Plain Women:
Gender and Ritual in the Old Order River Brethren

by Margaret C. Reynolds

Penn State Press, November 2001. ISBN 0271021381.
Reviewed by Laurie Park
Posted on 06/24/2002

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

This book was intended to portray the importance of women in this religious sect--a significant branch of the Brethren in Christ located mainly in Pennsylvania. An interesting documentary of sect beliefs and traditions (such as the ritual Love Feast baking of bread), it reveals how the simple life does not translate to easy. Much of the book's first half is a comprehensive history of why and how the Old River Brethren developed. The dedication of faith of the Old River Brethren is admirable, but the oft-repeated references to the leadership's indecisiveness to enforce their convictions becomes monotonous and is irrelevant to the significance of the Brethren women.

The material regarding these women's tradition of plain dress and the segment toward the end of the book on how they are contributing to their community via commerce is of tangible interest and expressed well, as seen in this excerpt:

"I enter into the heart of this home, the kitchen, and observe the intimacy of women working together to prepare tourist meals and 'feed' the family economy. Deborah skillfully manages the conversation to orchestrate the meal and briskly volunteers information. Her immediate responses highlight the inevitable, sometimes powerful conflicts over faith, culture and religious customs that can occur between outsiders and the family."

Deborah continued, "We had another guest, all evening he asked us all kinds of questions. By the end of the evening, he said, 'I suppose you know what religion I am.' I said, 'No, I have no idea. You were asking all the questions.' He responded that he was an atheist, and you know, after he went home, I thought and thought about that. That man is not an atheist, he has too many questions... He hasn't made up his mind yet what he is, you know."

Reynolds' summary that River Brethren women who "engage in these behaviors do not do so blindly, that they consciously choose to cooperate with men in maintaining these behaviors so that their society might persist in its separation from the values of dominant society" is stated but not fully demonstrated in the majority of the text.

Knowing that Margaret Reynolds died prior to the completion of her project, I imagine a different tone to the book would have evolved had she lived. According to her notes, her intent was to discover and share what she saw as the strength and duty of the River Brethren women. And while this book does share wonderful insight into this private lifestyle, I can't help wonder whether a woman editor would have done greater justice to her vision.

Margaret C. Reynolds published articles in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, Pennsylvania Folklife, and Der Reggeboge: Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society before her death in 1999.

Simon J. Bronner is Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State, Harrisburg. He edited and wrote the foreword for Plain Women.

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