10 May

Me And My Neighbors: Do Amish Women Have The Right To Choose?

by Jon Katz

“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)


  1. I am enjoying your blog about The Amish people and their way of life. I have learned a lot. I like the feminist who say freedom of choice. If they are happy in their way of life why should i Judge them. I admire them in many ways.

  2. Jon, I think your recent articles about the Amish are some of the most rich and informative you’ve written. I have your books and have enjoyed your blog, so I confess to being a fan . Please keep telling your experiences with this wonderful family. They really inspire hope for our hurting country.

  3. Jon, You are writing about the Amish culture and the lovely Amish people you have met. You are not judging their choices or lifestyle – you are reporting on what you experience and witness. We can learn from the Amish and other cultures different from ours. All religions have negative aspects, dogma, questionable doctrines, personally I choose not to follow any organized religion, but I do not disrespect people who do, it is their choice. I can admire the Amish, they way they care about the environment, are self sufficient, frugal, not addicted to technology – it seems like we can learn from them. If more people in the world could be like you – have an open mind and an open heart – just maybe we could begin to heal, and not continue the cycle of hate, racism, violence, etc…

  4. Its bad enough that you internally contradict yourself, are dogmatic, make itrelevant replies, and veer off onto tangents (first year law students would rip you apart), are petty and dismissive, i bet when Moise puts up a blog the female and male readers will suggest a good gender studies course, but what is worst is you have no sympathy for the feelings and emotions if females who have been denied education and skills where she can earn a living if she does sense she’s missing something vital later on, and decide to leave. People change a lot in marriage, at least support her freedom, joy and self- fulfillment. Loyalty to patriarchy is safe in the short term.

    Take TO THE LlGHTHOuSE and A ROOM oF HER OWN to the wife.

    1. Bernd, the Amish don’t create blogs or read them. I’m struck by the image of first-year law students tearing me to pieces, I’m guessing you are one. Doesn’t sound like patriarchy is safe to me. The females I’m speaking with don’t share your idea of them as helpless victims, how patronizing and sexist. I realize you’re not looking to have a conversation in the midst of all this very scattered venom spewing, but it’s always worth a try. I’m sure glad you’re not petty or dismissive.

      I’d encourage you to talk with those first-year law students you admire so much and ask them if some women have the right to want something different in their lives than you want. Or does freedom mean only choosing what you think they should choose? Your contempt for these women and their ability to make their own choices is disturbing and revealing.

      The lives of the Amish women I know are, in fact, quite safe according to them. They are important, engaged, respected, and free from health care worries or fiscal troubles, or food insecurity or homelessness, or unemployment or abusive men and sexual harassment. They love their children very much, marry who they choose, and they respect the right of obnoxious people like you to be the way you are. They would never write rude notes to strangers.

      They can leave at any time, and some do, but very few.

      I love my marriage, it is fulfilling and meaningful to me, but I would never presume to tell you that that is the only way for you to live, that would be much more insulting to you than you are trying to be to me. People with incoherent and weak arguments are always the first to turn to nasty. Best, Jon

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your points on feminism. it is really easy to agree with people you agree with. I think a problem is women don’t often support women’s ability to choose, but more a woman’s ability to choose what they think is correct. I see this with women who choose to stay home vs women who choose to work. I celebrate choice & a real test of that is to support women who think & act differently than myself.

    Question – you mentioned the Amish don’t accept converts?? That I find intriguing. Can you elaborate. Can someone marry into an Amish community? If they marry someone who is English, do they need to leave the community? If someone would want to join, are they just told no or is there a process – I am a Catholic & just have the experience of converts having to go through classes & sacraments to join the church.

    1. Kim, the Amish don’t convert people, you are born into the faith or not. It’s just the way it’s always been, which is how they do things. I think the Amish can marry who they wish, but I’m not sure they can stay in the church. I think not.

      1. I think this is hard for many of us; ” you are born into the faith, or not”, and therefore born into one expected future, one predetermined life experience. The strict lifestyles that place community norms at the center, and only allow for individuality within those norms , exist within other groups. But those groups aren’t as easily (intentionally?) recognized.
        Your neighbors seem to be very nice people, and their focus on faith and family is impressive. I’m sure that the earth would be in better shape had none of our ancestors ever declined to learn, try, and do something completely different than their family or their faith proscribed. I can admire your neighbors, but give thanks that the arc of history has moved towards diversity of humanity, thought and experience.

  6. I always try to follow the philosophy of Live and Let Live. I would not appreciate anyone who doesn’t know me, trying to weigh in on my life choices, unless what I am doing is actually causing them personal harm. I certainly have the same respect for others. What right do I have to weigh in or judge how the Amish choose to live? I could certainly not live the way that they choose to live, but their choices are not impacting my life. They would certainly not choose to live as I live. My mother, used to have a saying, that as a child, I thought was rather ridiculous. However, as I am older, I greatly appreciate the sentiment: “To each his own, said the old lady as she swallowed a fly.” This lesson has served me well in life.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I have been impressed by your accounts of Amish life, and appreciate your thoughtful exploration of these “ power “ issues in this time of cultural fermentation. There was a book years ago, Mutant Message Down Under, which explored the roles different member of community took in the group. Not sure if it was fiction, but the same idea of respecting each members role…

  8. I have truly enjoyed many of the things you write about ( and we disagree sometimes but that’s ok) but the topic of the Amish have been so interesting to read. I’m not Amish but believe as they do in so many ways. I’m a Christian, a Christ follower if you will that tries to follow God’s plan for my life.

    I’m 66 years old and I was raised by parents that believed all things were possible. I just had to want it and work for it, period. I’ve been married for almost 47 years to my best gift from God. My husband is the head of our home but I’ve never been a doormat to anyone. I struggle with a feminist who yells, “my body my choice” but doesn’t allow me the same courtesy for choosing to get married, have children, help raise grandkids so our daughters can establish careers of their own and now I can go to school if I chose. We raised two daughters & a son with the same mind set that all things are possible! Our first grandchild just graduated from college at age 18 and will graduate from high school in June. “She” believes that God will use her in this life and will continue her education in the fall. She’s not limited because she is a female or that marriage will limit her as many feminists believe today. I/we made the choices for our marriage based on faith in God and love for each other. I’m not trapped, voiceless or afraid. I’m not less than today’s feminist who keeps trying to be heard for rights that I simply believe I was born with or had to work to obtain. I believe in God, His Word, the Bible , Heaven & Hell, marriage with a man & a woman, life begins at conception & I have no right to take it. Most of those views are shared by the Amish but are viewed by most of society as outdated and unrealistic in today’s culture. God’s word hasn’t changed though even with new easy to read versions. Sin is still sin. Maybe simple faith to some but the reason I get up everyday. Many in my family chose to “home school “ their children and I get it. Our baby is 40 now and schools are very different than when we were raising our children. I don’t pretend to have all the answers just have to choose my own path.
    You have enjoyed what you have learned about your new friends and in writing about their Amish life you have stirred a pot that just confirms where we are as a country. I find it sad that people would attack you or anything in this article. You don’t like something then move on. You can hold your own however, with anyone who would attack. It has been refreshing for me to the point that I would put in writing my own thoughts. Maybe more folks like myself and the Amish need to speak up more. I’m real careful about anyone knowing truly what I think other than my children and grandkids as it’s not really my calling or specialty. Hubby knows though without asking.
    Keep being a friend to the Amish, trusting and respecting each other and your ways of choosing to live. God will bless you both for it of this I am sure!

    But I digress…

  9. I thought the same about Muslim women until I actually became friends with one. I quickly learned that they are not subjugated by their husbands and that they speak their minds and make decisions of their own.

  10. Jon Katz, In the negative comments I’ve read posted about your articles about the Amish, I perceive a lot of projection; and, frankly, jealousy. Are those who are most judgemental happy with their own lives in this dystopian society we “English” seem to think so superior to that of the Amish, or Common Sensers, or any other religious group? Are Amish women wrong just because they do not embrace *their* definition of feminism? How dare they be happy and fulfilled without Gloria Steinem! Obviously all patriarchies are evil; for that is what the disciples of woke accept as the only truth and enlightenment. How can they even comprehend the notion of basing one’s standards of manhood on love, family, work, community and the deeply held tenets of one’s faith? This condemnation of patriarchy comes from a society that labels its own masculinity as “toxic”, and seems bent on eliminating it. A society that denigrates and downplays the importance of parenthood and the nuclear family; while rotting from within from lack of both. In watching the Common Sensers and now the Amish here in Cambridge I see the hard work they do, but I also see the joy and satisfaction they take in their lives, work, and faith. And I see women and children who seem far happier and less stressed than I see in our “English” society. I see in them the very qualities that built our society and nation; and that we, as a nation, have neglected and reject – with disastrous results. No, when these vocal critics can prove to me how much better their methods and philosophies are, and show how happy and satisfied *they* are with their lives and society, we can talk. In the meantime, I see their vitriol and attacks on our neighbors as just desperate jealousy of the joy, love and fulfillment enjoyed by the Amish that the English cannot ever gain through therapists and cancel culture.

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