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"Sacred Farming" or "Working Out": The Negotiated Lives of Conservative Mennonite Farm Women

From: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 22, Number 1, 2001
pp. 79-102 | 10.1353/fro.2001.0013

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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 79-102

Sisters Barbara Zehr and Charlene Moser were born into a "plain" Conservative Mennonite family during the 1950s. In many ways, the sisters' family lineage and personal experience implicitly convey an intense commitment to the conservation of their Mennonite heritage. Their parents farmed, raised six daughters, and worshipped in the Conservative Mennonite Church of Croghan, located in Lewis County, New York. The Croghan church, originally Amish Mennonite, was established in 1830s when the first Zehr and Moser families fled the Alsace region in France in search of religious freedom and economic stability in North America. Charlene and Barbara's father, a bishop who oversees five local Conservative Mennonite congregations, is responsible for the continuation of the one-hundred-seventy-year-old community. As their married names suggest, the sisters wed local Conservative Mennonite men. After they married, both couples decided to stay in Croghan and take up farming. The sisters live within a few miles of their childhood church, which they regularly attend with their families. Charlene and her husband operate a dairy and live on her "home place," the land and house where she was raised. Barbara has worked at Widrick & Sons, a John Deere implement dealership, in a nearby town since 1987. Aside from providing for their children, church and extended family activities occupy much of the sisters' time.

In some ways, Barbara and Charlene's personal histories reflect the seemingly changeless continuities of plain people's communities and traditions. How the small, ethnoreligious community of Croghan's Conservative Mennonites has protected its traditions in the face of overwhelming economic and social -- often termed "modernizing"--pressures is fertile soil for research. Indeed, much of the scholarly work on plain communities, especially the Amish with whom the Conservative Mennonites share a common history, analyzes how change is resisted. In terms of Croghan's recent historical experience, however, this analytical focus would be misguided.

Conservative Mennonites and related groups may seem timeless and changeless to the outside world, however, traditional communities do not exist outside of time. The Croghan church holds within its past three painful breaks or schisms, results of disruptions in economic and religious life. The first schism in 1857 left the church with only eight families. A 1941 schism developed over dress regulations, and a recent break, in 1993, again over the enforcement of dress regulations and church discipline, caused many families to leave the Croghan church permanently.

Another serious challenge to church discipline arose during the late 1970s and 1980s when young married women with small children faced an irreconcilable dilemma. Devout women's religious beliefs and church discipline strongly encouraged women, especially those with preschool children, to stay at home and on the farm. Church leaders also encouraged women to wear a prayer covering, a small mesh cap that symbolized their submission to men and their membership in Croghan's Conservative Mennonite Church. For example, a typical church bulletin announcement read, "We urge husbands & fathers to encourage the sisters to faithfully respect God's order by wearing the veiling with uncut hair. I Cor. 11:1-16." On the other hand, during the late 1970s and 1980s many married women, for the first time in Croghan history, started "working out," a term used locally for off-farm, wage-paying work, in an effort to save their farms from financial ruin. Some women who worked out also rejected the prayer covering as a relevant religious symbol.

By placing the work experiences of Charlene and Barbara in their historic and religious contexts, this article chronicles the changes in Conservative Mennonite farm women's lives and highlights how the farm women of Croghan, New York, negotiated the conflicting demands of saving the farm and religious beliefs that sought to severely restrict women's off-farm work choices. An examination of Charlene and Barbara's work-related choices provides insights into how the interactive dynamics of gender, religion, and the economy forces change in traditional communities.

Farming, Religion, and Gender in Croghan

Croghan is situated near the western edge of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, and the topography around Croghan has maintained elements of wilderness. As one...

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