Beth Graybill

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

Gifts of the Red Tent: Women Creating

In 2003, the Committee for Women’s Concerns of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) commemorated thirty years of existence. Formally launched as the bi-national Task Force on Women in Church and Society at a meeting of MCC’s Peace Section in Ottawa in 1973, it divided into separate US and Canada steering committees in 1975. As those of us in the audience at the Women Doing Theology meetings listened to the founders share their stories of birthing MCC Women’s Concerns, we admired and applauded their courage, pain, fortitude, and hope.

The founders of the Committee for Women’s Concerns have much to celebrate. Their drive and vision helped to bring women’s issues to the fore in the life of the Mennonite Church, and to mobilize a response on key issues. Within the first year-and-a-half they had planned two major conferences – “The Interdependence of Men and Women,” a study conference at Camp Friedenswald in Michigan, and a women and politics seminar held in Washington, DC. They had also published several issues of the newsletter, Women’s Concerns Report, as well as an edited collection of writings by and about women entitled “Persons Becoming” (followed in 1980 by a second collection entitled “Which Way Women”). In addition, they had completed a study on Women and Work, examining MCC’s employment policies and practices, and had contacted deans and department heads at Mennonite colleges, encouraging them to promote the study of women in church and society. (Indeed, Goshen College in Indiana recently commemorated twentyfive years of its Women’s Studies minor.) This is an impressive workload for paid staff, let alone for a volunteer group of women who were taking on these responsibilities in addition to other commitments.

Strategically, the founders of MCC Women’s Concerns – most notably Dorothy Yoder Nyce and Luanne Habegger (Martin) – sought to locate their program under the rubric of MCC’s peace initiatives, rather than as a separate family life initiative (the only space formerly open to women’s work though the 1950s and 1960s in the Mennonite Church in North America). This allowed women’s issues to be situated in the core of peacemaking rather than occupying a marginalized position.

The founders also benefited from male allies who lent critical initial support to their venture. Minutes from the March 1973 meeting note that the almost entirely male board was “grateful” to its women members (the two representatives from the church’s women’s organizations) and to the other women presenters (theologian Dorothy Yoder Nyce and MCC staff member Luann Habegger) for having “sensitized the male members to faulty use of language, distorted values, inadequate Biblical interpretation, and discrimination against women in church and societal structures.” The Peace Section board “accepts the challenge to place women’s interests on its continuing agenda and supports bringing these concerns to the attention of the church via a variety of forms and offers its resources for such.” That after one hearing the board would be willing not only to support church-wide dissemination but also to authorize resources toward this initiative speaks either to the persuasiveness of the women, the openness of the men, or the moving of the Spirit. The board then proceeded to appoint the Peace Section administrative assistant, Ted Koontz, to pursue these goals. The irony that much of the logistical work of coordinating phone calls, organizing meetings, and typing minutes of the women’s task force fell to a man was not lost on the women.

The Women’s Concerns founders were working for some things that today we take for granted: language that avoids exclusive use of the male pronoun, curriculum that avoids gender stereotypes, and equal opportunities for women in employment, including within church agencies. And they worked on issues still facing opposition in the Mennonite church today: female language and imagery for God, and the paucity of women in leadership positions in pastoral ministry and in many church agencies.

While the concerns were never exclusive to white women – indeed, one of the first projects was raising funds to send a representative to the first United Nations women’s conference in Mexico City – the steering committee was composed of white ethnic Mennonite women from the US and Canada whose primary focus was on overcoming the overt sexism they encountered in the church. Through the 20-20 vision of hindsight, the Committee for Women’s Concerns, like other women’s organizations of the day, gave inadequate attention to the double oppression experienced by Mennonite women of color. File photos of meetings from the early period show few Black and no Latina women in attendance at board meetings or wider gatherings, a situation which we are now working hard to correct.

Since the hiring of paid part-time staff in the US and Canada to do the work of MCC Women’s Concerns, beginning in the mid-1980s, our vision has broadened. Here in the US at present, including and privileging voices of Mennonite women of color remains our challenge. Bi-nationally, the work around preventing family violence and pastoral misconduct in the churches – begun about fifteen years ago – has borne much fruit through educational conferences (including one in the US in Spanish for Latina Mennonites in 2001), outreach on the issue to conference leaders, print materials, and now a web site (www.mcc.org/abuse). Today my desk receives relatively few calls for assistance in processing charges of pastoral sexual misconduct. I like to believe this is because Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences now have clear grievance and accountability policies in place, and persons in positions of oversight willing to pursue charges. But it may also be a case of fatigue around this issue. Ultimately, Mennonite women need to be empowered to resist and report abuse. We continue to be involved in trying to articulate an Anabaptist theology opposing violence against women as a way to legitimize and foster women’s ability to resist.

As the outgoing MCC Women’s Concerns director, I have been privileged to follow in the steps of this inspiring legacy. Part of the task remaining is to work at subtler forms of sexism, including those limitations that we have internalized, which manifest themselves through gossip, selfblame, and isolation. Too often women in oppressive situations view it as a personal problem (Why can’t I figure out how to juggle the demands of my job and being the primary parent for my child?), rather than a systemic one (How do jobs in church agencies need to be restructured – e.g., with less weekend travel – to enable women and men not to sacrifice family time to do them?). And finally, Jesus’ reminder that the most important thing is to love our neighbor as our self requires adequate self-love, care, and personal development. We need to continually reflect on how we can become better allies to ourselves, to other women, and to men.


Beth Graybill was formerly Director of MCC US Women’s Concerns and a member of the 2003 Women Doing Theology conference planning committee.