Women in Amish society
Amish people base their Christian communities on Biblical principles. This means a more traditional calling for women. But Amish women play a significant role in the Amish household and in their communities as a whole.
Let’s have a look at Amish women’s roles, what jobs they do, and answer some common questions like: “Do Amish men control their women?” and “Are they happy?”
Amish Women’s Roles
Amish women play important roles in the household and community. Among others, Amish women are:
- sources of household income
- voting church members
- business partners
- role models
Amish women are esteemed in Amish society for the contribution they make to home and community. They are mothers, managers of the household, and play an important role in maintaining communal ties. As the home is considered in some ways the center of Amish life, her role in maintaining it is highly important.
Female Amish roles have in fact evolved in past decades as Amish have moved from agriculture to entrepreneurship and day labor. In recent times, with Amish men spending more time away from home in non-Amish working environments, Amish women may be taking on a more traditional role of housewife.
In the agricultural model she would be expected to help out in farm tasks, taking on certain “male” roles, as well as running the household. Some Amish women whose husbands work away from the home have also had to take on the role of disciplinarian more so than in the past.
Restrictions on Amish women
The most obvious place where Amish women’s lives are restricted is within the formal Amish church structure. In the Amish church, women have the right to vote in Member’s Meetings and also to nominate candidates for church ministry. However, they do not serve in that same church leadership. Though the Amish woman cannot hold church office, she does have equal voting rights in selecting new ministry, and is able to voice her concerns before the church just as any man can.
Amish women are able to work outside the home, but norms of a given church community might influence where she works and for how long (eg, up until marriage or childbirth). Men do not have such expectations; rather they are expected to earn money and support the family. Amish women are generally expected to run the household side of the family (preparing food, cleaning the home, and so on).
Unlike in some religious groups, both Amish men and women follow similar rules and guidelines when it comes to appearance. Simple, plain dress is worn both by men and women among the Amish. Both Amish men and women follow certain expectations when it comes to hair and grooming. For that matter, church rules (Ordnung) apply equally to men and women.
In practice that means technological restrictions that apply to men also apply to women. However, greater technology may be permitted outside the home, in Amish-owned businesses, versus inside the home in the “woman’s domain”, for example labor-saving devices in the kitchen. Generally Amish tend to permit more change in areas where technology allows them to better earn and compete in the marketplace, versus in other areas (eg, homes and schoolhouses).
What about within the Amish home? Do Amish women have a say?
Amish women typically take at least a nominally subservient role to their husbands. In public this means an Amish woman will normally defer to her husband’s decisions. In private, however, the reality is that the Amish woman is highly influential. Amish husbands often yield to their wives’ wishes, particularly on household matters, such as purchases for the family and home.
Amish men typically consult wives on important decisions concerning the family, and in business decisions as well. In practice, an Amish woman’s wishes can determine the course of a business, or influence a move to another community. As one Amish-raised woman quipped, “the man may be the head of the household, she is often the neck.”
In a New Order Amish publication called The Truth in Word and Work (subtitled A Statement of Faith By Ministers and Brethren of Amish Churches of Holmes Co., Ohio, and Related Areas), the male/female issue is addressed. “The husband has the major responsibility of directing the home for the glory of Christ. He needs to have the proper relationship with Christ in submission and self-denial to glorify his Head. He is the God-delegated authority over the woman and is responsible for her actions in the home and in society.”
Modern readers may see this as “sexist”, but the Amish are Biblical fundamentalists in the purest sense of the term, and keeping that in mind, this shouldn’t surprise. In practice, the woman takes a very active role in the Amish home. The man is “the head of the home” but wife who runs a home well is highly respected.
Amish Women’s Work
Amish females often work as waitresses, teachers, or hired household help while single. But once married, they are typically expected to remain in the home, and almost always do so when they become mothers of small children.
There is evidence that Amish gender roles have shifted in recent years. Some Amish women run their own businesses, and in some cases their husbands even work in the business. She may be for all intents and purposes the owner, though on paper the couple may be listed as co-owners. Though it’s not typical, some Amish women have developed highly successful enterprises, becoming the main breadwinners in their households.
Typical businesses owned by Amish females include quilt-making operations, market stands, and small retail shops. Amish women may be more likely to work away or to go into business once children have grown up. A few Amish women, usually unmarried, even work in “man’s jobs”, such as in manufacturing plants.
Yet the expected norm for the vast majority of Amish women is to contribute to the household at home. This is the primary work-related role of most Amish women. Her labor and expertise play an important part in the household finances, from the food produced in the gardens she tends, to the secondary roles she might take on (ie, bookkeeping) in assisting in the operation of a business.
Amish women in male roles?
Typically, young Amish girls and women work until marriage. They are schoolteachers, waitresses, or hired hands in English and Amish homes. In recent years, however, they have increasingly been stepping into “male” roles.
For example, a significant portion of single women hold factory jobs in the large settlements of northern Indiana, laboring on RV assembly lines next to male counterparts. Furniture shops employ young women, and not just in secretarial or bookkeeping roles. A number of furniture finishing shop owners shared with me that they prefer young girls for the job of applying the final coating to finished pieces. In their view, an eye for detail, and a more methodical nature are two benefits of female help.
But female employment can be tricky when it comes to turnover. An Ohio wholesale business owner friend joked: “one thing I’ve learned, you can’t get them to sign a contract not to marry, not to have children, okay?” This reflects the Amish reality that marriage and home duties usually end employment for most girls.
But it is not unheard of for Amish women to hold jobs even after marriage and kids. One of my waitresses at the local diner in Goshen, Indiana was mother to two toddlers, picking up part time shifts once or twice a week. Others, especially those with smaller families, will take on part-time or even full-time jobs.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in particular has seen a number of women in the business-owner’s role, either partnering with husbands or running their own–even employing a husband as help, as Kraybill and Nolt reveal in Amish Enterprise. Pretzel shops, produce stands, and quilt stores are all among the businesses that Amish women run successfully today.
Are Amish women happy?
Though there is not a lot of hard scientific data, evidence suggests there is a generally high level of contentment among Amish women.
Charles Hurst and David McConnell’s in-depth survey of Ohio Amish women led the authors to state that “The women generally voiced deep satisfaction with their roles. All believed strongly that men and women are meant to have different roles to play in life, largely because of perceived differences between the sexes” (An Amish Paradox, Hurst/McConnell, p.121).
Of course, certain individuals struggle more than others to find satisfaction in the traditional Amish role. Though it is rare, some may even leave the community as a result of failing to find appropriate avenues for self-fulfillment.
Amish women tend to have a strong sense of identity, are highly respected in Amish society, and gain satisfaction from playing productive roles within Amish society. Amish women “take pride” in a garden well-tended, well-behaved children, complements on the home and food, and in their handiwork appreciated by others.
Though feminists may have problems with what they perceive as the Amish woman’s position, others have noted that Amish women seem to have achieved a degree of contentment that many modern feminists continue to pursue, with less satisfactory results (Conundrum, Olshan/Schmidt).
All the above noted, it should also be mentioned that like with Amish men, Amish women’s lives have changed over time.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are traditional Amish female roles?
- Do Amish women have the same rights as men?
- Do Amish women run businesses?
- Are Amish women content?
- Are Amish women free to choose?
What are traditional roles of Amish women?
Amish women are mothers, homemakers, wives, church members, and community scribes among many other roles. On farms, Amish females may be expected to lend a hand with chores and other agricultural jobs, in addition to running a household, maintaining a garden, and other tasks.
Though, like Amish men, they operate within the boundaries of the church community, it’s hazardous to typecast Amish women as meek and submissive. There are many examples to the contrary, even though they might not be immediately visible to outsiders.
Do Amish women have the same rights as Amish men?
Like men, Amish women have a vote in church matters, and can nominate candidates for the ministry. Unlike men, women do not serve as ministers.
As Amish take a Biblical view of the relationship between man and wife, the man is seen as the head of the household, the woman his “helpmeet”. One of many Bible verses pertaining to this is Ephesians 5:23 (“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.”)
Do Amish women run businesses?
Some Amish women do operate their own businesses. Amish females, particularly those in larger settlements, may run successful food stands, quilt shops, or variety stores. Many Amish women manage smaller-scale enterprises such as roadside stands, craft or quilting businesses.
Married Amish ladies typically do not work at an “away” job, though some may run their own businesses, both in and outside of the home. Single Amish women without the demands of children may have greater latitude in terms of work, including operating a business.
Are Amish women content?
This question is impossible to answer in broad strokes. But to generalize about Amish women, many seem to be content in their roles. Amish women find fulfillment in various ways, as mothers, wives, business owners, quilters, and so on.
Raised within the culture, Amish women are naturally more apt to accept and endorse Amish cultural mores regarding women and men. Amish women do have numerous avenues for self-expression, whether it’s crafting a quilt, designing and cultivating garden, or penning a letter to an Amish newspaper.
The sense of security and community enjoyed by all members of Amish church communities – women and men – weighs positively when considering this question as well. Ultimately it’s a question that only individual women can answer for themselves.
Are Amish women free to choose?
Amish women are free to make many choices within the scope of their culture and communities. In practice, Amish women consult with their husbands on certain decisions, such as large financial purchases. But husbands are apt to defer to a wife’s wishes, particularly in matters concerning the home or children (one example would be the decision to purchase Bible story books for children).
But Amish females make many if not most of the same decisions Amish males do – which youth group to join, who to date, hobbies and occupations, whether to be baptized and join the church community, and many more.
The larger matter – the idea that Amish choices are limited – may be true in one sense, but must be considered in light of other cultural factors. For further reading, one Amishman writes on this question of freedom of choice in his society.
- Graybill, Beth E. “Amish Women, Business Sense: Old Order Women Entrepreneurs in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Tourist Marketplace.” Diss. U of Maryland, 2009.
- 1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life. Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1992.
- Stevick, Pauline. Beyond the Plain and Simple: A Patchwork of Amish Lives. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007.
- Stoltzfus, Louise. Amish Women: Lives and Stories. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1994.
- “Amish Women and the Feminist Conundrum”, Marc Olshan and Kimberly Schmidt; found in The Amish Struggle with Modernity, eds Donald B. Kraybill and Marc A. Olshan
- An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community, Charles E. Hurst, David L. McConnell