Have you ever wondered what life might look like in a world untouched by feminism and the sexual revolution? As someone born after all that happened, I often wonder, were “the good old days” actually better, or are people remembering them with rose-colored glasses?
About three years ago, I hired a local 16-year-old girl to babysit my girls after school three days a week. S. and her family belong to a religious group similar to Amish (No TV, music, or Internet but electricity and cars and western clothing are ok). There is a fairly large group of folks in my area who are members of this group, but because they rarely mingle with “outsiders” most people know little about the way they live or what they believe. But thanks to my relationship with S., I have been given a glimpse into this closed world, and it’s been fascinating.
The religion has its origins in Scandinavia and came to my area at the turn of the century when believers of this faith moved to the new world. Cut off from the church in Europe, this group is still practicing the faith as it was when they imported it over 150 years ago.
They have allowed some “modern conveniences” such as electricity, cell phones, and automobiles, but shun media like television, music, and the Internet. They do not drink alcohol. Gender roles are very traditional, with men largely employed in the building trades and women taking care of the home and children. They marry young, right out of high school, and have large families, often numbering 10 children or more.
Women do not cut their hair and often wear it swept up in a messy bun. Make up is not allowed, although most of the girls really don’t need it, as they have this unique fresh scrubbed Scandinavian glowing beauty similar to this girl. Most are blue-eyed blondes, although there is a smattering of brunettes and red heads among them.
Prior to meeting S. I, like many “moderns,” had a lot of misconceptions about what life in this faith must be like. I imagined the women were uneducated, oppressed, unhappy, and trapped in a life toiling away in domestic drudgery. After all, how could they possibly be happy, my post-feminist worldviews told me?
But what I saw was something entirely different. S. was very education focused and had attended both public school and been home schooled at her own choice. (Many of the valedictorians at local high schools are girls of this faith.) At the time she started watching my girls, age 16, she was in a program that allowed her to attend community college during her junior and senior years of high school. She graduated with her high school diploma and her associates degree the same week. At 19, she is now one quarter away from completing her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She plans to operate an in home daycare.
In fact while many of the women in this faith don’t work outside the home, I have discovered that does not mean they aren’t entrepreneurial. Many work at home administrating their husband’s construction-related businesses, taking calls, scheduling estimates, keeping the books. Others are involved in the vintage flea market trade, buying and refinishing furniture sold through local antique shops. Yet others, like S., go into daycare.
Likewise their homes are cozy and well run. They seem to take a “busy hands, happy heart” approach to life, and rather than begrudge household chores, they seem to revel in them — taking joy in cooking, keeping and decorating house, and doing immaculate laundry. The women seem to have ample time to spend the afternoons visiting with each other, and their homes are a busy social setting with other ladies coming and going.
While motherhood and family are celebrated, in cases where a woman is unable to have children, they do not seem to be shunned or looked down upon. For example, one woman I know was diagnosed with leukemia during her first pregnancy and because of the treatments was only able to have the one child. She’s accepted in her community regardless, although many women of this faith do grieve deeply when their childbearing years come to an end, even after having as many as 13 children, because each child is seen as a bonus and a blessing rather than as a burden. I also know another woman of this faith who is less traditional, quietly practices birth control, and only has two children. She does not report anyone questioning her or judging her for not having more children.
Young adults (men and women) can also decide to leave the faith with their family’s blessings. Once married, however, very few divorce or leave the church. Couples are expected to make their marriages work, and even when unhappy, to find meaning or happiness otherwise and to honor their commitment. Divorce usually results in shunning by the entire church community, so the decision to divorce is not just about their spouse, it is a decision to divorce nearly everyone and everything they have ever known. (However, as a divorced single mom I have never felt judged by S. or her family, either. They have always treated me most graciously, with kindness and respect.)
While make up is discouraged, that does not mean the women are drab or without style. In fact they (and their children) are usually immaculately groomed and beautifully dressed in modest but flattering clothing made from high quality natural fiber, topped off with flair from colorful scarves, and stylish leather boots and bags. Despite the fact that these women are nearly continuously pregnant from the age of 19 on, it is rare for them to be overweight and curiously I almost never see them out and about when obviously pregnant.
The community seems to have a “clan” mentality. When S. married last winter, just weeks after turning 19, her new husband was given a job as an apprentice electrician in her Grandfather’s electrical company where chances are he will work for the rest of his life and perhaps someday become a partner. The clans work together to keep everyone working, and most families have all the trades needed in-house to build a home from bare ground to finished product. They help their own, securing work and jobs as a team. If I ever need a craftsman of any type, from drywall to paving to plumbing to electrical, all I have to do is ask S. and she has a reference for me in under 5 minutes. All of the craftsmen I have hired on her recommendation have done exquisite work and they are exceedingly honest, sticking to the original bid to the penny even if the job takes them longer than they thought.
On summer weekends, these clans can often be seen at local parks enjoying a day off. The women busy themselves with visiting and cooking elaborate spreads while the men relax and talk shop. The children run around in immense packs, and because almost every woman has 5 or more sisters as well as 5 or more sister in-laws, there is a many hands make light work approach. The unmarried young women oversee the young children. My children and I benefit by proxy, in the rare moment when I have a meeting or doctor appointment and S. is not available to watch my kids because of her school schedule or another commitment, she has three younger sisters who always are eager to help.
At her interview S. was a shy girl and it was a joy to watch her blossom into a confident young lady. I would guess she spent most of her babysitting money on clothing, and she was soon sporting a very stylish wardrobe purchased with her earnings. Unlike many 16-year-old girls, S. was not-self absorbed and immature, in fact quite the opposite. She always struck me as very mature and level-headed for her age.
About a year after S. started working for me, her parents started sending her on weekend trips to visit family located in other communities where this religious group has settlements. This is a common practice for young teens, and socials and other functions are held to facilitate the young people finding a mate. S. went but I could tell she was not really keen on these trips. I worried about her and we had several long talks about the importance of choosing a life mate carefully, and that while people were lucky if they met their person young, it was also ok if they didn’t, and that it happens when it happens, and I advised her not to do anything if her heart wasn’t in it.
I did not know it at the time, but her heart belonged to a boy she had wanted to date at 14, but her parents forbid it because they felt she was too young. Last she had heard, he was engaged to someone else. Then one day while driving one of her younger sisters home from babysitting, the sister excitedly told me they had reconnected at a church gathering, S. learned his fiance had broken off the previous engagement, and S.’s parents had now given him permission to court her. The girl who was opposed to courting was suddenly gung ho, and she glowed with happiness as she told me of him and their (very chaste and well supervised) dates.
Within a few months they were engaged and a few months after that they married. My mom remarked she hoped S. would be “more modern” and put off starting a family. I secretly hoped she would not. She looked different the first day she returned to work after marrying, she had gone from being a girl to a woman and she shyly joked her husband was hoping they had conceived on their wedding night. While it didn’t happen that quickly, it wasn’t long before she told me she was expecting and their son will arrive in December, right before their first wedding anniversary. Her husband literally beamed with pride when I congratulated him on the pending arrival.
From what I have observed, S. is a very happily married woman and she is excited about her future. While we have not discussed it yet, I have a feeling her next youngest sister will be taking over as my babysitter and S. will be staying at home with her infant while she finishes her last year of college and starts her in home daycare.
Like the other women of her clan, she will celebrate each stage of her life as a woman as it comes. She’s been a girl, and a young women. Now she is a wife and soon to be a young mother. In time, she will become a matriarch, grandmother to her own children’s children. At a recent clan gathering for a woman from the church in her 80s, an amazing 200+ descendants from this one woman (!) gathered around her to celebrate and honor her life.
I wish S. all the happiness in the world and I feel very fortunate to know her and to have been given a peek into her world. While it might not be for everyone, from where I sit it has a lot of advantages over the very different uncertain and undefined world I have experienced as a woman, and I think for her at least, it’s a perfect fit.
So there it is, a peek inside a world without feminism.
What do you think? How does this world sound to you? Better than life for a typical American young girl? Why or why not?