- Mennonite Women in Canada: A History
This book addresses a scandalous blind spot that has existed for centuries in Mennonite history. Women, as Katie Funk Wiebe once observed, have been viewed by Mennonite historians 'mostly through a low-lying fog.' Marlene Epp sets out to dispel some of the fog by being what Cynthia Enloe termed a 'curious feminist.' Curiosity is said to have killed the cat, a warning that is echoed in a Low German Mennonite saying: Neeschee haft de Velt vedorve ('Curiosity has ruined the world'). Epp ignores this ominous warning (an implicit judgment on the first woman) and embraces instead something similar to what Albert Einstein called 'holy curiosity,' a passion that opens us up to see worlds that were previously invisible.
In what has become her signature approach, Epp begins by abandoning the assumption that invisibility in written history equates with disempowerment and that Mennonite women were and are downtrodden victims meekly accepting inequality. It's a method that she honed in Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (2000). In this book, similarly, she dismantles images of weakness and records the varied ways that women in disparate situations exercised power in creative ways. It is a book rich with stories that Epp has put together by using a wide range of sources, including oral histories, diaries, family [End Page 297] histories, letters, and memoirs. Church documents are made subordinate to a synthesis of accounts from other sources, and the result is a freshness of approach to the 'motif of migration,' which is of central importance to Mennonite self-understanding. Theologized stories of migration are 'deeply rooted in myths of progress and purity.' Since the perspectives of women have not been included in 'the 'social memory' of migration' or in the written histories, almost nothing has been known about the extent to which they shared in these myths or resisted them. In her pioneering foray into this territory, Epp provides evidence that the 'tension between spiritual equality and social inequality' that was present in Anabaptist beginnings has 'continued to shape the lives of Mennonite women throughout the centuries.'
The material is organized not chronologically but according to the multiple roles filled by women: pioneers, refugees, transnationals, wives, mothers, preachers, prophets, missionaries, nonconformists, non-resisters, citizens, quilters, canners, and writers. In each of these categories Epp provides richly detailed accounts of women who have creatively reinvented those roles, even as they may appear to be submitting to prescription. Perhaps the most compelling examples are those having to do with the way women in Mennonite communities, as in many other ethnic groups, become the 'cultural carriers, with responsibility for maintaining traditions, customs, language and other group distinctives across generations.' It is in the area of dress that the double standard becomes most conspicuous: men allow themselves to assimilate even as they insist that women must continue to wear traditional dress.
The openness of Epp's stance makes it possible for her, without forcing the material into an ideological mould, to dismantle of a range of assumptions. The cumulative impact of the stories is destabilizing at a level more radical than the slightness of the details would suggest. Indeed, this history is not only about Mennonites. Many assumptions about gender made by general readers are discovered hidden within those that inform a traditional understanding of Mennonite identity. The reader who puts down this book will be left with many uncomfortable questions that have been exposed and with a heightened sense of how much scholarly work needs to be done. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brings it back.
Magdalene Redekop, Department of English, University of Toronto