Manitoba History: Review: Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History
by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
Marlene Epp’s Mennonite Women in Canada: A History is an excellent addition to Canadian historical, cultural and women’s studies and will be widely appreciated by teachers, students, and general readers. Second in a new book series, “Studies in Immigration and Culture,” it has more than one link to another series initiated in the 1960s by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada where Mennonite history was presented in time periods from 1786 to 1920, from 1920 to 1940, and from 1939 to 1970. Marlene’s father, Frank H. Epp, author of the first two tomes, in a sense handed over the assignment of writing a history of Mennonite women in Canada to her, because, as she explains, “he didn’t know where to find any information on such an unlikely topic” (xiii).
Marlene Epp certainly knows where to find it! In this book she navigates surely through a wealth of information on the hugely diverse religio-cultural group that Mennonites in Canada are. Her published sources include a growing body of literature by scholars who have developed techniques and experience in “reading” the women’s story in non-traditional historic evidence such as the women’s taped voices; their notes, journals, photographs and letters; their poems, songs, recipes and memoirs; their genealogies and family tree books, their embroidery and quilts and the minutes of their sewing circle meetings. It is striking that such a history—its sources, perspectives, and techniques—seemed so far-fetched only 30 years ago!
Some might think it a gratuitous exercise. Do we really need a separate history of women in Canada? Epp rightly concluded, yes! Women were not adequately covered in the previous published works on Mennonites in Canada, preoccupied as they were with the story of the men who scouted for land and negotiated the groups’ entry into Canada, who recreated the agrarian villages, and defined the structures, directions, and working rules of the “brotherhood” of the church. Women and children figured into the story, of course. But they remained quietly in the background, in their proper, supportive roles.
Epp’s book is quite a different read. The ironies of previous exclusion hit hard next to the realities of women being not only the hands and feet of their Mennonite communities but also the heart. Epp expertly deals with the magnitude of the topic—women as immigrants to Canada, women within families, in the church and as citizens of this world. She covers all this by organizing the materials in terms of the “parallel” and “poetic triads of activity” that she considers central to the historic lives of Canadian Mennonite women. These are their roles as “pioneers, refugees and transnationals” as “wives, mothers and others,” “preachers prophets and missionaries,” “nonconformists, non-resisters and citizens,” and as “quilters, canners and writers.”
It becomes clear that Mennonite women didn’t quietly follow men into the late 20th century. Instead, they actually led their community in all the most important trends of contemporary Mennonite life -- sociologically, politically, religiously and economically. For instance, for some of the larger groups, it was the young women who led their families to the cities in the 1920s and ‘30s, finding work in domestic service and factories, learning English and becoming the core group of new urban churches. They contributed in enormous ways to the economic well being of their families, whether by running self-sufficient households, making ends meet through the most scrupulous household economy, selling surplus farm produce, or handing over their wages to pay off their families’ travel debts. Sociologically their actions were pivotal. Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s women redesigned their households and their families by adopting the newly available technologies for birth control that had so much to do with freeing women up for broader activities and concerns. And slowly but surely they pushed for and insisted on “suffrage”—an equal say on the activities of the church and the acceptance of the use of their gifts in all areas within it.
Epp credits the changes in Mennonite women’s lives to the impact of second-wave feminism: the movement, with its heyday in the late 1970s, that argued for the equality of women. Noting that women’s lives have never been homogeneous, Epp states that, “the feminist movement of the 1960s and beyond was perhaps the strongest force in changing women’s lives within their families, society, and the church.” She maintains that it was external pressures that “unsettled the gender inequality” in Mennonite church life, and that change occurred more “by default and outside pressure than by intentional denominational decision.” To me it seems that the gains made by Mennonite women were no different from feminist gains within the broader Canadian society. While they had much to do with such external defaults as the circumstances of war, economic depression and advances in technology, credit is still largely due to the relentless pushing of women themselves against the constraints of patriarchy that would otherwise keep them out of the voting booths, the halls of higher learning, the legislature, and the professions. Epp does credit Mennonite women for their persistence, but points out that their effective models, inspiration and “tools” came from the larger society, superseding the opposing forces in their own community. In all the many ways that patriarchy continues to abound throughout our world, this is an encouraging point.
While this book presents the experiences of Mennonite women in Canadian society and their meanings, the persistent differences between the various groups continue to confound generalization. Any writer trying to pick up where Epp left off (in 1980), will have to add the recent mass arrivals of Mennonite families to Canada from Russia via Germany, and the Mennonite families continuing to return to Canada from Mexico and South American over the past decades. As a group, Mennonites in Canada don’t seem to become any more homogenous, no matter how much we try to apply the terms and identify the trends!
Mennonite Women in Canada is highly readable and engaging book. Each carefully crafted chapter can stand alone. The book has extensive footnotes, an impressive bibliography, fourteen pages of photographs, and an index. It also has a glossary for those bewildered by the strange terminology and the many subgroups of Mennonites. What is especially noteworthy, and what will ensure this book’s value as a model in historical writing, is that, despite the magnitude of the topic, individual voices of people previously left out of such a genre are clearly heard.
Page revised: 13 May 2016