“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” – Rebecca West.
How do I feel about the role Amish women play in the lives of their families?
More importantly, how do the women feel themselves feel, how do they see their gender roles in Amish culture?
Do they see themselves as coerced victims the way so many of my critics do?
If women have the right to choose, don’t the Amish women have the right to choose to live in a patriarchal society and having lots of children?
I know now that many people, male and female, outside of the Amish community disapprove of how they believe Amish women are being treated and disapprove strongly of how I write about them.
“You’re glorifying this patriarchal culture,” wrote one.
Some men, like Craig, also disapprove:
“The world of childhood is one of continual discovery, “wrote Craig,” and nothing is more joyful than strange (and all are strange) neighbors with stories from the strange adult world. Children have to get in close to absorb the experience fully.
My siblings remember the neighbors differently, how they looked, sounded dressed, smelled! All together, vivid, hilarious images of the past.
Carry a basket of stories for them, from strange places, people, and never humiliate anyone in their earshot.
Finding a group that wants you finally, warmth, emotional warmth, and humility go a long way.
This tho makes one want to scream: “the boys coming in to get the mud off their boots, the girls … keeping the kitchen stove and floor spotless.”. How about you take an intro gender studies class when the colleges open up.”
Blessedly, Craig did not scream, but he did bloviate a bit there at the end. He was writing well and cheerfully enough – he did remind me of Natty Bumpo reflecting on the Indians breezily in the Leatherstocking Tales – but he had to do some preaching at the end.
I note that he didn’t suggest the children’s father take introductory gender courses; only the writer observed how the boys and girls in the family were behaving.
Craig, I realized, was almost surely an academic; the academic can often, I have found, not resist seeing other people as weak and ignorant; lots of people dislike them as a result because they can’t help being patronizing either.
I am sensing that humility is not a prerequisite for tenure, although it’s recommended for me.
Craig’s message was comparatively civil, not even close to being the worst I get on this subject, but it was also rude (not vicious) like so many others. I consider any message that doesn’t mirror what someone would come into my house to say to my face to be rude.
“You are the Patriarchy!” wrote one critic after I tossed her off of my blog for insulting me too often; thus, I was promoted from being a clueless man of white privilege to King Of The Men Of White Privilege.
Now I am humbled. Never has such a callous and unfeeling sexist villain moved so fast and so far up the sexist villain ladder in such a short time.
I’m not just a tool of the patriarchy; I’m it.
As a lifelong (mostly) progressive and occasional conservative, these messages have not changed my mind about the Amish and women. Nasty messages rarely change minds; they aim to wound, not to persuade. They obstruct thinking.
I messaged a feminist writer I’ve known for some time and asked her opinion about the Amish. She was direct, one line, and quickly: “We support the right of women to choose their own destiny, their own lives. Anything else is bullshit. If they are not forced, they are free.”
Amish women get to choose their husbands and tell me they are obedient to their husbands, as their faith dictates, but are strong and vital voices in their families. They do not see themselves as victims in any visible way.
I have witnessed this absence of bullying or coercion, at least in the families I have seen. I know it to be true. That’s a big deal to me.
These messages I get are angry, often rigid, but they have given me enormous insight into why Donald Trump, a hideous excuse for a President, was so popular.
The feminists I am hearing from (I can’t speak for all feminists or even most, almost all of my female friends are feminists) really do think everyone who disagrees with them is either stupid or bigoted – or worse. “Just another dominating male,” said one professor after reading one of my posts on Amish life.
It’s just too easy to dismiss people with different opinions as racists, sexists, or bigots. It can be true; it can also be cheap, a way of hiding from any real dialogue.
The sad thing about these messages is that even if their ideas are sound, I sometimes end up rejecting them just out of spite. I hate to reward cruelty and bad manners.
But this is an important issue worth writing about. People are right to raise it, even if they seem unable to discuss it civilly.
The messages get me to think also, and that is precious.
I’ve always believed in feminism as a movement; I realized right away that feminism makes life both easier and more meaningful for men.
Without the support of three different feminists – my mother, my first wife Paula, and Maria, I would not be an author, a writer with a farm, or an older man with a wonderful life.
And I can testify confidently to one thing: If I did not treat women, their hopes and aspirations and dignity well, I doubt I would be alive and talking today, or at least not mobile.
At every turn, women I knew or knew who believed strongly in feminism also believe in supporting their partners and giving them the encouragement and support they deserve themselves.
I believe I’ve always returned the favor or tried.
I hear – and applaud – feminists who demand freedom of choice. When they dismiss and demean the Amish women as being too weak or foolish to make their own choices, I smell hypocrisy, and to me, the hypocrite is worse than almost anything else because they know they are lying.
I am learning that many women urge women to follow their choices, not their own.
I’ve talked to three Amish women about these criticisms. I will talk to more.
I should say that the Amish do not argue matters of faith or the core positions of the Church. Amish women – or men – do not defend their faith. They practice it as the word of God.
They believe the decisions of the Church come from God directly and thus do not need to be explained or defended to outsiders.
They don’t practice public relations, marketing, or crisis management. They don’t spin.
As I’ve become closer to some of the women in the Amish families I know, I’ve asked them how they feel. I know their positions are complex and diverse. The Amish are not all alike; they are not one thing but many things.
I sense no fear or coercion in the mothers, sisters, or young children. They seem cheerful and confident, eager to work hard for their family and their faith.
I should also note that because they do not proselytize or accept converts, the growth of their communities depends on having an abundance of children.
“I am here of my own free will,” one mother of eight told me. “No one has forced me. I contribute greatly to the family; my role is as important as anyones. It is God’s will that I will be here; there is nowhere else I would rather be than with my husband, children, grandchildren, and church.”
I am, she said, where I belong, where God wants me to be. From my perspective, I don’t believe anyone can work as hard and continuously as they do without conviction and choice.
The Amish culture makes no pretense about the fact that the male is the head of the family. It is a Patriarchy, top to bottom.
Men occupy all visible leadership roles. The Bible very clearly places the man and his wife in a position of subjection, writes Amish writer Joseph Stoll.
Most faiths – Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Muslim – have tenets that other people resent and object to. The Amish draw special attention, I think, because they are so openly and unapologetically patriarchal. They believe a large family with clear lines of authority is essential to maintaining their way of life and religion.
I don’t feel it’s my place to criticize that or judge them for their beliefs. In many ways, it is an uplifting thing to see. Most of the world lives differently than I do, and most people have different values than I do, even in my own country?
Are they all my enemies to be judged?
To understand gender and family in the Amish world, the term “patriarchal “is important. In its anthropological and sociological sense, patriarchal is an honest reflection of gender relationships in Amish society.
There is no argument or compromise about that within their community. There is no discussion within the faith over changing this central belief, and the most eminent Amish scholars insist it will never be changed.
I’ve read and seen that Amish homes are not child-centered. Their mothers teach them that they are expected to obey their elders, including older women.
Anabaptist leaders teach that parents have a moral responsibility to watch over the souls of their children, for “this is the chief and most important care of the godly, that their children may fear God, do good and be saved.”
Amish Scholar Joseph Kraybill says the reality of women’s role in the Amish household is much more complex than it might appear.
In Amish culture, Kraybill writes, subordination means neither inequality nor lack of importance.
The critics messaging me make many assumptions about rigid and authoritative patriarchal frameworks that block the agency and choices of Amish women, who are respected, affirmed, and central.
Gender relations in the Amish family, he writes, reflect what he calls “soft” patriarchy, flexible and adaptable to change and different circumstances.
I’m sure it happens, but I have never seen an Amish mother or father raise their voice to a child or one another.
The women I have met have strong voices about decisions in business and the family; the father has the final word.
Some Amish critics maintain women are victims of a kind of brainwashing, taught to be obedient to men so often and intensely that they no longer really have a choice.
I’m not a psychiatrist; I really can’t speak to that; I am sure it is possible. But I have seen and read about Jewish Orthodox, Muslim, and Evangelical Christian children who are taught the very same things from infancy on. I don’t see a lot of discussion about that.
In America, two groups seem to have singled out the Amish community for criticism, some – not all – elements of the feminist movement and some – not all – elements of the animal rights movement. To me, both of those movements tend dogma, judgment, rigidity, and overstatement.
Kraybill points out that church members are free to leave the church at any time, and very few do.
As a journalist and author, I have strong ideas about challenges to authority and power.
I believe it is essential for powerful institutions to be challenged and asked to explain and defend their positions regarding gender and family. It’s even essential for popular bloggers.
The tone and cruelty of some of the messages are disturbing, but that is a problem in our culture across the spectrum of politics and ideas. We have forgotten how to talk to each other civilly.
I should also say my writing about the Amish is the most popular of any writing I’ve done on the blog, and I appreciate that and should acknowledge it. I do not feel persecuted in any way.
The bottom line for me is that I don’t tell other people what to do or how to live, and I don’t judge them for holding different values than I do.
A cornerstone belief of the modern feminist movement is that women have the right to choose their destinies and bodies, and I support them without reservation.
So then, why wouldn’t that apply to Amish women, who have chosen child-rearing and obedience as a way of having great influence, and be essential to their communities?
From reading history, I know that power doesn’t come only through conflict; as Gandhi and Mandela, and King demonstrated, sometimes it comes from acceptance.
Without Amish women’s willingness to teach, care for and nurture their children, and yes, to be obedient, the infrastructure of the Amish world would collapse.
I admire the Amish men and women I have met greatly and look forward to our deepening friendship and sense of community. I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about this, and thanks for listening and reading.
(Photo: Getty IStock Image)