Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner's "The Lives of Amish Women"

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner is a Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam. She is the author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools and New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State and a coauthor of The Amish.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Lives of Amish Women, and reported the following:
Those opening to page 99 of The Lives of Amish Women will find themselves at the end of a discussion of wifely submission. Part of a section entitled “When Submission is a One-Way Street” in Chapter 3, “Marriage and Ever After,” that page begins with a quote from an Amish woman who felt alone and was having suicidal thoughts until “looking back I can see that God was with me, and my husband did listen if I spoke, even if he didn’t understand, he did care.” Reading page 99 alone, one becomes aware that Amish women have diverse opinions of what it means to be a submissive wife, that submission is also important for men, that Amish churches often find it difficult to deal with church members who pay lip service to biblical teachings, and that change and assimilation in the Amish world may exacerbate problems by redefining male and female roles in the church-community.

However, the broader discussion explores the complicated place of gender in Amish society, highlighting the tension between a divine hierarchy that makes women submissive to men and the understanding that the church is the body of Christ in which there is neither male nor female. As the book makes clear, Amish communities resolve this tension in diverse ways as each responds to the profound social, economic, and technological changes going on in the non-Amish world with which they must interact daily.

In short, page 99 reflects important issues raised in The Lives of Amish Women, so in that sense the book passes the test. However, because page 99 focuses particularly on submission and abuse, the book also fails the test. Page 99 suggests a darkness to women’s lives that the rest of the book does not support. Page 99 also fails to capture the breadth and depth of the experience of Amish females, and their active role in maintaining and shaping the spiritual and economic health of their church-communities.

Committed to remaining separate from the secular world, even as they must interact with it daily, Amish life is shaped by the tension between faith and worldliness. Each church-community is a unique response to the challenge of living in the world while resisting assimilation to it. As a result, today’s diverse Amish church-communities may be as different from each other as they are from their non-Amish neighbors. Nevertheless, Amish women’s lives reflect a continuity in which daughters grow up to live lives much like those of their mothers and grandmothers, engaging in many of the same activities: gardening, homemaking, and childrearing. Yet, as church-communities change technologically and grow to depend more on economic engagement with the non-Amish world to feed families, Amish women may also find themselves owning businesses and working in factories. In some communities, technological changes and greater economic integration may make women’s work easier, but women may also be working more independently than their sisters in communities more insistent on keeping traditional ways. How is an Amish woman farming with her husband and living in a home without running water or indoor plumbing similar to or different from an Amish woman who runs a large business employing many of her neighbors, enjoys solar power, and works on a computer? This book explores Amish women’s lives, looking at the contexts in which they grow up, the activities in which they engage, the values they come to espouse as members of particular church-communities, and the roles they define for themselves.
Learn more about The Lives of Amish Women at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue