Rachel Waltner Goossen
It’s been twenty-two years since historians from the U.S. and Canada collaborated on the first academic conference focusing on women of Anabaptist traditions. A sequel comes this summer: an interdisciplinary conference, Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, slated for June 22-24, at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Scholars from around the globe as well as students and others interested in women’s and Anabaptist/Mennonite history will gather for cross-disciplinary panels, sessions, and conversations. The conference theme invites us to consider how Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, and related groups have bumped up against – and traversed – physical and figurative borders, right up to the present day.
In 1995, a landmark scholarly conference titled The Quiet in the Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspective drew 256 participants from Canada, the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands. Hosted at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, this early collaborative effort among Mennonite scholars featured artistic performances, especially drama, music and poetry. Approximately one hundred academic presentations explored the richness of women’s experience and interests drawn from Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Amish, Hutterite, Brethren in Christ, German Baptist, and Jewish perspectives.
At the conclusion of the 1995 conference, participants were enthusiastic about the variety of methodological and interdisciplinary approaches on display, but noted that a future conference would need to cast a more inclusive net. Many called for greater attention to international stories and viewpoints, pointing out that a critical mass of individuals in Anabaptist traditions lived outside of U.S./Canadian communities. Others critiqued the Millersville gathering for failing to incorporate LGBT history, although other forms of inclusion/exclusion were dominant themes of the conference.
By the final day of the conference, one observer noted the gathering’s big-tent flavor: “Many perspectives have been expressed underneath this canopy . . . . We have not been concerned with boundaries.” Johns Hopkins University Press was attracted to the gendered theme of the conference and subsequently published an edited collection, Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History (2002), which highlighted European- and North American-focused scholarship (a notable exception was Marlene Epp’s “’Weak Families’ in the Green Hell of Paraguay”).
Intensifying an international reach this time around, the June 2017 conference will focus on boundaries and border-crossings. Women from the Global South will participate. Students and scholars from a dozen countries are among the panelists and plenary speakers. Each day, an invited scholar will address implications of border- and boundary-crossings. Hasia Diner, New York University Professor of History, will speak on gender systems in ethno-religious immigrant communities. Cynthia Peacock of India, affiliated with Mennonite Central Committee for nearly four decades and a representative for Mennonite World Conference, plans to address church leadership in South Asia. And Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American writer and English professor at James Madison University, will be drawing from her own Arab and Mennonite heritage for her presentation, “Crossing Ethnicities.”
Academic presentations on a wide array of topics, as well as an art exhibit, poetry readings, original dramatic performance, modern dance and ballet performances, and Shendandoah Valley cultural tours round out the conference offerings. In the spirit of the 1995 gathering, organizers of the upcoming Crossing the Line gathering hope the event will contribute to “mentoring relationships that crossed traditions and disciplines and age groups,” according to planning committee co-chair Kimberly Schmidt.
Watch this Anabaptist Historians blog site for regular updates and postings from participants throughout and after the conference. Participants may register for the entire conference or for a daily rate. Registration, schedule, sponsorship, and lodging details are available via the conference website.
Rachel Waltner Goossen is a member of the conference planning committee and professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.