As a child, one of the things that fascinated me about Mennonites of the past was dress, particularly the head covering. What would it have been like to be marked, physically, by your religion? To have people look at you and know you were a Mennonite? Head coverings and plain attire were mostly past when I was growing up—the province of grandmothers and old photographs. And so I could romanticize dress regulations a bit—toy with the idea that perhaps there was something desirable in the certainty and identity that rules on dress created. But, as my mother has pointed out, that shows how little acquainted I am with the tedium of listening to long sermons on skirt length.
Dress, any historian of Mennonites will tell you, was a potent symbol of many things: patriarchy, nonconformity, agency, resistance. Given all this weight, I was eager to ask several Mennonite women about when and how expectations about dress shifted in their lives. As I worked with them on oral histories, I was surprised to find that the women I spoke with did not have firm memories about how change had happened.
The women I interviewed were born between 1924 and 1942. They all grew up with the expectation of at least a head covering. Some wore cape dresses, even if only to church or school, while others were only expected to dress modestly in a regular skirt and blouse. Expectations varied depending on family and congregation. But the women shared two things: a vague sense of when and how rules changed and an emphasis on rules as something they followed to get along, not something that they approached with deep personal conviction.
In a group interview with several women from the Denbigh, Virginia, community, several agreed that they couldn’t remember exactly when standards on dress had changed. “I just can’t remember being much bothered by [discussion on dress],” one woman stated.1 Another woman recalled that it seemed like there was a time (around the 1960s) when “it was almost like every woman did was right in her own eyes,” about dress. She took cues from other women in her congregation, particularly women who were respected, and did not necessarily look to church leadership for guidance as things changed.2
These women were not overtly rebelling against dress rules but were happy to find spaces where they could get around rules without notice. One woman recalled that as a nurse in the 1950s she could avoid a cape dress in daily life because she needed to wear a uniform. She also remembered that she quit wearing black stockings “as soon as I could get out of it,” emphasizing how unattractive they looked. Sometime in the 1970s she stopped wearing a covering. Someone at work had asked her why Mennonites wore coverings. She realized she had no good answer and took that as an indication that it was time to change. She continued to wear a small lace covering to church “out of respect” for others.3
Another woman made similar comments about a desire to get along with the church. She stopped wearing a covering (outside of church) her senior year of high school, in the early 1950s. She “didn’t want to disappoint” leaders but also didn’t feel the covering made sense.4 Another remembered relief in leaving Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for Goshen College and an atmosphere that was less focused on dress.5 Men also lacked attachment to the rules. One woman recalled that once her husband was ordained as a minister in Virginia Conference in the late 1950s he began wearing a plain coat, but “not because of personal conviction.”6 Overall, the women looked back on ideas about dress with some amusement. They emphasized critiques they had held—quietly—in the past and agreed change was a good thing.
A few of the women that I interviewed did indicate some personal conviction about dress. One called the head covering a “symbol of my relationship” [with her husband]. She explained she did not stop wearing it until she checked with her husband, who told her it should be up to her what she wore.7 Another told the story of the last cape dress she made. She had trouble getting it to fit right and prayed for the Lord to help her: “if he wanted me to wear a cape he’d help me. And I had more trouble with that cape than any.”8 She took it as a sign that cape dresses were not an essential part of Christian life. But, even these women described an overall change process that was subtle and without moral distress. I was left with the impression that dress regulations faded away—and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
So what interpretations can a historian draw? Of course, there are some caveats. Firstly, my sample was quite small (about 15 women) and I did not attempt to find women from the same communities or same age cohorts (they ranged from birth years 1924 to 1942 and came from home communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio; all grew up in old Mennonite—MC—congregations). Secondly, none of the women came from the generation that did the most to push outright against rules on dress—although those born in the early 1940s came closer to that age cohort, and had more tales to tell about the tricky ways they got around rules. Moreover, most of the women remained Mennonite their entire lives; I might have found different stories if I had interviewed women who left the Mennonite church. Another point is that my sample skewed toward the college educated; several of the women had professional careers. Finally, oral histories often tell us as much about the present as the past. Regulating religious dress seems far away. It maybe that, feeling no attachment to head coverings now, it is difficult to remember a time when perhaps one did find meaning in them.
My working theory, however, is that there were a lot of people in the Mennonite church donning plain coats and head coverings not out of conviction but out of a desire to remain in fellowship. My evidence speaks most to the period of the 1950s-1970s— although given some of the comments women made about their mothers’ attitudes toward dress, I have cause to suspect there was never full consensus on the matter. Change sometimes comes with a bang. And sometimes it comes quietly. I doubt there is anything particularly Mennonite about a pattern where a few people openly push for change while many more change slowly, perhaps all the while seeming to be not changing at all. I leave it to the sociologists to say for sure, but I suspect this is a common social pattern.
But change without a bang does raise some questions relevant for the Mennonite church today. In our current conflicts over embracing and including LGBTQ persons in church life it is tempting to think only those who are the most vocal seek change. But is it possible that we have pews of people quietly wondering why sex is such a big deal for church membership? Who may not be asking for change but would be okay if it came? Could we apply the concept of a silent, questioning majority to other conflicts in church history: women in leadership or divorce and remarriage? The value is not in finding perfect historical parallels—often a futile task, anyway—but in being attentive to the range of ways change develops.
The silent majority trope should be used with some caution, given its history. Richard Nixon used it to galvanize support as he argued against cultural and political change in the 1960s, but naming a silent majority of supporters obscured as much as it illuminated. For one, if a group is “silent,” it is conveniently easy for politicians to speak for it, in ways that may or may not accord with reality.9 There are philosophical issues with silent majorities as well: are they necessarily noble or wise? Does elevating them ignore the importance of prophetic minorities? But, despite the complexity, the concept of a silent majority can be useful in thinking about how change happens, particularly if we remember this: silent majorities are not static. They are made up of real people who change and respond to change over time. Just because people don’t protest something does not mean that they like it. Most Mennonite women in the 1950s didn’t openly push the boundaries on dress, but it would be a mistake to read that as true belief in the rules.
Silent majorities can be real or invented. They can resist change or form a backlash. But they can also be a key part of how change unfolds. They can embrace change. As one group of women I interviewed put it, “we were the good kids.”10 Would anyone have guessed, in the 1950s, how many good girls wearing coverings were ready to take them off?
- Group interview with women who have roots in the Denbigh Colony (Newport News, VA), oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 12, 2014, archived in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library and Archives, Harrisonburg, VA. All interviews cited in this post can be found in this collection. ↩
- Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2013. ↩
- Mary Reitz, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. ↩
- Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 2, 2013. ↩
- Vera Kauffman, oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 5, 2014. ↩
- Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. ↩
- Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. ↩
- Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2014. ↩
- At the time Nixon made his silent majority speech a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, even if they didn’t endorse the antiwar movement. Some historians argue that Nixon didn’t so much describe a silent majority as he did create it. On broad antiwar sentiment, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 293-294. On Nixon directing, not describing, the silent majority and the use of silence to speak for others, see Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: the Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 159-163. ↩
- Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959, oral history interview by Holly Scott, March 14, 2014. ↩
Holly, thanks for paying attention to the covering.
In doing so, you are paying attention to many generations of Mennonite women who were never really heard on this subject. Too often, at least in my experience, when I try to talk about growing up wearing a covering, well meaning people try to “help” me by dismissing its importance. I am told it was how things were done at the time. I am told it is “baggage” which should be laid aside or “gotten over”. I am asked, why even talk about such an outdated thing? I want to say, you have no idea. It feels almost insulting to have unknowing people dismiss a big part of who you were.
Anybody who thinks like this probably never had to wear a covering or not very long.
The covering represented who I was for more ten years of my life, the most formative years. Coverings defined us and yes, they marked us everywhere we went. How would you like to wear something made of white netting on your head all the time? It wasn’t a piece of clothing–it was signage, plain and simple. I describe it as wearing my religion, not on my sleeve but on my head. It was plain for all to see.
It was so important that as a child (I began wearing a covering at age 10), I used to fear that if I died while I slept and was not wearing a covering in bed, I would go to Hell. That’s how important it was–made a child scared to go to sleep. Where I come from, you wore it all the time, even in gym class in public school and in the haymow where we tossed bales of hay. And contrary to what some of the women you interviewed, I do remember each and every change. I remember how it felt to wear a too big covering at college but when took the risk of changing to a smaller covering, it was painful to go home. I remember how it felt to be free finally of wearing a covering but I never have been free of its impact. To this day, I don’t wear hats. I still feel totally inept and unprepared when I go to Hair Cuttery. I feel like I need to confess to each and every hairdresser why I don’t feel comfortable even sitting in the chair that gets pumped up. I have no idea how to explain what I want done with my hair. How should I know? I had no role models for getting my hair “done.”
And it seems almost ironic how nonchalant the hairdresser is about it all. She is totally unaware that even though I look to be an ordinary 69 year grey haired lady, actually I am that Mennonite girl inside when it goes to what happens to my hair. And it always feels like a shame to be “shorn.”
So, some of us remember. Some of us do want history to know about how we felt but how do we tell the story? It doesn’t seem to belong in the domain of historians and professionals who analyze patriarchy, authority, social order and resistance. It is personal, the kind of thing which needs to be told from personal experience, in memoirs and oral history.
I would say, make your sample bigger, quick, before those of us who wore coverings are all gone.