Righting America

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The Lives of Amish Women: An Interview with Karen M. Johnson-Weiner | Righting America

by Susan L. Trollinger

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner is a Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emerita at SUNY Potsdam in Potsdam, NY, where she taught courses in linguistic anthropology. She received a B.A. in 1975 from Hope College (Holland, MI) and an M.A. from Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI) in 1976. She earned her Ph.D. in linguistics from McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) in 1984 and has been studying patterns of language use and cultural maintenance in Amish and Mennonite communities for over 30 years.

She is also the author of The Lives of Amish Women published by Johns Hopkins University Press. We here at rightingamerica are very pleased that Karen is willing to be interviewed about this very important book. 

Picture of book cover for "The Lives of Amish Women" by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner.
Book cover for Karen M. Johnson-Weiner’s The Lives of Amish Women (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020)
  1. You have been doing this kind of participant observation research of the Amish for more than 35 years now. Can you talk about why you chose this approach and what brought you to the kinds of research questions you have pursued? 

A complicated question.  I began my research of the Amish, not by exploring Amish life, but by looking at Pennsylvania German.  My Ph.D. is in linguistics (my dissertation was neurolinguistic), and I was looking at language structure.   Accordingly, I sought out informants and found two: an older woman (widowed, I thought) who taught school and was a midwife and a woman about my own age with 6 children.  Both became close friends.  Sitting in their homes, asking questions about language soon became sitting in their homes and exploring their culture.  I was so naïve in the beginning that I didn’t know the difference between the first woman’s Swiss Amish community and the second one’s Swartzentruber settlement. (“How can you tell the difference,” I asked, oblivious to the obvious differences in dress.)  In time, I stopped looking at the language itself and began asking why they were still speaking it in the first place.  So began my interest in Old Order schools, which took me to lots of different kinds of Amish communities, and things evolved from there.

Participant observation was the approach that enabled me to explore the questions I had in the context of the culture.  As I said above, my training was in linguistics, specifically neurolinguistics.  When I realized where my interests were heading, I went back to McGill and began taking graduate courses in Anthropology and talking to anthropologists, which taught me much about the approach that it seemed I’d adopted.  But my earlier training led me to do archival work and interviewing as well.  Still, sitting in someone’s kitchen, helping them to peel peaches or holding one baby while another gets diapered is a great way to find out so much more than an article can tell you.

  1. In your book, you draw on countless encounters and so many relationships with Amish individuals from a wide variety of affiliations. That’s really incredible. Can you talk about how you built those relationships and earned the trust of the folks you have spent time with and talked with for purposes of your research?

Time.  I mentioned the two women above, who welcomed me into their homes. The first, Sue, supported herself as a teacher and hers was the first school I visited.  With her I was able to visit schools in Michigan and Indiana, and through her I was able to sit in peoples’ homes and get to know them.  The second woman, Fannie, introduced me to her siblings (all 10), who introduced me to others.  I got to know school teachers and their families by asking if I could visit schools the children I knew were attending.  It was a snowballing of connections that I tried to maintain as long as possible by writing letters. Building this kind of research base is building friendships.  And the experiences are well worth it!  Driving 4 Old Order Amish teachers around to visit schools in Ohio was eye-opening in so many ways! 

  1. You are very familiar with a wide range of Amish affiliations. A few years ago, when I was taking a class to the Holmes and Wayne counties settlement, I heard of what was then a new affiliation—the New New Order. Are you familiar with that affiliation? If so, what is distinctive about them? And how would you characterize the lives of women among that affiliation compared to, say, the New Order?

I haven’t gotten to know any New Order women [or New New Order women], so what I know of their lives I’ve learned largely from talking to their Old Order friends and relatives and reading their publications.  My suspicion is that their lives are more individual, based on scriptural authority more than church-community practice. 

  1. Can you talk about the whole rather elaborate business of secrets surrounding courtship practices among the Amish? What are the origins of that and what purpose do you think that practice of secrets serves or, put another way, why is it so important (there seems to be a lot of investment in it among young Amish adults)?

That depends on the church-community.  Young Swartzentrubers are highly secretive about whom they’re dating, and an unmarried Swartzentruber couple wouldn’t go out in public together except as part of a group. Among Swartzentrubers, speculation and guessing about who will be published and when is practically a pastime of married women.  Interestingly, as an outsider with access to many homes, I was often asked questions that other Amish women wouldn’t be asked.  (“Did so-and-so say anything?  Are they painting their house?”)  Among other groups of Amish, dating couples are quite public, though when they expect to be “published” (have their engagement announced) may be kept a secret.  In other communities (e.g. Lancaster County), couples are published long before the wedding.  

There’s no religious reason for any of  this.  I think Amish young folk find it fun to keep people guessing.

  1.  You write about the very different approaches that Amish mothers take with their daughters regarding sex and reproduction. Some are quite candid with their daughters and others leave them entirely in the dark. To what do you attribute that difference? And what would you say is the history and motivation behind the latter approach?

Since one can find this variation even in the same or very similar church-communities, I hesitate to put it down to any religious cause. It’s not “Amish” as much as it is a tradition handed down within families.  It’s probably much like it was in mainstream society before television rendered the mysterious public.  Sex education has become a sign of the worldliness of public schools with everyone talking about things that should be private.  That likely reinforces the notion that sex and reproduction are something private to be kept between married couples and those about to be married. 

  1. Have you detected any differences between the way Amish men and Amish women have responded to COVID? Do women have any special responsibilities in the pandemic?

I’m not traveling very much myself anymore, so my response is largely shaped by the Swartzentruber women I’m still in close contact with.  Basically, COVID has released them to stay home and send their husbands to do any chores outside the church-community. Women (and their husbands) are still carrying on all usual interactions within the church-community, and women will go out and shop when they need/want to.  Explaining why they send their husbands to the store or elsewhere, women say they don’t like the masks, but they have no hesitancy to use them if they need to.  For example, the closing of a local fabric store saw many women out and masked to take advantage of sales.  Otherwise, women seem to have decided to just stay put, letting men deal with the public.  Where people are required by law to mask up, they’re wearing masks.

  1. I am curious about your thoughts on the proliferation of Amish affiliations over the last few decades. What do you attribute that to? Are we seeing something akin to the proliferation among Protestants following the Reformation?

I think it has a lot to do with economic change within communities, the founding of new settlements, and the freedom afforded by Wisconsin v. Yoder to establish their own schools.  To answer your second question, I think yes, in a way.  Pre-Wisconsin v. Yoder (a very different economic time), diverse Amish children went to school together and identified as Amish v. their English counterparts.  As the Amish started their own schools, particularly in large settlements, diverse children still went to school together, but schools now had to play to the dominance of one kind of Amish and others were motivated to start their own schools.  In Holmes County, for example, a diverse group had attended a one-room school.  When that school burned down, the majority approved and built a new school house that a minority, a conservative Swartzentruber group, thought “too worldly”.  They, too, built a school house, about 100 yards away from the other school house, that recognized conservative Swartzentruber ideals, not just in construction but also in curriculum.  Wisconsin v. Yoder enabled this diversity.

  1. Finally, I understand that you are recently retired. Will your retirement include continued research on the Amish? If so, what questions are you hoping to pursue? If not, what are you looking forward to doing instead?

I maintained an active research life for about 6 years after retirement. In fact, The Lives of Amish Women is partly a product of that period when I actually had time to read, write, and revise. But now I am retired, and I have given up active research on the Amish.

That said, I still visit Amish friends regularly and just went to the wedding of the first granddaughter of my friend, Fannie.  I enjoy visiting my Amish friends and hope I can continue to do so for many years to come.  

Occasionally, I regret that I have given up the scholarly life, but not so much that I would wish to keep on with it. Still, one never knows.  I’ve said “I’m done” before, and then things came up (e.g. All About The Amish). 

I’m currently putting together what I hope will be my last presentation, a paper for the June conference at the Young Center that will focus on letter-writing as a research tool.  I plan to donate all of my correspondence with Amish friends and others to the Young Center and hope that it will prove as useful to other researchers as it has to me.

Now, were I to go on with research, I would write a book about the Swartzentruber Amish and all the different versions of Swartzentruber.  One can find Swartzentrubers from Minnesota to Maine, from Kentucky to New York and Canada.  There have been at least five schisms since I met my first Swartzentruber friend, Fannie, back in 1984.  The Swartzentrubers remain committed to farming, their homes show the least modernization, and they are the most likely to end up in court for zoning law violations. When I visit higher Amish groups, I get asked about them. Folks in Lancaster can’t quite figure them out.  (I have an Old Order Mennonite friend whose address I gave to a couple of Swartzentruber Amish men headed for the New Holland sales. The Swartzentrubers ended up staying with the Shirks, and I had a lot of making up to do for it!)  I no longer have the stamina for the extensive traveling and fieldwork a book about the Swartzentrubers would involve, but  I hope very much that someone will focus their research on the Swartzentruber Amish and would offer any help I could.