When Master’s Theses Go Bad: Thoughts on Mennonite Exceptionalism and Self-Revisionism

A few years back, when I was a young PhD student, I went to one of my professors for advice. How could I turn some of my languishing seminar papers into publications? Particularly papers on Mennonites? My professor, himself a well-known historian of immigration and Jewish life, gave me this advice: when dealing with ethnic groups or subcultures you can emphasize difference from mainstream society or you can place them in the larger American story. He preferred the latter approach.

This advice percolated in my brain for a few years. It eventually helped me re-examine an earlier master’s thesis on Mennonite involvement in the antiwar movement during Vietnam. I had gone the route of emphasizing difference, rather than a story within a story, and in doing so I had missed something important– both about Mennonites and about the antiwar movement.

The thesis title, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” symbolizes my approach. To quote from the thesis intro (italics not in the original):

The church issues in the 1960s were complex. There was debate on the issues of war, peace, and church-state relationships, a debate that would surround those Mennonites who engaged in antiwar activities. These Mennonites did share characteristics of the larger antiwar movement but, at heart, they cannot be described as a microcosm of that group. Instead, they are best understood within the context of their specific religious community.

Mennonites were a part of the national antiwar movement but they were also a part of a specific ethno-religious community. Some embraced this community, some challenged it, but overall, Mennonite activists engaged with it. Their opposition to the war, therefore, was a form of speaking to the United States government but also to their own community.1

Part of this thesis is fine. Mennonites who protested the Vietnam War did speak to both government and their own community. But this does not mean that Mennonites are best understood apart from the rest of the antiwar movement.

My thesis had focused on Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and Goshen College antiwar activity. I found examples of antiwar students who were hesitant to identify too closely with the larger antiwar movement. One EMC student wrote about attending a 1969 peace march in Washington, D.C. and explained that he felt “out of place” until the EMC group found other Mennonites at the rally. They linked arms, “mainly to let those who saw us know we had a unique reason for marching.”2 Others showed similar sentiment discussing draft resistance. Some antiwar students supported those who refused to cooperate with the Selective Service System but hesitated about secular draft resisters and a praised Mennonite draft resisters as different. A Goshen College student compared draft resisters to a “tornado” while claiming conscientious objectors had “stable, religious grounds” for their refusal to participate in war. Another Goshen student also criticized non-Mennonite draft resisters, calling them “starry-eyed” and vague. However, he agreed with them on the “terrible injustice of war.”3

Comments like these lead me to the conclusion that many Mennonites who protested the war saw themselves as doves of a different feather—in, but not of, the antiwar movement. But I was too quick to take the students at their own word. More than a decade later, much more fully immersed in the history of the antiwar movement, I see things differently (for more on my work on the 1960s—unrelated to Mennonite history—see here).

Considering the antiwar movement in all its diversity, Mennonite students appear more typical than not of peace activists. In the words of historian Charles DeBenedetti, the antiwar movement was “local and ephemeral.”4 Although images of student radicalism and confrontation dominated news coverage, recent scholarship has stressed the diversity of antiwar activists. Whether they acted as mothers, religious figures, or members of ethnic groups, activists nationwide often filtered their antiwar activism through local concerns or specific group identities. This is precisely what gave the movement its broad power—and its struggles with strategy and unity.5 The movement was filled with doves of different feathers. Mennonite activists were not so exceptional in this. Furthermore, some activists’ suspicions about the broader movement reflect key ways in which Mennonites were not unique from their non-Mennonite neighbors.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin has demonstrated that media coverage of antiwar protest was deeply problematic. Reporters depicted the movement as potentially subversive or, paradoxically, ineffective and trivial. Journalists privileged stories with conflict and violence, often focusing on action above ideas and issues. Gitlin argues this encouraged activists to plan ever more dramatic protests and meant that protests that did not involve confrontation failed to reach the eyes of many Americans.6 Gitlin does not blame media coverage for the antiwar movement’s image problems. The movement, he argues, made several of its own mistakes. However, he illustrates some of the very real limitations set up by this coverage.7

The Mennonite student activists who were wary of the larger movement show how much impact media could have, even on those critical of the war. These students defined themselves apart from the movement, perhaps because they did not recognize their own preferred methods of nonviolence and moderation as truly belonging to the movement. And yet, Mennonite students were hardly alone in their preference for a firmly nonviolent movement over the highly visible, but not universally embraced, turn to confrontation that came at the end of the 1960s.8

Mennonites were also not unique in a desire to relate antiwar activism to one’s home community. Historian Lorena Oropeza has described the way Mexican-Americans’ antiwar views became intertwined with the growing Chicano movement. Chicano antiwar leaders valued having their own organizations, separate from the rest of the antiwar movement. They worked with the broader movement but they also wanted space where the concerns and voices of their own community could flourish.9 Likewise, African Americans critiqued the war, arguing that African American men were more likely to be drafted and arguing that they should not have to fight abroad for a nation that denied them equal rights at home. Historian Simon Hall has noted a paradox: that African Americans were the group in America most critical of the war and yet largely absent from the antiwar movement, at least at a grassroots level.10

Many African Americans feared that joining forces with the peace movement would blunt their analysis of the way racial issues at home related to the war abroad. Some African Americans called for a black-led antiwar organization, as a way to take part in the movement without fear of being engulfed by it, but this never materialized. African Americans may not have joined antiwar organizations or events but they continued to address the war from within civil rights and black power groups. They were a part of the movement, but highly conscious of retaining a distinct identity within it.11

Beyond the experiences of racial and ethnic groups, Women Strike for Peace, one of the most active antiwar groups, couched their activism in what historian Amy Swerdlow has termed “maternalist” terms. They emphasized acting as women, “in service of others”—their sons at risk of the draft and the children injured in Vietnam. In doing so, they encouraged a more mainstream image of antiwar work, hoping to appeal to any American woman.12

In the American South, antiwar students tried to use southern identity to galvanize others. They encouraged southerners to “secede” from America over the war, hoping to capitalize on positive associations with a rebel image to inspire antiwar work. This tactic did not necessarily work—indeed it alienated many African Americans—but it was yet another attempt to draw on a specific group identity in protesting the war, as well as an example of seeking to transform a cultural value.13

Vietnam veterans would also form an important bloc of protesters, organizing in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They, too, felt they had a unique perspective and reason for protesting. VVAW became yet another group that was distinct within the movement, yet integral to the cause, providing some of the most compelling testimony against the war.14

Mennonites shared another feature of the antiwar movement: intra-generational conflict. While the stereotype of the 1960s is that campuses were alight with protest this was not always the case. Antiwar student activism often involved a band of dedicated few, facing hostilities from other students and drawing on antiwar faculty for support.15 This was the case for Mennonite campuses where faculty members were often more supportive of student protest than other students. Goshen College professors like J. R. Burkholder, Dan Hess, Dan Leatherman, and Atlee Beechy were integral to antiwar work.16 Professors at EMC also defended students involved in peace vigils, cautioning in the campus newspaper that the Mennonite mentality of “die Stillen im Lande,” or being “the quiet in the land” could lead to terrible atrocities, citing the example of Nazi Germany as a situation when being quiet made ordinary people complicit in government violence.17 These faculty were part of a new interpretation of the peace position, one that questioned obedience to the state and looked for ways to make pacifism active.18 In the meantime, many students still interpreted Mennonite pacifism to preclude protest. In the words of an EMC student, critical of draft card burning in 1965, “. . . Let’s give Uncle Sam his due place in our society…While our citizenship is not in this world, we must serve our nation.”19

In the 1960s Mennonites were reconfiguring pacifism and this does make their story during the Vietnam years unique in some ways. But the ways Mennonites were not unique also matter. When I first took Mennonite expressions of exceptionalism at face value I contributed to two problems: over-simplification of the antiwar movement and romanticization of Mennonite sub-culture.

The story of the 1960s has too often been told as one of movements for social justice that started with the highest ideals, only to come crashing down in a haze of hedonism, violence, and excess by the end of the decade. Historians have been reassessing this narrative for a long time. Moving the spotlight away from students at elite universities, 1960s activism appears more complex, involving many types of people, often lasting well into the 1970s and having a constructive impact on communities. The antiwar movement was more flexible, broad, and diverse than memory has it. Acknowledging this makes the Mennonite story less unique.

Reframing my observations also avoids romanticizing Mennonite sub-culture. American Mennonites are, after all, Americans. In the 1960s they shared many characteristics with other Americans, including support for a war against communism, distrust of the antiwar movement, and susceptibility to negative news media framing of the antiwar movement. There are times to emphasize what is unique about Mennonites, but that should not distract from the ways that Mennonites are shaped by being American.

History is a process of constant revision. Usually this means scholars revise the interpretations of other scholars. But sometimes we need to revise ourselves—and speak more openly about how and why our own interpretations shift.


  1.  Holly Scott, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” (MA thesis, Penn State Harrisburg, 2006). 
  2.  Mel Lehman, “The March, The Ball, The Man,” Weather Vane, January 24, 1969, p. 1 
  3. “The Draft. . .” >The Record, February 23, 1968, p. 4. 
  4. Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 1-2. 
  5. DeBenedetti argues that because the movement was so broad it was able to penetrate almost all aspects of American life, making it a very impactful movement culturally. However, he notes this loose coalition also made it difficult to strategize or clearly assess political gains made. 
  6. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Edward Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), makes similar arguments. 
  7. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching
  8. See Kenneth Heineman Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York: New York University Press, 1993) for an examination of the diversity within the movement. See also Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: University Press, 2009), and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), particularly at 388-415. Gitlin notes the large number of student activists who felt no affinity with increasing radicalization and turn to violence at the end of the decade; indeed he faults the turn to violence in groups like SDS with destroying the antiwar movement. Most members did not want to be part of this turn and thus, losing their institutional home, were cast adrift. 
  9. Lorena Oropeza, ¡Raza Si! Guerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 
  10. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). 
  11. Hall, 1-12, 70-71, 128-129. 
  12. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). 
  13. See Jeffrey Turner, Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South 1960-1970 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Even the student power approach to antiwar work can be seen as part of the trend to organize from within a set identity. See Robbie Lieberman, ed. Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004). The oral histories she collected demonstrate how antiwar activists at conservative campuses were able to make common cause with students around issues they all agreed on—the need for more student rights. This created what were sometimes strange bedfellows, as activists made alliances with fraternities in working on student rights issues. They hoped sharing an identity as students could help to bring these other students into the larger movement. 
  14.  Richard Stacewicz, ed. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). See also Jerry Lembck, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998). 
  15. An excellent treatment of this topic is Heineman, Campus Wars. A similar portrait of campus protest can be found in Lieberman, Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest and Rebecca Klatch, A Generation Divided: the New Left, the New Right and the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Klatch’s work details the way the baby boom generation is significant not only for shaping the New Left but also for providing many of the leaders of a New Right, thus placing intra-generational conflict at the heart of the story of the 1960s. 
  16. Doug Baker, interview by author, October 7, 2006 and Matthew Lind, interview by author, October 2, 2006. Sam Steiner, email to author, December 13, 2006 and J.R. Burkholder, interview by author, September 22, 2006. 
  17. Quote in “Reverberations,” Weather Vane, February 24, 1967, p. 3. See also Grant Stoltzfus, March 4, 1968, Opinion Board 1967-68 and posting by Gerald Brunk, November 2, 1970, Opinion Board 1970-71. These professors voiced support for protest and warned that excessive fears of communism or charges that protest was a threat to law and order at home were misguided at best, potentially dangerous for democracy, at worst. Professor John Lapp also contributed to the discussion, challenging the campus to see student protesters as authentically embodying the Anabaptist nonconformity to the world. See “The Ironies of Change at EMC,” John A. Lapp, posted April 17, 1967, Opinion Board file 1966-67 and “Beyond Irony or Living with Irony?” John A. Lapp, April 19, 1967, Opinion Board 1966-67. All Opinion Board files come from the archives of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  18. For an examination of changing Mennonite peace theology see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). 
  19. “The Draft: Our Worry?” Weather Vane, October 29, 1965, p. 2. 

Meditation on Jealousy and Relief/Community and Individualism

Back in November, I reflected on what some of the women of the Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959 had to say about mischief in their school days. Talking to these women I had the same two reactions I have anytime I talk with Mennonites from older generations: jealousy and relief.

My interview with the EMHS grads was part of a series of interviews with Mennonite women, talking about daily life in the 1930s-1960s. My interviewees described a world centered on church community. It was a world that sounds like an awful lot of fun (thus, the jealousy).

From a group of women who grew up in Denbigh, Virginia in the “Mennonite colony,” the 1940s and 1950s meant roller skating parties on Colony Road, hot dog roasts, boat rides on the river, swimming, and girls’ slumber parties at home or along the river. The boys usually stopped by, too—to hang around and tease a bit. “I just remembering having fun,” one woman remarked. Another chimed in, “the young folks would have so much fun together.” Their bonds were strong, perhaps because so much of the world was off limits. One woman remembered that they were not allowed to play cards, so they made their own decks.1

Other women also described church as their social world. Ruth H. (b. 1924, Ohio) remembered the difference the new Mennonite Youth Fellowship made in her life. Sermons may have been long, but MYF made church worthwhile.2 Vera K. (b. 1926, Pennsylvania) remembered how much she enjoyed hanging around after church just talking with other young people. Both described singing, in groups or quartets, and Sunday School parties.3

Church was a place to fit in—often in contrast to life at public schools. Ruth H,. recalled being “lonely” at school, in the early 1940s, as one of only a few Mennonites. Going to Goshen College was a “wonderful experience” where she found close friends and mentors and felt she finally belonged.4 Ruth S. (b. 1933, Pennsylvania) echoed this sentiment. She, too, went to public school where she was involved in activities, but only to a point. She remembered making signs for school dances but not going to the dances. On the rare occasion she did go, she hung back and didn’t dance (one time she danced with the football coach: “I survived it okay. It didn’t do me in,” she reported). Ruth S. described feeling torn: she wasn’t comfortable taking part in all of the school activities and yet she didn’t like being left out. For her, too, Goshen College was where she could fully participate.5

You don’t have to be a historian to realize the risks in idealizing the past. The price of a tightly knit community was surveillance and conformity. The women all remembered a less fun cornerstone of community life: revival meetings. While many had positive things to say, most also remembered feeling fear as well. Ruth S.  called revivals “high pressure” and “very emotional.”6 The Denbigh women recalled that preaching often centered on fear of hell, not the love of God. The preachers were “after the hardened sinners but… got me” said one, remembering the fear she felt. Another recalled the anxiety around communion and the experience of taking open communion at a Presbyterian church as and adult. “It was unbelievably freeing,” she said, so moving that she cried. Another faulted their church community for having “no grace” and said that leaders “deprived me of a loving God.”7

Revival meetings were not the only source of anxiety. The same social bonds that could make life fun could make life hard. The EMHS women remembered how even just looking “worldly” could get you marked as a trouble-maker. Looking worldly could involve your dress and deportment choices—or it could be something you had no control over, such as having bright, unruly hair.8 And there was always someone watching, especially if you were a woman. Mary R. (b. 1930, Pennsylvania) remembered how uncomfortable it made her to walk up the steps to the Lancaster Mennonite School library with a male administrator looking on, checking that skirts were long enough.9 The good old days were not that great (thus, relief that those days are gone).

Just as we should be cautious about idealizing the past, we should not forget that community norms are often unstable—and there is joy in the process of contesting culture. The EMHS women chuckled at their exploits: holding hands under the table, away from the eyes of “spies” in the social room, sneaking out for motorcycle rides, banding together to irritate a conservative teacher in subtle ways. There is no fun quite like subversive fun. We don’t acknowledge this nearly enough.

Then again, subversive fun is less fun if you’re caught—and you’re more likely to be caught if you’re someone who is less “in.” Being “in” means knowing how to break rules, or how to read the often unstated exceptions to rules and knowing how to handle yourself if caught. Being “out” means you function with the same rules but without the inside knowledge required to keep you from more serious consequences.

These are hard truths: tight community bonds often mean community surveillance. Having a sense of being “in” often means someone else will have a sense of being “out.” I am relieved to have grown up in a time where I never imagined God as scary, where no one checked my skirt length, and there was no pressure surrounding baptism. I was encouraged to know my own mind and to make choices that were “right for me.” I am relieved the Mennonite world shifted before I was born.

But I am still jealous. When I’m 70, I won’t be gathering for regular breakfasts with the women of my high school class. As a child I stayed in one place but my friends moved regularly as parents climbed career ladders. We were drawn together by similar interests but we didn’t know each other’s families in the same way these women knew each other. We were friends as individuals. We were not a community.

Is there a way to have both room for the individual and a close-knit community? When I think about this on a theoretical level the answer seems like an obvious yes. It’s a matter of prioritizing community and intentionally cultivating it. When I think about this on a practical level it gets stickier.

What does it mean to prioritize or intentionally cultivate community? The world is no longer off limits. You can go to the college that best suits you, as an individual, not necessarily a college you have family or church ties to. It’s expected that you’ll move for a career, leaving the connections of family, friends, and church. You can give as little or as much as you like to a church in terms of time and resources. No one is watching. There is a never-ending list of things you can do with your time, the people you can meet, and the places you can take your talents. We don’t need to invent our own deck of playing cards anymore. We are all free to go to the public school dance.

But there is only so much time in this life and if I go to the dance Saturday night I may be too tired to go to church on Sunday. Or, to make this metaphor more fitting for my life: if I’m facing a deadline at work then I might stay home and work on a Sunday, because that’s what I need this day. It’s more than just church attendance. I look for the friends and communities that suit my individual tastes—sometimes that means church community and often not.

What has been lost? Community life? Sense of place? Stable church-related institutions? Individualism has its place, but it’s not always conducive to walking together. If the church I was raised in doesn’t suit me just right as an individual, I can easily go down the road to another one.

There is probably no easy solution to the conundrum of community and individualism. No easy resolution to my feelings of both jealousy and relief. Perhaps the tension does not need to be resolved, only acknowledged. Is this state of tension at the core of what it is to be a Mennonite in the twenty-first century? We are painfully aware of the ways in which community went wrong in the past and continues to go wrong today. But we also make community a hallmark of our faith.

A couple of months ago I ended up in a Facebook conversation about Austin McCabe Juhnke’s piece “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite national anthem.’” My friends and friends of friends pondered the implications of Juhnke’s argument. We agreed we all wanted community, and rituals that bring us together, but we struggled with how to create community that does not exclude.

I find it difficult to know how to end a meditation like this one. Perhaps that is because you can’t think your way out of the conundrum of community life. We may have to spend more time together to work on it. I don’t necessarily mean more time at church or more time dissecting hidden power dynamics inherent in community building. I mean more time playing together or getting to know each other—perhaps more time engaging in subversive fun together. In the past Mennonites knew each other well but likely had a less developed analysis of the perils of community life. Today we have the theory down, but we don’t know each other as well. Could we put the two together—awareness of the danger and knowing each other well—and see if we end up in a different place?


  1.   Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  2. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  3.  Vera Kauffman, oral history interview (February 5, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  4. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  5. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  6. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  7. Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  8. Eastern Mennonite High School, class of 1959, oral history interview (March 14, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  9. Mary Reitz, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 

Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]

57Shen010

Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.