From June 22-25, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) hosts “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” a conference on the theme of women in the Anabaptist tradition who have crossed lines, borders and boundaries in contexts ranging from family structures to gender and race politics, leadership roles and migration.
Twenty-five concurrent sessions on a range of topics feature scholars and artists from around the United States and Canada, as well as India, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Germany, Mexico and Columbia.
“I anticipate that the breadth of scholarship, artistic engagement, as well as ethnic, racial and gender identities of the presenters and artists will provide rich comparative, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural analyses,” says Kimberly Schmidt, professor of history at EMU and director of the Washington Community Scholars’ Center in Washington D.C.
“The program is so rich that it will be hard to choose which sessions to attend,” adds Mary Sprunger, chair of EMU’s History Department and co-director with Schmidt of the gender studies program. “Come with some friends so you can divide and conquer, and compare notes later each day over coffee.”
Professor Hasia Diner offers the keynote address. Professor Sofia Samatar and veteran international aid administrator Cynthia Peacock provide plenary sessions.
Two bus tours on the theme of Mennonite women in the Shenandoah Valley are also offered, which include a family-style dinner in an Old Order Mennonite home.
Evening sessions offer a different experience in the arts: a visual gallery, poetry recitation and reading performance, and dance exhibition.
“Like many of the conference planning committee members, I’m a historian by trade, but I’m excited by the interdisciplinary nature of the sessions and evening events,” said Sprunger.
Registration is open through May 15, with late fees applying after that date. Cost is $100 or $35 per day.
Keynote speaker Professor Hasia Diner opens the conference with a presentation that broadens the topic beyond women in the Anabaptist tradition. She will speak about Jewish women in America.
Schmidt says this choice was purposeful. “Comparative studies enable us to engage in the broader scholarly world. This lecture forces us to think of Mennonite women’s history not as separate and apart from the history of women, but as part of it. Mennonite women, like Jewish women, are members of distinctive ethno-religious communities and one of the key questions we’re asking at this conference is how that specific identity informs women’s agency.”
A professor of history at New York University, Diner has studied and written extensively about 19th and 20th century immigrant populations in the U.S. She has focused on Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants, and their gender and religious structures.
On Friday, June 23, Cynthia Peacock will speak about “Overcoming Barriers and Building Empowerment: Stories of Anabaptist Women in India.” She is the Mennonite World Conference’s South Asia representative for India and Nepal, and serves her regional church communities in a variety of capacities. She worked for Mennonite Central Committee for 38 years doing social work, women’s empowerment training, and other development projects in India.
On Saturday, June 24, Sofia Samatar addresses “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time.” Samatar, professor of English at James Madison University, moved around the world in childhood with her Somali father and Swiss-German Mennonite mother. Samatar specializes in the study of contemporary African and Arabic literature, and has won several awards for her fiction writings.
Sponsorships honor empowered Anabaptist women
In addition to major sponsorships by Marpeck Foundation, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Just Pax Fund, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the conference is also notably and uniquely funded by individuals honoring special women in their lives, including pastors, professors and family members.
Many were historians themselves, compiling genealogies and contributing to family histories and church newsletters. Others, such as Virginia Joy Peachey Spicher, earned a college degree as an adult, “commuting, working as a nurse, maintaining a 4.0.”
Daughter Julia Spicher Kasdorf graduated with her mother in 1984. She shares on the conference website, “Now I see what her degree meant.”
First conference on Anabaptist women’s history was in 1995
The conference builds on a 21-year-old legacy of a groundbreaking conference on women of Anabaptist traditions in history at Millersville University (Pa.) in 1995. That conference was titled “The Quiet in the Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspective.”
The phrase women of Anabaptist traditions has been retained in the new title to highlight the significant contributions to the field made both at Millersville and in the years since then, says Schmidt, who chaired the 1995 planning committee. “Women’s history among Mennonite scholars was definitely in its infancy in 1995,” she says. “There was a group of us who had graduated from American and Canadian universities who wanted to push forward the field, not only for scholars of Mennonite history, but to make sure we were engaging with the broader field of women’s history.”
Significantly, four other members on the 1995 planning committee have joined Schmidt to lead the efforts for the 2017 event. Schmidt returns in her role as co-chair, sharing leadership with Sprunger.