WHM Reflections: Women we need to know more about

In reflecting on this year’s Women’s History Month, we have invited some Mennonite/Mennonear (near to Mennonite) women to share with us their concerns and hopes about women.Today, we’re joined by Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies at Goshen College and co-author of Set Free: A Journey Toward Solidarity Against Racism, Renee Kanagy, pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, Martina Cucchiara, professor of history at Bluffton College and co-editor of The Evil That Surrounds Us: The WWII Memoir of Erna Becker-Kohen, Rachel Epp Buller, professor of visual art and design at Bethel Collge and the author or editor of Reconciling Art and Mothering; Mothering Mennonite; and Alice Lex-Nerlinger: Fotomonteurin und Malerin / Photomontage Artist and Painter.

Here, each answers the question “Who is a woman whose story you think needs to be better known?”

Regina Shands Stoltzfus: I would love for more people to know about Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  If people know her name, they know her primarily as an anti-lynching activist, which is appropriate.  However, I think it is important to also remember that she was a journalist.  This is astounding in and of itself, that a Black woman born in the mid-1800s pursued a career as a writer.  She used those skills in pursuit of justice for the victims of lynching and the record she painstakingly gathered are the data for an important and harrowing part of U.S. history.  Wells-Barnett also embodied the principles of intersectionality in her work.

Ida B Wells

Above, journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. 

Renee Kanagy: Ruby Sale, the founder and director of the Spirit House Project. She is one of 50 African Americans to be spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Something in the interview she did with Krista Tippett as part of On Being keeps calling me back.  She extends comfort by asking “Where does it hurt?” Oh, now that’s a question. And she calls me to turn and ask this compassionate question with other white folks who do not share my vision for what would make for a country, a community, where shalom holds for everyone. She has the lived experience, the strength and tenderness, to ask me and my tribe of European American Christians to initiate compassionate conversation from a place of inquiring “where does it hurt?”

Ruby Sales’ question asks us to sit with and experience pain: the hurt of rejection, humiliation, not measuring up or being known and loved at the core of our being. The question helps us develop the capacity to sit with and not gloss over or numb out to the pain. The question images that something transformative happens when we sit in the pain of another or our own. I’ve seen it happen—a shift, an easing, or companionship—and it is real, even as it is undetectable at times to the rational mind. Holding my own pain is essential to working at a great challenge facing women today: discernment, asking What is my work?

Ruby Sales

Civil Rights hero Ruby Sales


Martina Cucchiara: Rather than focus on one individual woman, I would like to focus on a group of women: the School Sisters of Notre Dame in North America.

The School Sisters of Notre Dame are an apostolic Catholic religious congregation that originated in Germany in 1833 with the explicit goal of teaching and serving poor girls.  The Catholic Church seems an unlikely place for women’s activism, but in an era where women had few opportunities outside of marriage, the nineteenth-century Catholic Church offered remarkable autonomous free spaces for women called to religious life. Fronta Schlund, born in 1872 in Bavaria, illustrates this point.  As was common for many rural women of her era, Sister Fronta’s marriage prospects were poor, and before her stretched a lifetime of drudgery on her family farm under her domineering father’s authority. For years, Sister Fronta fought her father, who forbade her to take religious vows until, finally, at the age of twenty-one, she escaped to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame, where she trained as a nurse. Her obituary testifies to the joy the young woman found in her profession and vocation, as everyone in her care agreed that “she was in her element” whenever she entered a sickroom. She was just one of many Catholic sisters who defied social norms of their age by living independent lives outside of the authority of husbands and fathers.

Today in North America, the School Sisters are courageous and uncompromising advocates and activists for women and girls, the poor, peace, and social justice.  As I am writing this entry, from March 12-23, 2018 the School Sisters are attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York, where they are campaigning for gender equality and for the rights and empowerment of rural women and girls everywhere.

You can follow the sisters’ activism and campaigns on Facebook or their website.

Mother Theresa Gerhardinger

Mother Theresa Gerhardinger, foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame

Rachel Epp Buller: My inevitable answer has to be German artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger, since I spent years researching and writing about her under-recognized work. She and her spouse were both artists and both achieved quite a bit of exposure in 1920s Berlin; as often happens with artist-couples, however, history books have often included his work but not hers or mention her only in passing. Both artists sought throughout their lives to make their work an instrument for social change; as members of the German Communist Party, both searched for, and repeatedly changed, artistic styles in hopes of finding the style that would most closely connect to the experiences of the common person, rather than just appeal to an art-world elite. While both artists prioritized issues of class, Lex is notable for the ways in which she introduced gender to the discussion of class, drawing attention to a wide variety of female labor experiences—between the wars, during  World War II, and as part of the postwar rebuilding in East Berlin.

You can find the first retrospective exhibition of her work here, read a bilingual exhibition catalogue, and check out On This Date in Photography’s blog post, with images, about her work.


Above, a photograph of Alice Lex-Nerlinger from the collection of Sigrid Nerlinger.

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