Roles of Amish Women
In Amish society there is a clear patriarchy in which gender roles are strictly defined. Amish Women are expected to marry, have children and submit to their husband’s will. There is no divorce. It is the responsibility of the wife to care for the children and the household. Her tasks include cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening and maintaining the general welfare of the family. Only 3% of Amish women have a job outside of the household (Kraybill, 72). The husband is considered the head of the family and has the final say in spiritual and societal matters. At family meals, the husband sits at the head of the table. Despite the elevated position of the husband, major decisions are usually made jointly by husband and wife. Women have a vote in church meetings, but cannot hold positions of authority within the church. What are the reasons for this patriarchy, and should feminists feel a moral imperative to bring it down?
Perhaps one reason for the patriarchy is simply tradition in the presence of isolation from the rest of the world. Gender systems such as the Amish’s were common in preindustrial societies. And in an agricultural society insistent on self sufficiency and resistant to modern technology, it is necessary for women to have multiple children to help work on the farm. In the 1980 census it was found that the average Amish household had almost twice as many members as the average household in the rest of the county (Kraybill, 70). The large family required for farming must be fed and dressed and taken care of, so, consistent with tradition, the woman fills that needed role. Even young children are defined by the practical roll they can fill as a working member of a farm. Birth announcements from an Amish paper illustrate the gendered rolls of farm children. “Born to Brother Mennos a little dishwasher named Katie” or “Enos Ys are the parents of a little woodchopper born last week” (Kraybill & Olshan, 220). With important rolls to be filled by all, the patriarchy could be merely a matter of practicality, though the question must be asked, could Katie not fill the role of woodchopper and the Enos son the roll of dishwasher equally well? Why is gender so important?
The highly religious nature of Amish society may offers legitimacy to these strict gender roles. The Amish often take literal instruction from the Bible. Women do not question the submissive role in which they are cast because they believe their submission is consistent with the divine order of things. “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of any woman is man” (I Corrintheans 11:3). In marriage, women are instructed “Submit yourself unto your husband as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). The submissive role women play in the church is also dictated by the Bible, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission” (I Timothy 2:11). With society structured around faith and faith structured around man, it is understandable that a patriarchy prevails and that women willingly submit to it. A failure to do so would be a denial of the culture and faith in which they have been indoctrinated their whole lives.
As much as religion serves to perpetuate the Amish patriarchy, there is also a degree to which religious teachings mitigate man’s power over and treatment of women. Men as well as women are taught to practice humility, and aggression is tempered by belief in non-violence. Men are taught to love and respect their wives. “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28). The Amish patriarchy is therefore can perhaps be distinguished from those in which women are abused and subjugated.
Feminists examining Amish culture may feel the impulse to bring down the patriarchy and liberate the oppressed Amish women. The Amish, however, do not necessarily agree with the feminist notion of what it means to be liberated. Many see professional women as a negative role model, a “distortion of God’s created order” (Kraybill, 73). One Amish man said, “We plain people laugh at the foolishness of women trying to be men. To us, women’s lib is ridiculous” (Kraybill & Olshan, 218). Perhaps the Amish’s dismissal of feminism can be understood in light of the degree of respect that Amish women receive from the community. Though women are certainly inferior in terms of social power, it could be argued that because of woman’s vital role in maintaining a functional household and family farm women equal men in terms of value and respect, a goal that many feminists are still working for.
Additionally, while many feminists have historically fought to liberate women from what they considered menial and undervalued tasks of household cooking and cleaning, Amish women do not view such tasks as menial or undervalued. A description of Emma helps illustrate the mindset of Amish women, “She knew who she was as a woman. She knew that what she did mattered. Her knowledge that her role in the family was necessary for its wellbeing permeated her life…Her work was valued, she was valued…Making a commitment to marriage and family was seen as a worthy pursuit” (Kraybill & Olshan, 222).
It is clear that women are valued in Amish society, and on some levels are even afforded types of equality and freedoms that women outside of Amish society might not be. In Amish weddings, for example, the woman is not “given away” by her father to her future husband, as is often done in non-Amish weddings. Instead, the couple walks through the door together. One Amish Author articulates nicely the prevailing view of gender roles, “The Bible teaches very clearly that men and women are equal… but being equal in worth does not mean being the same in calling” (Klaybill & Olshan, 220).
The dress code to which Amish women and men are expected to conform offers an interesting example of a freedom that may be exclusively available to Amish women. Women wear long, one piece dresses, over the bodice of which they wear a halduch, or a cape. They also wear aprons and head caps (Hostetler, 240). While at first this practice may seem highly restrictive, and while surely some Amish women find it so, it could also be seen as freeing if looked at from another perspective. Naomi Wolf argues that “…beauty has become the last restrictive institution…women…have not been freed from the social mandate to pursue beauty” (Garland-Thomson, 15). Since Amish women are actually discouraged from accentuating their physical appearance, they are perhaps free in a way that other women cannot be.
Despite the respect and the aspects of freedom experienced by women in Amish communities, some women do notice and possibly resent the discrepancy in power between women and men. One women commented “The men make the rules so that’s why more modern things are permitted in the barn than in the house…I don’t think it’s fair that we have to push the mowers to mow the lawns…We keep saying that if the men would mow the lawns there would be engines on them, and I am sure there would be…” (Kraybill, 73). However, even women who resent that men get the better tool do not seem to advocate for an erasal of the patriarchy but rather for the improvement of lawn mowers.
The Amish way of life does promote a patriarchal society that many feminists would perhaps find dreadful and oppressive, but it is important to consider the complexities of the culture as well as how it appears on the surface. Amish women may very well enjoy their lives and find value and meaning in raising a family. Or they may not. The opinions of Amish women likely vary as much as do the opinions of feminists. Amish babies are not baptized. To enter the church and become an official part of the Amish community is a choice made later in life. And whether these women chose to stay because of faith or family or connection to the land they do chose to do so. Amish women should not be viewed as oppressed but rather as willing and important participants in their culture.