Midwives Among Non-Traditional Mennonite WomenKlippenstein Family for VN 003

    At Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) we hope that many visitors will take a look at the latest exhibit in its Gerhard Ens Gallery, also known as the Temporary Gallery. It shines a spotlight on the life and experiences of a group referred to as “non-traditional” Mennonite women. It refers, indirectly of course, to the fact that, in our past, certain traditions “controlled” the kind of work and life women in Mennonite communities could look forward to.

   According to tradition, most women in a Mennonite community would get married and have children, if all went well, and continue mothering those children as long as necessary. Those who did not get married might possibly find themselves working as housekeepers or in manual labour of other kinds, including simply giving assistance to their parents. By 1947, when I looked around at my high-school graduating class at the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna, I sensed that women did have several not-unattractive options, not just one. Teaching and nursing were coming into their own as positions that could quite naturally be filled by women as well as men.  Marriage was of course still an option, and not a few women managed to do their mothering and vocational work simultaneously, at least for a good portion of their lives.

   There were, however, other “non-traditional” vocations and careers that still stand out as “exceptions to the rule.” Among these exceptions were the midwives of various communities, quite anonymous among historical accounts until quite recently, coming to light through loose documents that have survived.

   When my colleague, Conrad Stoesz, originally from my home area in the former West Reserve, was casting about for topics to write on for his graduate-school courses, he came upon the subject of midwives and took it on, because (in his words) “ there was nothing written on it anywhere.” He says he took on the challenge of plugging that gap, as it were, after he discovered this group of indispensable community workers and concluded that this silence needed to be ended.

   Here are some statements (paraphrased in spots) from Conrad’s conclusions in one of the papers he then published on the topic: “The midwives who served the Manitoba Mennonites in the late 1800s and early 1900s were essential to the success of their communities. The large families common in these communities insured a high demand for their services. The Mennonite community used the midwife as a means of sustaining self-dependence to keep intact the cultural and religious boundaries, even for a time keeping “foreign” doctors at bay.” (From “Mennonites and the Control of Fertility,” to be published in Journal of Mennonite Studies later this year.)

   My own field of studies had concentrated on other topics until I took note of something that our family story had never mentioned before. I learned that my great-grandmother Sarah Klippenstein had been a midwife for an unknown number of years in my home community in the West Reserve, and we began to locate artifacts to illustrate her work. They have encouraged me to look for more information. Conrad is standing by to help make that happen!

   The new MHV exhibit seeks to highlight the “forgotten” women, such as these midwives and other community workers, who did

play a very significant role in many homes, particularly those where regular medical assistance was not easily accessible.

Calendar of Events

- June 17-19 – Waffle and Cultural Booths at Summer in the City

- June 19 – Father’s Day Buffet in the Livery Barn Restaurant 11:30 – 2:00

- July 1 – Steinbach’s Canada Day festivities – 10:00 to 6:00

- July 11-15 – Pioneer Day Camp for children ages 5-8

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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