Happy Women’s History Month and belated International Women’s Day! I thought this would be a prime opportunity to discuss women in Amish communities and why empowering women is so important.

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If you know a little bit about Amish culture, then you know it’s no secret that Amish women need feminism. Not only was the Amish Church founded by a man (Jakob Ammann) in 1693, but all clergy since then have been men. Women have never been in leadership roles or positions of power within an Amish community — not in the church, not in the society, and with rare exceptions, not in a family dynamic.

Furthermore, sexual assault and domestic violence are rampant social issues in Amish communities. There are not currently any statistics on sexual violence rates against women and children in Amish communities, but it is speculated by experts at the Amish Heritage Foundation to be higher than . . .

. . . the national average. As of June 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that over half of women and nearly one third of men have been victims of sexual violence. The CDC also reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are victims of child sexual abuse.

Women and children in Amish communities are also often victims of domestic violence. It is common for Amish parents to punish their children severely in the name of discipline, which the Amish religion not only allows but requires. This abuse comes in the form of beatings with whips, leather straps, pieces of wood, and chairs or other furniture, etc.

Also, Amish children are typically subject to slave labor. They are often not on the payroll in order to aid in cutting labor costs and tax evasion; this happens in both Amish and non-Amish businesses that pay cash under the table for forced child labor.

Children also are not allowed to keep any of the money they earn until between 18 and 21 years old, depending on the community, parents, and gender of the child. Except in rare cases, girls are never allowed to keep the money they earn until they are 21, at which point they are usually already married and no longer earning an income outside the home. Every paycheck until then goes directly to their father. 

We, in mainstream society, need to cultivate change from the outside in.

When I first came up with the idea for this blog post, and even as I started brainstorming what to write, I found myself fixated on how we, in mainstream society, could specifically help Amish women. Then, in talking with Torah Bontrager, something clicked for me. We, in mainstream society, need to cultivate change from the outside in. Our focus cannot be on simply changing Amish communities, but our focus needs to also be on changing how we view the Amish and how we allow our society to operate in terms of enabling the problems or addressing the problems.

It can be easy for us outsiders to ostracize or romanticize the Amish, and this allows their churches and authorities to maintain such a high level of control on the people in their communities. We have to stop thinking about Amish women and children as property of the Amish — and separate from us — and start thinking of them as fellow members of society, if we truly want to help and protect them. These people are not only Amish citizens but United States citizens, and they deserve to be protected by the same rights and regulations as the rest of us.

So, how do we aid in doing that? Well, let’s reflect on how any woman has come to be protected and empowered throughout US history. Here is a brief timeline of notable events in US women’s history:

A Brief Timeline of Notable Events in US Women’s History

1769: The 13 colonies, from which the United States was formed, “adopt the English system decreeing women cannot own property in their own name or keep their own earnings.” You can read a full timeline of women’s rights from 1769 to the fall of Roe v. Wade by Susan Milligan who says:

“Historians describe two waves of feminism in history: the first in the 19th century, growing out of the anti-slavery movement, and the second, in the 1960s and 1970s. Women have made great strides – and suffered some setbacks – throughout history, but many of their gains were made during the two eras of activism in favor of women’s rights.”

March 31, 1776: According to the National Park Service, First Lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband Founding Father John Adams who was working in Philadelphia in the Continental Congress,

“In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

According to the National Women’s History Museum, John Adams replied,

“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where… Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

July 19-20, 1848: The first women’s rights convention was organized by 32-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton and held by women in Seneca Falls, New York. Of the 300 in attendance, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments, sparking decades of activism. The Declaration of Sentiments was a formal list of grievances based on the Declaration of Independence, denouncing inequities in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family, and suffrage. 

May 29, 1851: Sojourner Truth, a freed enslaved person and popular anti-slavery activist, delivers her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Although her speech was not transcribed and has since been lost in its complete accuracy, the impact of her speech has had a historic impact toward equal rights. She fought for both the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.

April 2, 1917: Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist and professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), is sworn in as the first woman elected to Congress, as a member of the House of Representatives.

August 18, 1920: The 19th Amendment is ratified, and women are finally granted the right to vote after a 72-year-long battle for equality. Carrie Lane Chapman Catt “is recognized as one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote in August 1920.”

June 10, 1963: The Equal Pay Act, intended to eliminate wage discrimination against women, is signed by John F. Kennedy and passes. The Act “fundamentally changed the nature of pay for women, which on average earned less than two-thirds of their male counterparts in 1963.”

July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson, signs the Civil Rights Act into law; Title VII bans employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.

June 30, 1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded. As of 2023, NOW claims to use traditional and nontraditional means of activism to advocate for change. NOW works to promote feminism, cultivate societal change, abolish discrimination, and “achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life.”

Here’s What You Can Do to Help Amish Women and Girls

Download our free PDF “8 Powerful, Easy Ways to Advocate for Amish Women and Children” to get started today as an ally and advocate!

When you subscribe to the monthly-ish Amish Insider, you also get a link to download “8 Powerful, Easy Ways to Advocate for Amish Women and Children”.

Empowering Amish women starts with our advocacy, and it relies on their education. 

As you can see, change takes time, knowledge, and passion. It takes a voice, be that of one or of many, to be heard. Throughout every wave of feminism, women have needed to advocate for themselves and for each other, and that is how we cultivate change for Amish women. We can’t necessarily make Amish communities and churches change their system, but we can uphold and protect Amish women in the same way we have upheld and protected the other women of our society.

Empowering Amish women starts with our advocacy, and it relies on their education. Torah Bontrager, who founded the Amish Heritage Foundation and is a child sexual assault survivor, has been the leading Amish voice to speak out publicly and nationally about domestic violence and sexual assault among the Amish since 2015, although before then she frequently spoke out about many of these issues when sharing publicly about her escape from the Amish at age 15. Her first national appearance to address child abuse goes all the way back to 1996 when she was interviewed for an episode on ABC’s 20/20. Here are some excerpts from several of her works on these issues:

“It takes tremendous courage for any survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence to share their story with someone. It takes even more courage for an Amish woman or girl to share her story, because we’re taught that sexual assault is our fault (i.e., we tempted the male rapists) and/or sexual assault is God punishing us (e.g., for having broken a rule, for not having been submissive/obedient, for having left the Amish Church, etc.).” The very first steps toward empowering Amish women and children — our fellow citizens — are to educate them on their rights and responsibilities and enforce those rights and obligations. Without enforcement by non-Amish law enforcement, child protective services, and sexual assault and domestic violence prevention advocates, Amish victims will never get the help they need.”

Source: 8 Culturally Sensitive Steps to Support an Amish Female Survivor by Torah Bontrager

“With rare exceptions, the Amish are forbidden by the religion to report crime to non-Amish law enforcement; all crime must be reported to the Amish bishop, who more often than not is a perpetrator himself and who ensures that the case doesn’t get reported to US law enforcement. To make it even more complicated, most Amish women and children don’t know that they’re victims of crime, so over the course of Amish history, millions of criminal occurrences have never been reported or acknowledged. Children and youth generally aren’t aware that they’re US citizens with constitutional rights — or if they’re aware they’re citizens, they don’t what it means to be a US citizen. E.g., they don’t know what their rights are, nor do they know that they’re being abused according to US laws.”

Source: Amish Girl in Manhattan (a crime memoir) by Torah Bontrager

“These same problems exist among Amish offshoots and similar groups that fall under the Anabaptist umbrella (e.g., Mennonites, Hutterites, etc.), particularly on the conservative end of a given community or group. Divorce is strictly prohibited, and with rare exceptions, a victimized spouse is told she can’t legally separate, get an order of protection, or take her case to court. Victimized children and youth are similarly denied safety and protection and must submit to the abuser or continue to risk recurring abuse by being forced to live in the same household as the abuser.”

Source: 8 Powerful, Easy Ways to Advocate for Amish Women and Children by Torah Bontrager

“Amish children and youth also generally aren’t aware that they’re legally adults at age 18. In the eyes of the Amish, they remain property of the parents until marriage (especially girls, who have inferior status because of their gender), at which point the female spouse is property of her husband. One of the most important marriage vows a woman agrees to is to literally obey her husband until death, and before that, she’s to obey her father and other male authority figures without question, even if she’s 18 or older.”

Source: Amish Girl in Manhattan (a crime memoir) by Torah Bontrager

Education, outreach, and support are of the utmost importance in assisting Amish women and children to get to the starting line of experiencing the better quality of life they deserve.

You can help in easy, but powerful and practical ways by going to this post or downloading “8 Powerful, Easy Ways to Advocate for Amish Women and Children” to get started today as an ally and advocate!

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