As a child, one of the things that fascinated me about Mennonites of the past was dress, particularly the head covering. What would it have been like to be marked, physically, by your religion? To have people look at you and know you were a Mennonite? Head coverings and plain attire were mostly past when I was growing up — the province of grandmothers and old photographs. And so I could romanticize dress regulations a bit — toy with the idea that perhaps there was something desirable in the certainty and identity that rules on dress created. But, as my mother has pointed out, that shows how little acquainted I am with the tedium of listening to long sermons on skirt length.
Dress, any historian of Mennonites will tell you, was a potent symbol of many things: patriarchy, nonconformity, agency, resistance. Given all this weight, I was eager to ask several Mennonite women about when and how expectations about dress shifted in their lives. As I worked with them on oral histories, I was surprised to find that the women I spoke with did not have firm memories about how change had happened.
The women I interviewed were born between 1924 and 1942. They all grew up with the expectation of at least a head covering. Some wore cape dresses, even if only to church or school, while others were only expected to dress modestly in a regular skirt and blouse. Expectations varied depending on family and congregation. But the women shared two things: a vague sense of when and how rules changed and an emphasis on rules as something they followed to get along, not something that they approached with deep personal conviction.
In a group interview with several women from the Denbigh, Va., community, several agreed that they couldn’t remember exactly when standards on dress had changed. “I just can’t remember being much bothered by [discussion on dress],” one woman stated. Another woman recalled that it seemed like there was a time (around the 1960s) when “it was almost like every woman did was right in her own eyes,” about dress. She took cues from other women in her congregation, particularly women who were respected, and did not necessarily look to church leadership for guidance as things changed.
These women were not overtly rebelling against dress rules but were happy to find spaces where they could get around rules without notice. One woman recalled that as a nurse in the 1950s she could avoid a cape dress in daily life because she needed to wear a uniform. She also remembered that she quit wearing black stockings “as soon as I could get out of it,” emphasizing how unattractive they looked. Sometime in the 1970s she stopped wearing a covering. Someone at work had asked her why Mennonites wore coverings. She realized she had no good answer and took that as an indication that it was time to change. She continued to wear a small lace covering to church “out of respect” for others.
Another woman made similar comments about a desire to get along with the church. She stopped wearing a covering (outside of church) her senior year of high school, in the early 1950s. She “didn’t want to disappoint” leaders but also didn’t feel the covering made sense. Another remembered relief in leaving Lancaster County, Pa., for Goshen (Ind.) College and an atmosphere that was less focused on dress. Men also lacked attachment to the rules. One woman recalled that once her husband was ordained as a minister in Virginia Conference in the late 1950s he began wearing a plain coat, but “not because of personal conviction.” Overall, the women looked back on ideas about dress with some amusement. They emphasized critiques they had held — quietly — in the past and agreed change was a good thing.
A few of the women that I interviewed did indicate some personal conviction about dress. One called the head covering a “symbol of my relationship” [with her husband]. She explained she did not stop wearing it until she checked with her husband, who told her it should be up to her what she wore. Another told the story of the last cape dress she made. She had trouble getting it to fit right and prayed for the Lord to help her: “if he wanted me to wear a cape, he’d help me. And I had more trouble with that cape than any.” She took it as a sign that cape dresses were not an essential part of Christian life. But, even these women described an overall change process that was subtle and without moral distress. I was left with the impression that dress regulations faded away — and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
So what interpretations can a historian draw? Of course, there are some caveats. Firstly, my sample was quite small (about 15 women) and I did not attempt to find women from the same communities or same age cohorts (they ranged from birth years 1924 to 1942 and came from home communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio; all grew up in old Mennonite — MC — congregations). Secondly, none of the women came from the generation that did the most to push outright against rules on dress — although those born in the early 1940s came closer to that age cohort, and had more tales to tell about the tricky ways they got around rules. Moreover, most of the women remained Mennonite their entire lives; I might have found different stories if I had interviewed women who left the Mennonite church. Another point is that my sample skewed toward the college educated; several of the women had professional careers. Finally, oral histories often tell us as much about the present as the past. Regulating religious dress seems far away. It may be that, feeling no attachment to head coverings now, it is difficult to remember a time when perhaps one did find meaning in them.
My working theory, however, is that there were a lot of people in the Mennonite church donning plain coats and head coverings not out of conviction but out of a desire to remain in fellowship. My evidence speaks most to the period of the 1950s-1970s — although given some of the comments women made about their mothers’ attitudes toward dress, I have cause to suspect there was never full consensus on the matter. Change sometimes comes with a bang. And sometimes it comes quietly. I doubt there is anything particularly Mennonite about a pattern where a few people openly push for change while many more change slowly, perhaps all the while seeming to be not changing at all. I leave it to the sociologists to say for sure, but I suspect this is a common social pattern.
But change without a bang does raise some questions relevant for the Mennonite church today. In our current conflicts over embracing and including LGBTQ persons in church life it is tempting to think only those who are the most vocal seek change. But is it possible that we have pews of people quietly wondering why sex is such a big deal for church membership? Who may not be asking for change but would be OK if it came? Could we apply the concept of a silent, questioning majority to other conflicts in church history: women in leadership or divorce and remarriage? The value is not in finding perfect historical parallels — often a futile task, anyway — but in being attentive to the range of ways change develops.
The silent majority trope should be used with some caution, given its history. Richard Nixon used it to galvanize support as he argued against cultural and political change in the 1960s, but naming a silent majority of supporters obscured as much as it illuminated. For one, if a group is “silent,” it is conveniently easy for politicians to speak for it, in ways that may or may not accord with reality. There are philosophical issues with silent majorities as well: are they necessarily noble or wise? Does elevating them ignore the importance of prophetic minorities? But, despite the complexity, the concept of a silent majority can be useful in thinking about how change happens, particularly if we remember this: silent majorities are not static. They are made up of real people who change and respond to change over time. Just because people don’t protest something does not mean that they like it. Most Mennonite women in the 1950s didn’t openly push the boundaries on dress, but it would be a mistake to read that as true belief in the rules.
Silent majorities can be real or invented. They can resist change or form a backlash. But they can also be a key part of how change unfolds. They can embrace change. As one group of women I interviewed put it, “we were the good kids.” Would anyone have guessed, in the 1950s, how many good girls wearing coverings were ready to take them off?
Holly Scott lives in Lovingston, Va., and is a member of Charlottesville Mennonite Church. She has a PhD in history from American University, has taught history at EMU and currently teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College. This post originally appeared at Anabaptist Historians.