Hanna Kienzler’s new book about Hutterite women offers a treasure trove of information about their contributions to the stability and longevity of their society. Her work is interesting to read and it makes many interesting contributions to Hutterite scholarship.
Two basic questions form the backbone of the work: (1) at the individual, community, and national levels, how do Hutterites foster the longevity of their communal society; and (2) how are Hutterite women able to develop and modify their lives in their colonies? In answer to the first question, Kienzler reviews, in greater detail than she did in a 2005 journal article, the scholarly literature about the Hutterites. She wants to examine the ways their experience compares with the ideas on communal longevity of the German scholar Christoph Brumann.
The second half of the book really comes alive when the author analyzes her field research in several Hutterite colonies, where she focused on the lives, thoughts, and coping strategies of the women. She wisely begins this section of the book by discussing the ritual of baptism, the central symbol of Hutterite culture that ushers young men and women into the community of adult believers.
She explains that people who want to be baptized must be willing to rise above worldliness and adopt an attitude of self-surrender and yielding—Gelassenheit as they term it. When someone decides to yield to the will of God, baptism symbolizes the death of the old, self-focused individual, who is reborn in the community of baptized members. Many Hutterite women are baptized between the ages of 19 and 21, but some wait a few years longer until they feel ready.
The candidates for baptism prepare for the ritual with a rigorous, seven-week period of instruction. Then, during a Saturday afternoon church service, the candidates kneel before the congregation and recite memorized verses and answer questions about their beliefs. The actual baptism takes place the next day. The preacher holds his hands on the candidates one by one while an assistant pours some water over them, symbolizing their deaths by drowning and their spiritual rebirths as members of the group. The congregation is dressed in black, much like at a funeral, in keeping with their understanding of the ritual. Once the young people are baptized, they can then be married if they wish.
When Hutterite women marry, they always move to the colonies of their husbands. Women normally visit with their own families about four weeks each year, and their female relatives often visit with them, such as when they are expecting their babies or when they are ill. In recent years, women have increasingly been getting rides to other areas with Hutterite men while they are running their business errands, so they can visit their families and friends. Also, girls and women are gaining access to e-mail accounts. They are establishing virtual social networks with other Hutterite females, some of whom they have not even met.
Kienzler makes fascinating observations throughout her book. For instance, she discovered that the women can alter the ways other people perceive their physical appearances by making slow but steady changes in the clothing they wear. Some of those changes may further accentuate their female curves—though of course within the strictures of their belief that the body can suggest sin. The women as well as the men agree that concealing feminine beauty from the gaze of onlookers is important in order to avoid the temptations of lustful thoughts. Nonetheless, women frequently make slight modifications in their appearance—which are instantly noticed by other women, and sometimes by the men.
One day, for instance, the author observed a woman at a colony being upbraided by an older man for changing the way she had ironed her skirt. She had pressed the pleats all the way down to the hem. “This is an obvious sign of haughtiness,” he scolded.
In response, she told him off. “If someone wears pleats in a haughty manner, you can consider it as a sign of haughtiness. But, if a person has no haughty thoughts while wearing the pleats ironed all the way down to the hem, you cannot possibly consider her looks haughty” (p.98). However, the woman immediately went back to her room to change into a properly ironed skirt, though Kienzler noted over the next few weeks that several other young women also started ironing the pleats of their skirts in the newer, more daring, fashion.
When the women sometimes try to enhance their appearance through coloring their hair, plucking their eyebrows, shaving their legs and armpits, and letting their finger nails grow, they have to be careful that such physical changes are subtle enough that they are not noticed by the male colony elders, who would strongly disapprove. Such vanities are not officially permitted. But apparently the women are starting to practice such things, at least in some of the colonies.
One of the strengths of the book is that it points out how the colonies differ from one another in their beliefs, practices, and codes. The author accompanied some women when they visited another colony. They were amazed to discover their hosts wearing socks, despite the heat of a warm day. The hosting Hutterite women made it clear to the visitors that they were wearing the socks because they were required to. “And can you believe they are not even allowed to wear sandals, let alone walk around barefoot,” one of the Hutterite women exclaimed about their hosts that day. Kienzler’s friends concluded, “Hanna, we pity them for not knowing what it means to lead a life!” (p.97-98)
The analysis of gender relations in the colonies will be, for many non-Hutterite readers, the most fascinating aspect of the book. Martha, one of Kienzler’s primary informants, summarizes gender relationships in basically positive terms: “I’d say the relationship between men and women is very good,” she believes (p.110). While the women may accept the biblical notion that they exist to serve men, they still challenge colony social rules through various strategies. Even though the men may make the formal decisions, the women manipulate the men’s thinking by asking them questions and getting them to think they have come up with new ways of doing things.
This is a valuable book for anyone interested in the ways the Hutterites, and particularly Hutterite women, are able to get along in a conservative, communal society.
Kienzler, Hanna. Gender and Communal Longevity among Hutterites: How Hutterite Women Establish, Maintain, and Change Colony Life. Aachen, Germany: Shaker Verlag, 2005