Gender Roles

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Gender Roles can be identified as behavior or tasks done with some expectation or self-consciousness about being female or male. Influenced by societal factors, and linked to status, people's behavior may be inherent, imposed, or chosen. Culture determines what is "proper" and what to change.

People perform multiple and changing roles. Women and men engage in both similar and different roles, depending on world view, established lines of authority, developed skills, or motivation. When roles are stereotyped or available to some but not others, influence can be detrimental. Sex roles, determined by basic biology, are performed by one sex or the other. But tradition, social hierarchy, technology, economy, and psychology control most gender roles.

Traditional and current stereotypes tend to assign women's roles to private spheres and men's to more public ones. Even though Christians may think this is based on Scripture, using the Bible to justify subordinate or superordinate roles diminishes the entire message. It fails to note, for example, how the original division of tasks by gender (in the Garden of Eden) came as a result of sin.

The first woman and man were given work to do. And it was good. They were to care responsibly for the rest of created life in exchange for the pleasure and food they received. Together they were to till and keep (serve and protect). To be human was to work. But when created goodness was marred by human desire to sin, or dominate, judgment followed. Instead of working together, human tasks were separated; hierarchy displaced mutuality. Both woman and man came to experience pain through roles. Each was diminished because sexuality became perverted. For man to rule over his intended equal and for woman to be ruled by him indicated sin. Few Mennonite interpreters of Scripture have acknowledged that aspect of gender roles.

With 16th century Anabaptists the "priesthood of all believers" was a marked motif within patriarchal patterns. Women and men studied the Bible together, and each used it effectively in testimony. To stress silence for women would have been inconsistent. Loyalty to Christ was valued over that toward one's spouse. The role of missioning proved more important than bearing children.

But that stance has been reversed. Many churchmen condition women to believe that their prime duty is motherhood and household care. Headship for a husband, silence for women in the church, and primacy or normativeness of male experience characterize most Mennonite gender role teaching and practice. Based in androcentric (male-centered) interpretation of Scripture, both women and men neglected hearing Jesus' first call to all: "hear God's will and do it."

Some exceptions are noteworthy, Along with early Anabaptist men, Elizabeth Dirks was known as a leeraresse (teacher, minister). By 1823 women were noted for social work in Amsterdam; not until 1905 were there deaconess sisters among Mennonites in Kansas. In 1897 a Herald of Truth (MC) writer encouraged women missionaries to instruct, interpret, and exhort the way of salvation. Mennonite Brethren (MB) ambivalent practice emerged when women were ordained for missionary service but denied ordination within the congregations that sponsored them. Gospel Witness writers, during the first decade of 1900, could not encourage Mennonite women to pattern themselves after 1st century women apostles. However, following 1917 one-quarter of the ordained Mennonite ministers of The Netherlands were women. Presently, Mennonite women in North America are more likely than the average north American to be professionally employed.

The Mennonite Women's Calendar (1984-86) identified more than 400 women who contributed to the church through significant home, church, community, and worldwide roles, often as volunteers. These inter-Mennonite, international exemplars were capable health workers, teachers, evangelists, writers, pastors, artists, administrators, pioneers, farmers, peace advocates, and providers of hospitality. Because the story of our Mennonite heritage has not attended to women's experience, major books have appeared to clarify how some within General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM), Mennonite Brethren (MB), and Mennonite Church (MC) circles have countered the limits of traditional gender roles.

While church roles for women have been limited, men's "place" or options have been less confined. Only among some groups were unmarried men disqualified as church or social leaders. Otherwise, cultural norms opposed the idea of men caring for and teaching children or assisting in the kitchen. Fatherhood status has never equaled that of motherhood. Preachers and writers, mostly fathers, have exhorted women to be "keepers at home," often blind to their own absence as parent.

The Kauffman-Harder survey of five North American Mennonite groups (published 1975) showed that one quarter of employed males were farmers and that nearly one quarter of farm wives had "outside" jobs. This had increased to 56 percent in 1989. On the item: "Should a large number of qualified women be appointed to church boards or committees at varied levels?" one third responded Yes, the rest declaring No or Undecided. The 1989 Kauffman/Driedger survey saw this percentage increase to 52. Asking: "Should the policy on ordination in your denomination be changed to allow for the ordination of women to Christian ministry?" 16 percent affirmed while 23 percent declared they were uncertain and 61 percent said No. In 1989 44 percent affirmed the question, ranging up to 59 percent in the General Conference Mennonite Church.

Hutterite women's roles are shifting too. Assertiveness in making wishes known, self-perception, extending the private sphere, and labor-saving machines affect this. At the same time, formal authority and power structures continue to reflect male dominance. While men are socialized for leadership, women are to be submissive and voiceless in church and colony policy.

Overall authority of fathers is prevalent also among Amish. Women are helpers. Men's roles include heavy farm duties, meat curing, and fruit tree spraying. Women are responsible for child care; food growing, preserving, and serving (to men and boys first); clothes, house and lawn care. While women are never church officials, both participate in the Rat (Council) of the church. Increasingly, men are taking temporary jobs in area factories while some women have become domestic workers employed by non-Amish.

Both Old Colony and Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference Mennonites in Belize extend authority to the bishop. Although patriarchal patterns are being modified, most women think of themselves mainly as servants to their husbands. While they are permitted to be Sunday School teachers with women or children, women rarely make group decisions. Men conduct both church and public business.

Cultural factors affect Japanese Mennonites too. Girls and boys learn distinct roles. Pressure exists to give much effort to enroll sons in good schools. As churches become established, men assume leadership, but among the three largest Mennonite groups, a few women are active as pastors. Decision-making is done together.

As with general society, French Mennonite men lead in households. Among farm families, all join in doing chores; girls also complete indoor work. Young men pursue industrial jobs. That women are not also seminary students will affect church roles.

Food production becomes the fundamental role issue in Zaire. In some regions, women plant corn and food crops while men plant yams or crops for sale. Because of taxation, men turned to other employment for bringing in cash. Women fill secretarial roles. In Protestant groups like Brethren in Christ, where expectations from men may be more orderly than for general society, women are also free to be leaders of strength.

Among Mennonites in India influence on gender roles of ancient culture and tradition remain. A wife often walks several steps behind her husband whom she is expected to always honor. A husband is to be "in control" whether with discipline or managing finances. A unique gender role is that of honor extended to the grandmother in households. Women supplement men as the primary providers. In rural areas, both may do field work; urban dwellers may earn as manual laborers. Many Mennonite young people are educated and prepared to bring useful change to church life.

Shifts also emerge among Swiss Mennonites, but focus on male headship remains. Most men either farm or operate a local business, but an increasing number of young people now attend university. Tension presents itself as women begin to serve churches as elders; only men teach catechism. Both serve as leaders of choirs and congregational singing.

Mennonite experience with gender roles is varied and in transition. From the first four years when only 22 of 269 Anabaptist leaders survived, to today's pattern of some being leaders for decades; from a 25-year-old Mennonite Church (MC) Confession of Faith suggesting gender roles that were outdated in 1987; from the imbalance when men alone determined roles for all to awareness that interdependence of woman and man in decisions is imperative; from patterns thought to be based in Scripture yet primarily formed by culture; from all of this, Mennonites enter a new century with new options for roles.


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Author(s) Dorothy Yoder Nyce
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. "Gender Roles." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Mar 2024.

APA style

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. (1989). Gender Roles. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 March 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 326-327. All rights reserved.

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