"To Remind Us of Who We Are" : An Ethnographic Exploration of Women's Dress and Gender Roles in a Conservative Mennonite Community

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1995

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Abstract

Combining ethnographic methodology and feminist theory, this interdisciplinary study explores women's dress and gender roles in the religious culture of Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, a conservative Mennonite group concentrated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, that has never been researched before. My study is based on participant observation and qualitative analysis of interviews with 11 women and two men in three church districts. I argue that conservative women's domestic roles in the private sphere and their adherence to strict dress codes create the denomination's primary cultural boundary marker. Although Eastern Pa. Mennonites accept modern technology and most no longer farm, members adhere to a church-wide discipline that forbids "immodest" and "fashionable" clothing, jewelry, and cut hair for women, while prescribing a particular style of women's dress and head covering. (Men's clothing is less regulated.) Religious understandings around women's dress reinforce a gender ideology that is firmly rooted in women's subordination to men. My study explores the multiple meanings that conservative women attach to their clothing. Much like a uniform, women's dress expresses group affiliation, suppresses individual expression, and mutes economic and social distinctions. Moreover, their dress affords them a feeling of protection from harm, offers them an opportunity to witness, and serves as an internal motivation toward religiosity. In sum, their dress both produces and reflects particular gender roles. Finally, I discuss the interpretative challenges of my partial membership status and my use of feminist analysis to frame a discussion about women who would not describe themselves as feminists.

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