“Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists”: An Introduction

Starting tomorrow, March 9, and running weekly through April 13, Anabaptist Historians will feature a series of posts around the theme of “Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists.” Using as its starting point the critically acclaimed film, Women Talking, this series features the work of female contributors as they explore the stories of women throughout Anabaptist history who faced the decision—to varying degrees—of challenging or leaving the religious communities of which they were a part. Its intent is to highlight the work of female scholars and the historic individuals, moments, or sources where Anabaptist women made their voices heard.

Image: Internet Movie Database (Fair Use)

What medieval historian Katherine French observes about her subjects in The Good Women of the Parish also holds true for the historic Anabaptist women covered in this series:

Religious practice was an important source of self-expression, creativity, and agency for women of every social status. The Church promoted submission, modesty, and motherhood as traditional Christian values for women. . . . Yet the Church also provided religious significance to women’s everyday lives and tasks . . . the universal Church, offered women opportunities for leadership, visibility, and even occasional authority, all in the name of religious devotion and in seeming contradiction to the goals of submission and silence.[1]

Growing up in the Mennonite tradition, my own study of female Anabaptists didn’t occur until graduate school, and in the same course where I first read French’s book. Beth Allison Barr’s class “Medieval Sermons” provided me an opportunity to examine the intersection of agency and religion in the life and ministry of Mennonite preacher Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.[2] The questions engendered by this class alongside misperceptions about religion in Women Talking prompted the creation of this series.

The contributors, several of whom study Latin America, come from various disciplines. Some stories contain dramatic resistance, others much more ordinary. The series opens with Rebecca Janzen’s contextualization of the film. She notes how the particularity and voice of the women in the Bolivian Old Mennonite Colony gets lost in telling a broader story about sexualized violence. Patricia Islas follows by sharing how Mexican Mennonite victims of gender violence experience healing and hope by the kitchen art they create. Other scholars will narrate the stories of Mennonite women from various times and places, before Kerry Fast closes with her ethnographic description of the religious lives of the Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia.

To learn more about the history and lives of female Anabaptist/Mennonites during this Women’s History Month, see the following—non-exhaustive—list of recommendations:

[1] Katherine L. French, The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4-5.

[2] An earlier version of this Anabaptist Historians post appeared on the Anxious Bench blog at Dr. Barr’s invitation. It compares Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ life and ministry with that of her evangelist brother, George R. Brunk II. See: A Tale of Two Mennonite Pastors: Siblings, Gender, and How to Disagree | Beth Allison Barr (patheos.com).

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