Darrow Miller and Friends

Women Made the Transformation Possible

Earlier we have written about the Mennonites of Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. Here’s another part of this mostly untold, remarkable story: the work of the women.

women among Mennonites made Gran Chaco transformation possibleThe unlikely success of this community of immigrants, their transformation of that hostile land, was made possible by the women. Often they were not honored or respected as their humanity deserved. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the transformation of the Chaco would have failed had it been left to the men only.

The Mennonites came as refugees to this most desolate land in Paraguay. But, like the Hebrews who escaped slavery in Egypt, they came with a God-given vision to live as free people in their land of promise. The men and the women shared the vision for the land; they shared responsibility for the fulfillment of that vision as well.

In any society the family is the fundamental institution. This was no less so among the Mennonite colonies. Any pioneering effort includes immense hardships; the women were the glue that kept the families together and on track.

Part of the contribution was their work to maintain the community’s unique cultural and religious identity. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, given the hostility of the environment and the lack of physical resources, for a modern-day narcissist to succeed in bringing flourishing to such a waste land. But the wives, mothers and grandmothers helped. They conveyed the cultural stories of this unique people. They called their children to be faithful to the God who had, for so many generations, been faithful to the followers of Menno Simon. Theirs was a unique tradition, rooted in “the radical wing” of the Reformation.

In addition to their culture-keeping role, the women were involved in every aspect of the pioneering life. It was women who did the lion’s share of home construction. They made the bricks that became the walls of their houses. They plastered those walls and put on the roofs.

The women also played a major role in food production. They worked in the fields, planting, cultivating and harvesting the life-giving crops that would sustain them through the winter and help provide whatever limited cash the family had. They were responsible for the summer vegetable gardens that provided the much-needed nutrition to keep the hardworking community alive.

In addition to building, planting and harvesting, each wife and mother had the primary responsibility to steward her household. It was her task to prepare the meals and allocate the limited food supply so the family could survive the long winter between harvests. In these pioneering days of toil, sickness and death, often the only food remaining by the end of winter were some beans, flour, and the occasional egg for protein.

In addition, there was no “maternity leave” when the baby was born. The Mennonite women continued to work through their pregnancy and while nursing their babies.

Alongside their husbands the women suffered greatly from the hard work and harshness of the conditions. And often the women carried an additional burden: the domineering attitudes and unjust treatment of the men in the community. This pioneer suffering built a quality into the women of the colonies that allowed the families and communities to survive and eventually prosper. Edgar Stoesz writes that “… it was the quiet, behind-the-scene strength of women that made life in the colonies possible.”

These families, refugees of war and oppression in their home countries, were pioneers in a new and strange land. They were frontiersmen and women, trailblazers in a new and harsh environment that none of them had ever experienced. It was a joint responsibility, female and male, to fulfill the cultural mandate and their God-given vision to turn a waste land into a garden.

In a lonely and trying existence, the women proved resourceful and courageous

Besides the mothers and grandmothers, another group of women contributed to the heritage of the colonies: single women, both unmarried and widows. As an example, in 1947, 950 women and 444 men arrived in the colonies. What would be the experience of these women who came without husbands?

While for many it was a lonely and trying existence, the women proved resourceful and courageous. They formed women’s villages where they proved both self-sufficient and collaborative, supporting each other as females naturally do. They worked together to survive and contribute to the growth of the larger communities.

As the colonies achieved self-sufficiency, with all the services needed to operate, many women left their homes to receive training outside the community and then returned with their newly gained skills as healthcare professionals, teachers, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the colonies and in the church.

Edgar Stoesz honestly summarizes the impact of women in the Mennonite colonies: “Women had an indispensable if under-recognized role in this rich history. By today’s standards, pioneer women were terribly restricted, but they were loved and appreciated.”

This is not a man’s world, it is not a woman’s world, it is God’s world. He delegated responsibility for governance of the world to imago Dei humans, both male and female. He tasked both female and male with the purpose of helping all of creation thrive and flourish – including, or especially, human life.

Neither can do this alone. This is a “together” task. To succeed, men and women must value one another’s God-given dignity, protect one another in every way, and support the special gifts and unique contribution of their counterpart. When this happens in community, a slice of heaven on earth is not only possible but realizable.

However, it is too easy for men to be thoughtless, to disregard the God-given dignity and worth of their female counterparts. For the women of the Mennonite Colonies this was too often the case. But it is safe to say that the contribution of women allowed the colonies to survive and thrive. Perhaps today they are receiving the recognition they are due.

  • Darrow Miller

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