For years now, Judy Stavisky has been driving and accompanying Amish women on shopping trips, building friendships with them and learning firsthand about their lives. Judy has compiled her experiences and insights in a new book called In Plain View: The Daily Lives of Amish Women. Here’s the description via Herald Press:
What does the life of an Amish woman really look like? Over the course of a decade, author Judy Stavisky, a curious outsider, spent hundreds of hours getting to know the women of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Amish community to find out the answer to this question. She joined mothers and grandmothers, unmarried women and teens, on their shopping excursions for household items, fabric, and groceries. They drove miles between undulating fields and shared hundreds of hours of conversation on everyday topics—laughing together about sneaking healthier entrees into their family’s evening meals, sharing concerns about their children, and trading family remedies for persistent coughs. As relationships evolved into enduring friendships, she grew to understand firsthand how Amish women bind their families and communities together.
In Plain View draws the reader inside a community governed by faith and separated by time, taking a closer look at the roles Amish women assume within their families and community, their fierce work ethic, and their camaraderie. Hundreds of years of shared traditions comes to life through a personal connection with Amish women, their own soft voices gently opening their world to an outsider.
Today Judy answers some questions for us on her experience with Amish women and on the book. I had a chance to read an advance copy several months ago and really enjoyed it.
Enter to win a copy of In Plain View
Along with today’s Q&A you can enter for a chance to win a copy of In Plain View. Simply leave a comment or question on this post. I’ll announce the winner here next week.
Judy Stavisky, MPH, M. Ed., has spent considerable time over the past decade attending Amish schools, sharing meals with Amish families, and joining events hosted in the Amish community. Judy has a lengthy career in philanthropy and helping non-profit organizations become more successful. She is a co-author of Do It Better! How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone’s Expectations chronicling the journeys of Philadelphia’s student refugees. Recently Judy has been supporting Philadelphia’s refugee resettlement efforts, connecting food insecure Philadelphians with meals, and has served as part of the faculty at Arcadia and Drexel University.
Judy Stavisky on In Plain View: The Daily Lives of Amish Women
Amish America: How did you come to know the Amish, and where did the idea for this book come from?
Judy Stavisky: I moved to Philadelphia from Allentown about 40 years ago. During my grocery shopping trips to Reading Terminal Market (the city’s historic indoor Farmers Market), I observed Amish provisioners from afar. I was fascinated by Amish dress, the immaculate hair styles, and their diligence.
Frequently on weekends, my husband and I loaded our bicycles onto our car and headed to Lancaster County, a little over an hour from our home. While on our bikes, we spent hours meandering through Amish settlements, often stopping for fresh-dug potatoes and spring onions or chewy scratch-baked cookies sold at roadside stands. Silently riding by unadorned white farmhouses, the wind blowing through laundry lines of earth-colored aprons left me even more curious.
I purchased a book about the Amish each time we visited Lancaster County. Over the years, I collected scores of books. Many of them were written by Donald Kraybill, an international expert on the Amish who was then a professor at Elizabethtown College, now Emeritus.
Learning that Elizabethtown College was two hours by train from my home and only 1.5 miles from the E-town Amtrak station, I reached out to Dr. Kraybill and asked him if I might take one of his evening Amish classes. He agreed. An idyllic train ride from Philadelphia to Elizabethtown and a fascinating weekly course made my weekly commute a pure joy!
Where did you do your research and what did that look like?
Dr. Kraybill introduced me to several Amish families in an effort to assist him in updating his seminal book on the Amish, The Riddle of Amish Culture. Dr. Kraybill offered Amish women a free driver (me) to run errands with them in exchange for informal talk time with Amish shoppers.
I drove about two dozen Amish mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts to a myriad of grocers, dry goods and hardware stores, appliance and repair shops and health providers. While Dr. Kraybill’s competing obligations ultimately did not allow him time to update his book, he continued encouraging me – write up your visits and keep refining your notes. After over 100 visits, I had collected quite a bit of information!
What do outsiders get wrong about Amish women?
The relationship between men and women.
“There are lots of things written about us that are not true,” an Amish mother said wistfully.
Because the Amish dress similarly, those of us that live outside of their community assume that they are the same. That idea could not be further from the truth. Like the English, there are shy Amish women and those who are comfortable in most settings. I met Amish women with a bright sense of humor and those who are more staid and reserved. A number of the women I met remarked, “we are just people like you,” aware that some English tend to paint the Amish with one brush.
I also noticed how the Amish men I met, respect and appreciate their wives’ abilities at maintaining bountiful gardens, preserving mountains of produce on blisteringly hot days, and handily tailoring pants, dresses, shirts, and night clothes for every family member. Preparing meals for families of nine or 10 along with 100-plus person church and youth gatherings requires stamina and finely honed organizational skills.
Amish life excludes modern conveniences like microwave ovens or electric toasters, dishwashers, and clothes dryers. Busy before dawn and through the evening, Amish women launder piles of soiled clothes in a wringer washer, clip each piece of wet clothing to outside clotheslines (even in frigid weather), tend to multiple young children and their chores, and confidently negotiate a thousand-pound horse and buggy. When farm work requires her strong arms, Amish women work as equal partners, side by side with her husband and children. I stand in awe of Amish women.
What kind of Amish stores did/do you visit with your Amish friends? Any memorable or unusual ones?
“It is a little more difficult to comparison shop with a horse and buggy,” stated an Amish mother of seven.
Dry goods stores filled with bolts of dark fabrics, sewing notions, toys, housewares, Amish romance novels and cookbooks remain popular destinations for Amish women.
However, a few unusual shops remain hidden from public view without any discernable signage. I visited a shop that sells huge containers of honey and groats that Amish women will grind into flour. Down a long dirt road, a round Amish man fixes Amish school copier machines (operated by battery). Behind a winding gravel path in a well-trafficked tourist area, a non-descript shop offers custom made Amish hats (below).
How is an “Amish” shopping trip different from an “English” shopping trip?
“We don’t run out to the store for a missing ingredient,” one of my Amish passengers confirmed.
Rarely a spur-of the-moment decision, shopping trips for Amish women requires multiple lists and astute planning, with the goal of minimizing time spent away from home.
One Amish store posts lost shopping lists on their bulletin board. One reads: “Sweater for Rachael, good socks for Dad and hairpins for Hannah.” Another list includes: “German song books, fabric ripper, black shoe polish, stockings and handkerchiefs for Ruth and dishpans for Naomi.”
Knowing the limitations on an Amish mother’s time, Amish owned grocery stores offer crafts supplies for handmade greeting cards, a favored children’s pastime, along with rows of herbal tinctures and tonics.
A farm supply establishment separates their refrigerated food section from building materials, plumbing supplies, and work boots with heavy plastic sheeting. One would never know from the faded outside road sign, that inside the store’s discrete refrigerated section, lies tubs of ice-cold lard, cartons of eggs, and packages of frozen ground chuck.
Shopping at Amish owned stores also offers Amish women the opportunity of exchanging news with seldom-seen friends. Updates on out-of-town weddings or a church member’s health status helps stitch the community closely together. This quilt of interconnectedness – neighbors caring about one another, extending kindness and strength to others, lies at the heart of the Amish community. My visits over 10 years offered me a privileged glimpse into lives that revolves around family, faith and community. In Plain View provides a respectful account of my experiences with several Amish women over many years. Their identities and personal characteristics have been changed to protect their privacy and in deference to Amish modesty and humility.