited to review this book I thought “Why not?” but
two-thirds of the way through it I became depressed. It seemed that all
the men were “heavies” who either took women for granted, held them
back, or even abused them. Then I thought to relate the book to Howard
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which I reviewed in the
last issue and which is intended as history from below.
Or as Epp puts it in the introduction, “In some accounts of Mennonite
pioneers and immigrants in Canada, women are starkly invisible,
although we know women were surely there” (3). It is the function of
this history to bring women out so they can be seen as a significant
part of Canadian Mennonite history. “A main goal of this study is to
explore women’s roles, as prescribed and lived, within contexts of
immigration and settlement, household and family life, church and
organizational life, work and education, and response to societal
trends and events” (4). Each of the five pairs above is covered in a
Epp, who teaches History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad
Grebel University College of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, is
working within the Anabaptist tradition, but she includes a quotation
from M. J. Heisey, who, she says, “has aptly argued that ‘nonconformist
Anabaptists have largely borrowed their gender expectations from the
larger society’” (8). When we stop to think of it, we realize this
society has been patriarchal.
Epp makes another generalization which I find of interest. She
differentiates between conservative groups such as the Old Orders “who
may have envisioned women within a framework of being different but
equal and called for comparable yieldedness on the part of both men and
women, while certain ‘modern’ Mennonite groups uphold a rationale for
subordination that is rooted in the fundamentalism of the Christian
religious right wing and thus are not ‘progressive’ at all in their
attitudes to women” (21).
She returns to the subject of the fundamentalism now and then
throughout the book and observes that women themselves at times came
out on different sides of the issue. For example, she mentions the 1971
book Woman Liberated by Lois Gunden Clemens, “radical for its time,
which argued that male-female sex differences were the basis for gender
equality in church and society.” But she notes that “other Mennonites
were also keen readers of The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan . . . which
suggested that marriages would improve if wives were submissive,
obedient, and obliging to their husbands” (278).
Each of the five main chapters views the experiences of Canadian
Mennonite women from a different perspective and each is introduced
with a colorful three-word title covering one of the five topics
mentioned above. The first chapter is “Pioneers, Refugees, and
Transnationals,” and she opens with the accounts of three pioneer
Mennonite women. The first is Barbara Schulz Oesch (1803-1881), who
moved to Ontario from Bavaria in 1824 and who was to bear 18 children.
Her husband John was ordained as a minister in 1829 and later died four
days before the first birthday of their eighteenth child.
In 1875 came Katherina Hiebert (1855-1910) from Russia to Manitoba,
having married a widower with five children. She was to become a
midwife and healer whose “daughter recalled that ‘She was always away,
day and night, summer and winter, tending the sick’” (24).
The third example is Susie Reddekopp (1979-), whose great-grandparents
had come to Canada from Russia but whose grandparents moved to Mexico
in the 1920s. She returned to Canada with her husband Henry in the
1990s. Henry was killed in a farm accident, so she went back to Mexico.
As Epp observes, these “are all Canadian Mennonite women, though there
is much about their life stories that is very different. Yet they share
stories of diaspora, of uprooting, migration, and settlement, that are
central to the histories of many Mennonites who made Canada their home”
As stressful as their lives would have been, they would not have
compared with those of the refugees who came to Canada as widows after
their husbands had disappeared during the Stalin purges: “Women whose
husbands were dead or missing found themselves performing traditional
masculine roles—breadwinner, protector, moral strategist—during their
refugee sojourn in Europe and then as new immigrants to Canada” (55).
Chapter 2, “Wives, Mothers, and ‘Others’” is a wide-ranging survey of
sexual mores, wedding practices, and the dangers of birthing and
raising children in the days before modern medical support systems.
“Before the Second World War maternal mortality rates in Canada were
high—indeed higher than in most other Western countries except the
United States—and childbirth related death was second only to
tuberculosis in cause of female deaths” (75).
Death of children was also to be expected. “Indeed, it was rare if a
nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century family did not lose at
least one of their children to illness or accident” (87).
Included in this chapter is a story of one particularly unimaginative
husband who “just after a baby was born . . . brought the cow to the
door, demanding that his wife milk it, as it was her duty. Katherina
apparently gave him a good scolding and instructed the woman to stay in
Among the male efforts to maintain the patriarchal order was a “Birth
Control Committee, appointed by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in
1944 . . . a prime example of an all-male decision-making body” seeking
to control women’s sexual activity (92).
Also this chapter cites the efforts of several male theological leaders
to interpret the roles of the wives. B. Charles Hostetter wrote in the
Canadian Mennonite in 1954 that “The God-given duties of a wife were to
regard her husband as the head of the home, to convert the house into a
home, to assume the responsibilities of motherhood, and to provide a
normal sex life for her husband.” Earlier, in 1919, Clayton F. Derstine
had “observed that the home should be like a ‘kingdom’ in which the
father ruled” (113).
Chapter 3, “Preachers, Prophets and Missionaries,” highlights the
efforts of women to exercise their gifts for church leadership and
finding themselves restricted. Epp comments that “religion can be
either oppressive or empowering in women’s lives, and this is more
likely, can be both simultaneously and also somewhere in between”
(121). Although Ann J. Allebach was ordained as a Mennonite minister in
Philadelphia in 1911, the first Canadian Mennonite woman to be ordained
was Doris Weber in 1979.
Among the pronouncements on the subject of leadership included in the
book is this one from the 1963 Mennonite Church Confession of Faith in
an article on “symbols of Christian order.” The statement acknowledges
that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” but “it qualified
spiritual equality by stating that ‘in order of creation God has fitted
man and woman for differing functions; man has been given a primary
leadership role, though the woman is especially fitted for nurture and
service’” (123). One assumes the article was written by men.
Numbers of Canadian Mennonite congregations did not include women in
formal church decisions. “Until the latter half of the twentieth
century, most churches denied women direct participation in major
decision-making bodies of the church administrative structures” (135).
The Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg at one point had “at the
same time a female treasurer while not allowing women to vote on church
Women as missionaries generally found more opportunity to use their
gifts for leadership, but problems could develop when they came home to
report. “If the husband-and-wife missionary couple was speaking in a
church, it was self-evident who would bring the message, the wife
perhaps speaking to the children’s Sunday school or the women’s
However in 1917, when P. W. Penner, a missionary from India, went to
the hospital with appendicitis, his wife took his place at three
sessions of a mission conference and raised $1184. “As churches
gradually became more flexible toward the idea of ‘women preachers,’ it
was often female missionaries who were granted the privilege of
speaking directly from the pulpit” (147).
In summarizing this chapter, Epp indicates that for 200 years in Canada
“Mennonite women expressed their religiosity in multiple and varied
ways. . . .
“Women could be leaders in churches, but only when men were temporarily
not available. . . . It was the feminist movement of the 1970s and
following that ultimately pushed open the door to women in official
church ministry positions” (177-178).
Chapter 4, “Nonconformists, Nonresistors and Citizens,” takes the story
in a slightly different direction but continues the concern to show
women bumping up against male assumptions. Epp mentions two Mennonite
perspectives: nonconformity to the world and nonresistance in response
to warfare. “This chapter will explore the gendered way in which
Mennonite women lived out and experienced the impact of these beliefs”
For the former, Epp was to discover that women were to carry a heavier
burden than men. “The double standard of nonconformity was particularly
gender-specific when it came to dress” (183). She perceives that the
influence of fundamentalism affected the tensions which developed over
women’s behavior. “Fundamentalists shared a ‘general horror’ over the
‘new women’ who had appeared in the twentieth century and were
increasingly skeptical about the hitherto accepted beliefs in women’s
moral superiority” (185).
In Swiss Mennonite churches women were expected to cover their heads in
worship and to wear bonnets instead of hats. Bonnets became an issue in
the First Mennonite Church of Kitchener, Ontario, and seem to have been
a major factor leading to the formation of Stirling Avenue, for a time
an independent Mennonite congregation. It “quickly developed a
reputation as a liberal church in which women were allowed to be on the
church council and participate equally with men in church
As for nonresistance, during World War II, of course, men were drafted
and women were not. Nevertheless, “CO women found themselves supporting
the ‘peace effort’ in much the same way that other Canadian women were
supporting the ‘war effort’” (200). In addition, responsibilities and
opportunities developed on the home farms and in the work force because
of the absence of men. Some Mennonite women also supported the soldiers
and a few even joined the military as, of course, did some Mennonite
In chapter 5 “Quilters, Canners, and Writers,” Epp begins again, this
time with reference to how Mennonite women expressed their creativity.
“Their desire for self-expression was channeled into forms of
creativity and output that were allowed for Mennonite women within the
church and societal context that often circumscribed female behaviors
and activity in rigid ways” (226). This creativity was particularly
demonstrated in homemaking, especially “handwork and cooking.” However,
“Mennonite women also expressed themselves as artists, writers, and
Household appliances began to ligh-ten the housework burdens during the
period surveyed. The purchase of such household tools often took second
place to new machinery for the farm to improve farm productivity. But
“Maria Martens Klassen was surprised when her husband used their 1950
berry cheque to purchase a vacuum cleaner, justifying the seeming
extravagance by saying it was the only way he could get rid of the
The issue of women working for pay outside the home called for the
usual discussion with both men and women lining up on opposite sides.
Paul Erb, whose wife Alta Mae was a professional woman, wrote in Gospel
Herald “that ‘confining the woman into the four walls of the home, even
to the additional opportunities of Sunday school and the Missionary and
Service Auxiliary, does not provide every outlet needed for our women’”
In contrast, Oscar Burkholder “argued that when Christian men and women
departed from their God-assigned roles, as found in Scripture, only
trouble could come to the realm of human relations.” (258-259). This
issue, of course, does not go away. Dr Laura Schlessinger recently
published In Praise of Stay At Home Moms.
The end of the chapter describes the efforts of women to obtain
education and to become readers and writers. No one could stop them
from writing, but as Katie Funk Wiebe was to find, “‘writing can seldom
be a first for women if they are wives and mothers. Mothers don’t have
a secretary. They don’t have wives. They can be interrupted by most
anyone’” (271). Yet some did write, as Wiebe herself was to demonstrate.
In the concluding chapter, Epp suggests that 1979 “was in some respects
a pivotal point for Canadian Mennonite women generally.” Among the
significant happenings was the ordination of Doris Weber as a minister
and the arrival of Hmong and Laotian women and their affiliation with
Mennonites. Also in the same year Heidi Quiring was crowned as Miss
“Yet coming at the end of a decade in which second-wave feminists had
denounced the beauty pageant phenomenon, the scenario created somewhat
of a puzzle for Mennonites who were trying to sort out what
roles—traditional or ‘progressive’—Mennonite women should play” (276).
It does seem ironic that ordination to the ministry and a Mennonite
Miss Canada came about in the same year.
In the end, Epp reiterates the goal of her study. “My own feminist
curiosity led me to peer into the low-lying fog that has hid the
complexity of women’s lives in the Canadian Mennonite past” (282). She
has lifted the fog. Where we go from here, of course, is the continuing
issue. As her quote from M. J. Heisey has illustrated, we seem able to
function only within the intellectual climate where we live.
Epp the researcher proposes more research, indicating her hope “that
this book will encourage others to engage in research and writing that
will continue to burn away the fog that still may linger.” Those of us
concerned about the practice of the radical Anabaptist tradition will
hope that it will be possible to go even farther. Is it possible to
take seriously the lessons from a history such as hers and support each
other in a manner to challenge the endemic sexism in our culture? The
record suggests that this must be a delicate operation, one to be
undertaken with the appropriate fear and trembling.
—Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, and chair of the elders, Scottdale Mennonite Church.