Invisible Covering

This post is the first in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

Laura Lehman Amstutz

Guest post from…Laura Lehman Amstutz works for Eastern Mennonite Seminary, gardens, cooks and snuggles with her cat. She also leads The Table Mennonite Church, runs half marathons, and supports her husband Brandon in owning and running Downtown Fine Furniture. No wonder she longs for simplicity!

My mom told me that in high school they used to put their coverings in their garter belts so they’d be handy for chapel. For some reason, the image of a white net covering stuffed in a garter belt underneath a 1960’s skirt symbolizes what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

I’ve never worn a covering. My mom stopped sometime shortly after high school. I’ve never even seen my grandmothers wear coverings. And yet, sometimes I wonder if I’m still fighting the invisible covering.

I vividly remember a conversation with my mother during seminary when we were discussing my upcoming internship year. I began to cry in a restaurant (which is probably why I remember it so well) because there were so many rules about what I “should” and “should not” wear in front of a congregation.  Mostly it was “should not”.

And after finally settling on a series of suits that had appropriately conservative length skirts but were still relatively stylish, I got a searing review from a male classmate about the height of my high heels (which incidentally I only bought because the pulpit in the congregation where I was interning was built for a man who was 6’2”).

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the first thoughts I have when I think about being a Mennonite woman have to do with clothes. We may be beyond cape dresses and coverings, but sometimes I think it’s not behind us.  Or perhaps it is simply the line I dance between my generation’s emphasis on appearance and the Mennonite cultural emphasis on simplicity which used to equal certain hair and clothing styles for women. So, if I don’t define simplicity this way anymore, how do I define it?

I think as a Mennonite woman I dance on a lot of lines. I dance between the desire to stay home and live modestly and the desire to be a high-powered professional. I dance along the line of when and how to have children. I provide primary financial support so my husband can pursue his dream, and so I dance between feeling powerful and being crushed by the weight of responsibility as the breadwinner (perhaps as most men feel).

Perhaps because of this complicated dance, I long for simplicity. I read cooking blogs, crochet blogs, gardening websites and sewing blogs and sometimes I actually get to cook, crochet, garden and sew. I am glad that I can work with men who respect me and my gifts, but I value settings where there are only women.  Even though I’ve never attended them, I imagine this is what those Mennonite sewing and quilting circles used to be, a feminine sub-culture.

Some of my current Mennonite feminine role models sometimes annoy me.  I’m annoyed at professional Mennonite women who don’t seem to know how to dress fashionably. Please don’t wear socks with sandals or faded, frumpy ankle-length dresses, and please, please, find a good hair dresser.

So here we are back at clothes again.

I don’t know why I keep getting stuck there. A smart friend of mine pointed out that maybe it’s because in the past women’s bodies were the way The Body (as in the church) judged its simplicity. It’s what made us distinctive, and so somewhere in my psyche there is an invisible covering, fighting with my  generation X (or is it Y, I’m never sure) emphasis on image and appearance.

Perhaps the real problem is that I’m still sorting out what simplicity is as a 21st century Mennonite woman. I value the simplicity of staying home, making my own food, and having a garden.  But I also value the feminist movement that allows me to work full-time, support my family, lead a church and wear stylish clothes when I preach. I want it all. And so I dance on lines, with my invisible covering shoved in my garter belt, ready to be retrieved when necessary.

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23 Comments

Filed under Mennonite Identity

23 responses to “Invisible Covering

  1. Thanks so much for sharing, Laura! As I read I nodded my head as I’ve had so many of those same “dances” as you describe. I don’t even have kids yet but I already have internal debates about staying home v. persuing a big time career or any of the other things that seem to represent the “old way” and the “new woman power” way.

    Perhaps we long for simplicity because things aren’t black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. It’s much more grey than that. Which annoys me at first b/c I like to organize things into boxes, but really it’s the most freeing of all. We can live with these seeming contradictions and make up our own dance along the way.

  2. Beverly Cotton

    Thanks, Laura. As an elder who has retired, as I look back over the years of work and raising children, and longing for simplicity which never seemed to be a possibility – I find that even now, retired, simplicity is still hard thing to hang on to. You get, – you’re retired. You have time. You can do…… whatever. I think when it’s all said and done, if you have a garden, and spend as much time as you can in it, life is good. My grandmother, at 90, had a garden that didn’t have a weed in it. That’s my goal. My garden still has weeds.

    • lbl346

      I agree. I’m sure that the imagined simplicity of staying at home is not at all simple. It’s a grass is always greener mentality I’m quite sure.

  3. Laura, thanks for sharing these powerful thoughts. I appreciate your outline of the many complexities we face in the modern world. It seems that so very much has changed in the span of one or two generations. Navigating these complexities can leave us feeling empowered and also exhausted, I think.

  4. Thanks Laura for stating many of the dances that I also face.

  5. Just found this blog in my Twitter feed. And just as I am writing about actually wearing a covering in high school. (I’m on chapter nine of my memoir draft due to be published by Herald Press in 2013). I loved the image of the covering and the garter belt. I wore both, but I never used the belt for covering storage.:-) I actually wore my covering all the time except when sleeping. Until I went to college.

    Part of me is sad that we older Mennonite feminists were not able to hand younger women an easier path. But I also think that you already have found the key. Do something else that was forbidden long ago. Dance on those lines!

    I would love to stay in touch and welcome readers from this blog to mine also. Two posts of possible interest: my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and a more recent one on the Mennonite/s Writing VI conference.

    Peace and joy,

    Shirley

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hi Shirley – Thanks for stopping by the blog. It’s a pretty new site, but I think we’ve had some good conversation along the way thus far. I also just encountered your blog through Twitter and have been checking it out occasionally, so I’m glad to make the connection! I also did read your post on Mennonite in a Little Black Dress before I wrote my own about being a Mennonite in a maternity dress, so thanks for that!

      Please do stay in conversation. It would be great to think about cross-posting or collaborating in other ways, too! Hannah

      • Thanks, Hannah. I’m going to start cross-posting with putting this post up on my ShirleyHersheyShowalter FB page. Hope you come by, “like,” and check it out!

  6. Jeff Gundy

    This is great, Laura (and Hannah)! But (if a man is allowed to offer his views here) I got a little uneasy when you started offering fashion advice to older Menno women . . . why should Mennonite women (or men) have to conform to some arbitrary standard of style? Is this really just The World coming down on us in one more way? Have I worn jeans and hiking shoes to class all these years for nothing?

  7. mennomama

    I relate to so much of this–as a woman pastor one of the most difficult lines to dance is what to wear on a Sunday morning. I really wish wearing robes was an option–no more worrying about what to wear and no more comments, emails etc. about my clothing choices. (yes, it seemed to be an obsession in my first congregation –thankfully not in my current). As a young(ish) woman where does one even find stylish and pulpit appropriate clothing (that you can attach you microphone too without making your skirt fall down)? Often it feels like the choice is looking like you are a senior citizen or a sexy secretary. Blech….

    • lbl346

      We have lots of United Methodist students at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and I do sometimes envy the ones who get to wear robes. (and it is absolutely clear to me that whoever invented those lapel mikes were not thinking about women’s clothing AT ALL).

  8. Love this post! (And just discovered the blog itself, so I’m hopeful to find more like it.) I can so relate. It seems that I’ve done this “dance” during my entire adult life. I think I’ve found balance, but it’s been a journey to constantly reassess what’s important…and why. Thanks for such an insightful reflection!!

  9. Danette

    As a female who isn’t Mennonite, I always feel sorry for the bare legs I notice in winter when I’m wearing long slacks with long johns under them, but during every season I admire the gorgeous glowing healthy pink cheeks that distinguishe Mennonites from other Valley residents. Fashion is irrelevant when your good health shines so brightly!

  10. Pingback: Stuff (Many) White Mennonites Like | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

  11. susie C

    OH NO!!!!…you DANCE????…..JK….LOL

  12. susie C

    sorry, i couldn’t resist …..a Mennonite Preacher that Dances?!!!!…what is the world coming to

  13. How does your annoyance with older Mennonite women (like me? I’m 42) and their style differ from those in the fellowship who are annoyed with women who _don’t_ wear the head covering?

    A woman’s style is her own, an assertion of personality. Sometimes that assertion is “I value comfort over conformity.”

    A key element of feminism is respecting the ways in which women choose to be their own women.

  14. lbl346

    Jeff and Katherine have a point about not getting caught in the in the world of “fashion” as defined by magazines and stylists. I probably strayed into writer hyperbole in that paragraph. On the other hand, sometimes it feels as though the “comfort over conformity” mindset of the older generation feels a bit like a new cape dress to those who are interested in expressing some style. It can become the expected “style” for all Mennonite women- thus the fits I was having when I was trying to figure out what to wear in the pulpit and how to deal with the expectation of my wardrobe in a pastoral role.
    (I’m not quite ready to say that 42 is older Katherine, I’m 31)

  15. lbl346

    FYI- lbl346 is Laura Lehman Amstutz- the author. That moniker is a hold over from my own languishing blog.

  16. I was alerted to this column/blog by Shirley Showalter at FB and have been mulling on your reflections about that invisible covering and so on, because of your tradition. I grew up Mennonite but in a group that had no particular clothing/head markers for women, other than modesty, I suppose, which was considered a broadly Christian virtue. My mom wore hats when they were in fashion, as did the other women in our congregation and we dressed in mainstream ways. So how were we females marked, set apart, silenced? It wasn’t body I found myself thinking about so much in my own feminist journey over the years, but “voice.” — At any rate, your musings have been fruitful for my own look back, and I thank you. — In terms of simplicity, my comment would be that life offers simplicity in different guises at various stages perhaps. For me it now means NOT doing all those things that you pine to do, in these years of your energy. No longer sewing, crocheting, quilting, gardening, crafting — which I once did and enjoyed — and settling into the great bliss of buying what I need to cook with and wear. Does exchanging most everything for money sound un-Mennonite? I hope not. The earlier “dance” had its charms, but I love the simplicity of dancing less in my current stage and focusing post-menopausal zest on reading and writing. Best in the ongoing blog!

  17. Pingback: Just a Joke?: Encountering Sexism in Surprising Places | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

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