Two Former Amish Women Share Their Stories
MinnPost.com has an interesting article exploring the stories of two Amish-raised women who decided to leave their Amish lives behind.
The main focus is on how these women – Susan Miller, 21, and Rebecca Swartzentruber, 36 – are now getting an education and pursuing goals outside their birth communities.
The women have enrolled in the Hawthorne Education Center in Rochester, Minnesota. This is a stone’s throw from the state’s largest Amish community at Harmony (a conservative Swartzentruber Amish settlement).
Hawthorne specializes in adult education, helping those who dropped out of high school to get their GEDs among other things.
According to the piece Hawthorne has 5-10 formerly Amish students each year. Both Miller and Swartzentruber are aiming for health care jobs.
Rebecca was the 7th of 15 children (a large family even by Amish standards).
As is not uncommon in Amish farming households, girls may help with more traditionally “male” tasks outdoors. From the article:
Girls were expected to help out with the outside work, she added, but boys were forbidden from helping with the cooking and cleaning. “More was expected out of the women … because we were expected to do both,” she said.
I haven’t heard much of boys being forbidden to help with indoor “female” tasks. Though I’m not surprised this might be the case here, as it sounds like Rebecca comes from the very plain Harmony community.
I am close with a couple of Amish families who have only boys in their families. And they help out with dishes, etc. Mom probably wouldn’t have it any other way. They are from “higher” churches however.
Rebecca recalls spending a lot of her free hours working to contribute to the family – crafting quilts or baking. However there was still time for personal interests. I liked this part:
On Sundays, when no official business could be conducted, she remembers reading whatever she could get her hands on. “Us girls somehow always got our hands on those romance books,” she said, smiling. “But if we’d been caught with them, we’d have been in big trouble.”
Rebecca married when she and her husband were still in the community, but they left in 2002. So Rebecca has spent most of her adult life outside the community.
Interestingly, Rebecca says they did not face the typical church discipline that one would expect when they left:
“We both decided we wanted more out of life,” she said. “So we came to the agreement to leave one night. It was hard on the families, but we didn’t get shunned, like they normally do.”
Why this was the case is unexplained. The couple sometimes return home for visits.
Eventually Rebecca found her way to Hawthorne, and tested out at a fourth-grade level. She got her GED, then finished the CNA program, and now has her sights set higher:
She’s currently taking some preparatory summer classes at Hawthorne because she was accepted into the hemodialysis tech program at the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences.
“My long-term goal is radiology,” she said. “Because when my youngest was 3, he broke his leg. They took X-rays. I’d never been around X-rays before. They let me be in the room with him, showed me everything. That’s what got me hooked on radiology — to be able to see people’s bones and that stuff.”
Rebecca now calls herself a “tech junkie”.
Susan Miller also came from a large Amish family, as the 4th of 11 children. She grew up in Michigan in an unnamed community and later moved to a more conservative settlement in Nebraska.
Susan went to work in a bakery after finishing the eighth grade. Susan realized she did not want to follow the traditional path in adulthood however:
“I always felt like if I just stayed Amish, I’d get married and have all these kids,” she said. “They’d go to eighth grade and be expected to … it was not the life I wanted.”
Susan had what you might suppose to be an advantage for someone wishing to leave, in that her older siblings had already left the community.
She didn’t find the support she might have wished for, however:
Once she made up her mind to strike out on her own, she got her hands on a cellphone and texted a few of her older siblings who had already left. But she already knew, from writing to them before, that they didn’t approve of her decision. They felt bad for their mother, she said, so they had encouraged her to stay, even though they refused to go back home themselves.
Susan ended up in Rochester at age 17 and worked jobs at a hotel and apartment complex, “where she worked on smoothing out her German accent, she says, because she had only been allowed to speak in English at school.”
Susan eventually found her way to Hawthorne and tested out higher than Rebecca, at a 7th-grade level. She found a supportive setting at Hawthorne:
She credits her teachers and advisers at Hawthorne for not giving up on her. They’d call and text when she didn’t show up to class, she says, admitting there were times in the beginning when she’d doubted her abilities. And they were extremely patient with her as she struggled to learn how to work on the computer, she added.
Miller also did her GED and then finished the school’s Certified Nursing Program. She continues her medical education online and aims to find work at the Mayo Clinic or somewhere similar:
“I always, as a little girl, said that I wanted to work in a nursing home, even though I didn’t have a full vision of what it would be,” she said. “I knew it’d be taking care of people. Now that I am a [Certified Nursing Assistant], I want more. Now I want that hospital environment.”
There’s no mention of Susan’s current relationship with her family.
Square pegs, round holes
As we’ve seen in numerous other stories, for whatever reasons – faith questions, desire for formal education, attractions of technology, yearning for a different style of life – not every Amish-born person fits an Amish life.
For those who figure this out sooner than later, the path forward is theoretically less fraught, at least as to how it relates to one’s home community.
Church discipline is supposed to come into play only for baptized members (though in practice, even unbaptized people can feel the effects on their relationship with family).
Rebecca Swartzentruber’s case is curious as the Swartzentruber church practices strict shunning.
In any case, it’s nice to see these women on the path they feel is right for them.
As in all faiths some though raised in the faith feel discontent and leave but at least they have the strong morals taught when they were young. I think these young women left for the right reasons and will go far. I am grateful Hawthorne is welcoming to the Amish who want to further their education. I think these two will do well in their new life.
Replying to Debbie H.
I agree. The Amish should have a decent education as I read – the average Amish woman has a 4th grade level. Yes, I believe they would have good morals and a good conscience. They are good people.
After years of doing the same chores all the time may take it’s toll. “Is there anything else in this world?” They are Bible driven to the point of no one can even take their picture as it’s written in Commandment #2 – “Thou shalt not have any graven images….” Yet, we think nothing of someone taking our picture. We’re used to it. The Amish are used to their way. It’s not right to mock, tease, or bully them. They did nothing wrong. We have to remember that this is their way.
Some of the things we do are small at first. Then it grows. Then it’s ok because everyone is doing it and you can’t punish everyone. This is ok? A loop hole? How far do we go? Where do you draw the line?
They don’t have a phone, electricity, or a car. We do and we take it for granted. They use the horse & buggy. So how far do both sides go? In this case, one girl wants to explore the world. Is this wrong? No. The Amish have what they call “Rumspringa”. She is allowed to make up her mind which way to go after she has experienced the outside world. If she comes back, she is to be baptized in the church and stay that way.
From the good and bad of things on both sides, maybe both sides should take a page out of both sides book. Maybe we are too much and the Amish are too little. Can we balance this out? There seems to be more & more girls wanting to leave and the word spreads. Anyway, I applaud Hawthorne for taking them in. I wish I was a teacher in Hawthorne to give these girls special help.
This was very interesting to me since I was born in Rochester, Minn., and grew up on a farm not too far from the Harmony/Canton settlement where Rebecca and her husband are from. And like Erik, I am surprised that Rebecca and her husband were not shunned. I would like to know more about that. It is so unlike the Swartzentruber Amish I know.
I’m wondering if there was a church split? If a member of the Swartzentrubers leaves the church during a church split, there is not usually any kind of action, so a couple could leave the Amish altogether and face no action. I’m not saying that’s what definitely happened here, but it’s a strong possibility.
Interesting Mark, that rings a bell, now that you mention it I believe Karen Johnson-Weiner may touch on that “policy” in New York Amish. On last look Harmony has something like 6 or 7 church districts so maybe that was the case. It would have happened around 2002 in this instance.
Erik, 2002 would have been about right for a fairly major division. Somehow I missed the fact they left about that time.
Mark, you are exactly right.That was the case in this instance.
Good to know, Eli.
Thanks for your comment, Eli. I have visited the Fillmore County (Harmony, Canton, etc.)Amish community many times in the past 20 years, but didn’t know enough particulars about it to know there had been a church split amongst the Swartzentruber Amish.
But, I had wondered about it for a long time. In 2001, I got a book entitled Anabaptist World USA by Donald Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter which lists every Amish church district (as well as Mennonite and Brethren Churches) in the USA at that time (2001). In the Minnesota Amish Old Order Amish church listing, it listed as a district “Northwest at Preston.” Then in the Swartzentruber Amish church listing, there were four districts listed in the Harmony/Canton area. I always wondered about that Old Order Amish District at Preston. Could this be the one you are referring to that resulted from the Swartz. church split? If not, do you know if there was (and still is) an Old Order Amish (non-Swartz.) district in the Preston area?
Amish and Chicago Amtrak.
This article describes Union Station as an Amish hub. I haven’t ever been to Union Station in Chicago, but I have take buses out of Chicago and it’s the same. Amish seems to use buses a lot, and on my trips on buses it was always very conservative looking Amish people on them. I would see Amish get on and off buses in the middle of nowhere and wondered what they’re doing there. My assumption is they were visiting family or looking for new farmland to buy.
I thought your comments were interesting, AJ. I have traveled many times on Amtrak from Indianapolis to St. Paul, Minn., changing trains in Chicago, with a four-hour layover. During my layovers at Union Station, I have observed many Amish getting on trains, off trains, waiting during layovers at the station, etc. There usually are quite a number of Amish. I am pretty familiar with different styles of Amish dress (differences in Amish communities in women’s head coverings, men’s hat styles, etc.) and have observed many different styles of dress amongst the Amish there at Union Station. So they are traveling on Amtrak from many different communities — Lancaster, Pa., Elkhart-Lagrange, Ind., Fillmore County, Minn., Ashland, Montana, etc.
I have had many interesting conversations with Amish people traveling on Amtrak. Some are going to visit relatives, some are going to funerals, some to weddings, some on trips for their small businesses, some just for pleasure (like to the Grand Canyon), some to search out new land, etc. Many different reasons.
I wonder how many women leave the lifestyle due to inequity of the work load. To work in the fields AND put supper on the table AND keep up the house would definitely turn off anyone. There is no nobility in a household where men don’t pull their own weight. I would think women would leave more than men – it’s tough out in the English world for women as it is – but not as tough as it was for Rebecca slaving away while the men didn’t help with the house chores. But – it seems similar in some ways for the “English” wives as well. Women in the “English” world who work outside the home still do 84% of the in-home chores – but their work load isn’t the strenuous work like the farmers in their fields.
Also – I always am sad when I hear of an Amish youth who runs away and has no support system once they leave. Sarah’s story made me feel for her – to have no one meet you and help you when you do leave is scary.
I’m happy though that they found their way and God was watching over them. Sarah and Rebecca are very brave and strong women! I will pray for them and their future. May they achieve their goals, be happy and healthy.
AL the four districts you speak of are the ones that split.Which would be the Harmony/Canton area.There is also a fifth district of Old Order Amish in the Harmony/Canton area.they are very close to the same just a little more strict in some areas.As far as the four districts I believe they split two ways maybe even three.the Northwest Preston I’m thinking is the fifth district.Why they would call it the Northwest I’m not sure because they are more in the Harmony/Canton area.Unless they are referring to district that I call the Granger Amish. Granger Amish are Old Order but not Swartz. they are the same as the Hazelton,IA community.The Granger Amish are in the Ganger,IA area right on the MN. border SW of Harmony.
Thanks very much for your reply, Eli. It helped me understand the area better. I’m familiar with the Granger Amish and have been to that community several times as well as the Canton/Harmony area. I think the Granger Amish may be in fellowship with the Riceville/McIntire,Iowa, Amish also. I know they do visiting back and forth.
I don't know
Sounds like we got a coupla Lifetime movies in th makin here.
Please make it stop!
No more Amish “reality” shows or books of people who “escaped” the Amish. No more Lifetime movies. It’s getting out of hand, so many people leaving the Amish making a little extra income by telling stories.
Two Former Amish Women Share Their Stories
I find these articles very interesting! I always loved going to Amish Country when we lived in Ohio, to the Berlin area! It is the most beautiful country side and just feels so quaint! I love to read the Amish stories even though I know they’re fiction & probably exaggerated quite a bit but I still like learning more about them! The ones I have met have always been very nice people! Would love to sit down & talk to more of them! These two women are very brave to leave & to further their education, it would be hard to live a life like the Amish do & to keep all of their rules etc. It seems as though there are bad in every race & religious cultures no matter where your from!
I have very unusual question. I know you will probably
Laugh at me. I am not Amish, but I recently met a beautiful Amish woman, and what can I say. I am totally
In love with her. I cannot stop thinking about her.
My question is: do I tell her? Do I go around with this
Burden the rest of my life. What do I do??
Derek, I would say, there are a lot of fish in the sea 🙂 If she’s baptized Amish, then it’s relevant to know that Amish only marry other baptized Amish (and thinking about joining the Amish because of romantic interest…it’s really not a good idea, as others have discovered). I don’t know how much more I can advise here, if you just met then it sounds more like you are likely more infatuated than “in love”, that can be a powerful feeling of course but it is something that comes and goes. Maybe keep your eyes open for other women who exhibit similar qualities (I assume that it’s more than physical beauty that is making you feel attracted). I wish you the best.
Think w/your head. Your heart comes later. Watch out for infatuation.
I can relate
I can certainly relate to having to do inside and outside chores growing up, while my brother never had to help inside. I didn’t think it was fair then, nor do I now. I always tried to be balanced when raising my own sons, teaching them anything they needed to know so they could live on their own someday, if they didn’t get married. Now, I could understand the girls helping out with outside chores if there
are no sons. I could see how hard it would be doing both. There are so many things to do in caring for the household, garden, children, and feeding the animals etc, the added burden of “the manly” chores is just too much!!
But every household is different, with different expectations. I commend the ladies on getting more education and seeking more out of life. As long as they don’t forget their religious upbringing, they should be able to have the best of both worlds.
Things you really are not saying.
I have lived all my life in Ohio, where more Amish live then anywhere else. Yes more then PA. Amish men completely rule everyone in their home. A wife answers to her husband and believes it is to be that way.of course there are nice men there but there is also a lot of domestic violence. Women are often treated like breeders. 10 or more kids to work the farm. They work from sun up to sun down.i was at first charmed by the Amish. After all they look do quaint in thier kapps and horse and buggies who wouldnt be? Then I got to really know the communnity. Now I see a lot of poorly educated people, many women worn down early by this life. You know what? Yes it is a type of cult.
if i could over come
i see more and more amish that could be able to help others that would like more education and i understand why they don’t there afraid it would be easier for them to leave and the government does nothing just like working the children sun up till down or safety practices the enlist have to abide too.
I can relate
Growing up in the suburbs of NYC I haved lived the typical liberated women’s life of career, marriage and motherhood.
As i near retirement, my husband and I have purchased land in upstate NY. We have no Internet, no cable, no running water but we do have a land line and electricity. We have to carry water from a well. We can’t wait to come up here whenever we can to live simply.Modern life has become too stressful so living a balance between Amish lifestyle and suburban 24/7 activity is the right balance for us.
I hope those who leave the Amish community don’t lose their values and appreciation for a simpler life where you can actually smell the roses.
God bless them.
When will it end?
Are we to expect books and articles for every individual who has left the Amish? I know 2 individuals personally who added “more interesting and false” information to their stories. It’s getting out of hand.
Fortunately, being born Amish I know I always have something to fall back on if I’m ever bored or in need of additional income. It’s good being born Amish!