Oct 18, 2015

Karen Johnson-Weiner seeks greater understanding of Amish women, Plain Sect diversity

Lancaster Online
October 16, 2015
Karen Johnson-Weiner
Karen Johnson-Weiner
SUNY-Potsdam scholar is spending semester as Elizabethtown College's Snowden fellow

Karen Johnson-Weiner encountered Amish culture for the first time thanks to a group of Japanese exchange students.

When she was a student at Hope College, she helped staff a summer program in English as a Second Language. Each year, it brought 30 to 40 Japanese to Hope’s campus in Holland, Michigan.

The program included field trips, and one of them was to Amish Acres, a “historic farm and heritage resort” about two hours away in Nappanee, Indiana.

“I don’t remember much about it, other than that what I remember doesn’t seem to jibe with what I know now,” Johnson-Weiner said.

Her professional interest in the Amish developed a bit later, when she was in grad school in linguistics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and living in upstate New York. There were a number of Amish settlements in the area.

One day, she heard a young Amish mother speaking Pennsylvania Dutch to a baby boy about the age of Johnson-Weiner’s own child.

“That was it,” she said. ''I was intrigued.”

Snowden Fellowship

Johnson-Weiner, a professor at the State University of New York’s Potsdam campus, is spending this semester as a Snowden Fellow at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

She plans to delve into the lives of Amish women: How they form their identities, how the culture’s gender roles shape their lives, how they “negotiate their gender throughout their lifetimes,” as Johnson-Weiner put it at a lecture she gave at the Young Center last month.

Far more is known about Amish men than women, she said. In mainstream culture, stereotypes of Amish women tend to reduce them to contented “simple homemakers.”

Generally, Plain Sect culture is much more diverse than people realize, she said. The cultural gulfs can be wide enough that one Amish group may find another group's customs strange.

In one community, women may cook in modern kitchens and give birth in hospitals; in another, they may cook on wood-burning stoves and give birth at home.

Johnson-Weiner is known as an expert on the Swartzentruber Amish, a very strict Old Order sect.

“More than any other Amish scholar, she has unpacked the spiritual world of the reclusive Swartzentruber Amish — the most insular, modernity-rejecting Amish group in America,” said Don Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center.

Lancaster County Amish communities are among the most liberal. Johnson-Weiner said she’s looking forward to getting out and about and seeing the local communities first-hand.

She’s also looking forward to extensive research in the Young Center’s “wonderful resources.” It has collections of small Amish periodicals, church newsletters and so on that aren’t available anywhere else, she said.

Bilingual puzzle

Johnson-Weiner’s research interests have evolved. Originally, as a linguist, she wanted to understand how the Amish maintain a bilingual culture.

Clearly, Amish separation from mainstream society helps communities preserve Pennsylvania Dutch. But then, conversely, one might be puzzled by Amish fluency in English, given that it’s not spoken at home in many communities, and formal schooling ends at eighth grade.

Johnson-Weiner credits cultural expectations. Amish parents simply expect their children to be bilingual. It’s a norm, and the children, by and large, measure up to it.

In part because she often had her own infant child with her in the early years of her research, Johnson-Weiner typically ended up spending time with Amish women rather than men.

“What I read about Amish women didn’t match what I was experiencing,” she said.

Hence her more recent research. Jeffrey Bach, the Young Center’s director, said her work “is creating an ever more nuanced and complex understanding of Amish women, their lives and their influence in their various communities.”

Though she began as a linguist, Johnson-Weiner essentially has been working as a cultural anthropologist for the past 20 years, Kraybill said.

The Ordnung

As many people know, each Amish community is shaped by its Ordnung, or order, a set of rules for daily living. It outlines what is and isn’t permitted.

Church teaching shapes how you dress, the type of work you do, and so on.

Nevertheless, women have scope to play “myriad roles” within each community, however conservative or liberal it may be, Johnson-Weiner said.

They’re not just homemakers, but farmers, business owners, writers and artists.

For mainstream Americans, the distinction between religious and secular life is much clearer, Johnson-Weiner said. In Plain Sect culture, you can’t really separate religion from everyday behavior.

“In a way, I think Amish folks are always in church,” she said.

She said she hopes her work will help people better appreciate the costs and benefits of being an Amish woman and see past the “stereotypes, myths and imaginative fictions.”


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