Growing up, I understood what it meant to be a Mennonite woman from the generations of Mennonite women I come from. Being a Mennonite woman was the simplicity of my grandmother’s family recipes such as “stewed crackers,”surprisingly delicious soggy saltine crackers with browned butter. It meant gathering with my mother, grandmother, sister, cousins and aunts to freeze corn and can peaches, pears and applesauce (Note also that many of the male family members also helped out on these occasions, something that I’m not so sure happened in previous generations). Being a Mennonite woman meant listening to the stories my paternal grandmother told, always pointing out the many connections between families and friends. It meant hearing stories of my maternal grandmother, so concerned about making sure guests felt welcomed into her home she often let the cooking corn burn.
When I went to college and studied more about our Anabaptist and Mennonite heritage, being a Mennonite woman meant being willing to suffer and die for a fledgling and radical faith movement. Though greatly outnumbered by the stories of men, the Martyr’s Mirror, a famous collection of martyr stories, also shares stories of women martyrs such as the nameless woman martyred at Schwabisch Gmund and Maeyken Wens. The anonymous woman was taken prisoner with many others but she was only one of seven who stood firm in her convictions to death rather than recanting and being saved. Similarly, Maeyken Wens was taken prisoner and burned at the stake, leaving behind two sons. Her captors put a tongue-screw on her mouth, a common contraption used to prevent the martyrs from singing or sharing their testimony as they died. We can also read between the lines of the many strong women who were widowed and continued caring for their families in the face of intense suffering and death.
As my college experience went on, I encountered Mennonite women ready to stand up against and struggle with the historic and continuing patriarchy in our Mennonite tradition. I learned that in 1987 a woman from my own home congregation was the first to be a licensed deaconess in Lancaster Mennonite Conference, a conference that only affirmed women’s ordination in 2006 and still does not affirm women as bishops. I heard the story of a woman who was not allowed to teach men’s Sunday school classes so would teach the women instead. However, before too long, the men began crowding around outside the door of her classroom to hear her teaching. I saw my grandmother’s deep and painful struggle with letters from her family rebuking her for taking off her prayer covering and caped dresses. My last year at Eastern Mennonite University, I shared community with seven women exploring what it truly means to be biblical, eshet chayil women (Hebrew for “woman of valor”) in our world today. Last fall, I worshipped with and listened to the stories of an amazing group of women at the “Women Doing Theology” conference as we explored the patriarchal power that needs to be exposed and dismantled as well as the power that we possess. As a white Mennonite woman with Swiss-German roots, I continue to be both challenged and inspired by the Mennonite women of color who continually call out and seek change in the broader Mennonite institutions.
I don’t know about you, but today the world can seem so dark to me. As I think about these women who inspired me as a Mennonite woman throughout the years, their light broke through the darkness. When I feel like giving up on faith or the church, these women from my family, both biological and spiritual, keep me going. Who shines the light ahead of your path? Which Mennonite women keep you going?
It is very likely that your list will look much different than mine. You do not have to can fruit and vegetables, have a Mennonite family history or go to your church’s sewing circle to be a Mennonite woman. The lives of our global Mennonite sisters may look very different than ours in North America. The lives of my North American Mennonite sisters may look very different than mine. But we all share a long tradition of women seeking to follow Jesus in radical new ways and in a wide variety of contexts. I always love hearing stories of the wild ways of Mennonite women following Jesus through their world. What stories keep you going? Who shines the light ahead of your path?
Christina Hershey is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is a member of Slate Hill Mennonite Church in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, but currently attends Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.