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2018, vol. 72

“We All Picked”: Mennonite Migrant Women and Gendered Reproductive Work

by Luann Good Gingrich

Luann Good Gingrich is associate professor of social work at York University in Toronto, Ontario. This essay is based on a presentation they gave at the conference Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, June 22-25, 2017, at Eastern Mennonite University.

In the religious life of a Mennonite colony, productive (or provisioning) work and reproductive work are one, as there is no distinction between the work that women do to provide for the family and make a home. A gender division of labor is apparent in the day-to-day work of making a living, but generally this definition of roles does not follow the familiar lines of production versus reproduction – rather, gender roles tend to be more fluid, and women’s work is vital to the economic, social and religious wellbeing of the colony. In migration to rural Canada, which necessarily involves emigration from the religious colony in Mexico or regions further south in Latin America, women’s work and lives become divided, fragmented. In this essay, we describe how Mennonite colony migrant women in Canada live on the edge, and explore the ways in which this edge is both opportunity and limitation, opening and closure.

In Canada, women’s provisioning work and reproductive work are sharply divided between waged work and unpaid domestic work, generating edges that redefine, to a large extent, migrant women’s work and lives. Furthermore, Mennonite colony women live on the edge of mainstream society and also on the edge of the religious colony life that cannot be re-created in Canada. Our research reveals that women cultivate these edges to generate spaces of adaptation for a people who have resolutely resisted change. In Canada, a society that is largely inhospitable to their traditional values and way of life, women make use of the precariousness of the edge, exploit their vulnerabilities, to preserve, as much as possible, the colony life they left behind.

Our paper is based primarily on 16 in-depth interviews with 28 migrant women from Mexico and Paraguay, all of whom demonstrate some degree of enduring loyalty to the traditional, collective and agrarian way of life on the colony. We begin by briefly discussing key insights drawn from the scholarship on women’s work, or the gender division of labor. We then introduce the religious life that defines Mennonite colony women’s worldview, migration patterns and daily practices. Drawing on our interview data and thus from their vantage point, we examine the split between wage labor and domestic work that Mennonite colony women encounter in Canada in spaces in between the religious and the secular, and the strategies they develop to challenge or transcend that divide. We argue that women reconfigure wage labor and domestic work to approximate the colony structure of women’s work, resisting a split that was never part of their everyday experience. Women’s narratives reveal that making a living in Canada through collective practices that merge reproductive and provisioning work is profoundly paradoxical, generating simultaneous gain and loss. We conclude, with Susan Thistle (2000), that the everyday experiences of women (Mennonite colony women in this case) give evidence to the ways in which the gender division of labor is “central in organizing and maintaining women’s inequality’ and has been “radically broken down’ in North American society in the past half century (p. 276).

The gender division of labor
Scholars examine and theorize the shifting gender division of labor over time and across place. The divisions between reproductive work and provisioning work are evidence of the social value that women and men are afforded in their respective groups/societies. Quick (2008) claims “understanding women’s oppression requires an analysis of the labor that women perform within and for the household, as distinct from their performance of wage labor or the production of commodities for the market’ (p. 308). Thistle (2000) reconceives splits between productive and reproductive work in historically dynamic terms to bring to our attention the relatively recent and dramatic transformation of women’s lives and work, and the implications. Similarly, the traditional (and thus contemporarily historical) lives of Mennonite colony women in Canada bring the past and present together, exposing women’s work and lives to be dramatically transformed and transforming because of the changing relationship between gender and advanced capitalism, or “market patriarchy’ (Friedman, 1988). Further, our research highlights this Northern-Western-“First World’ divide between production and reproduction, between public and private, between wage work and housework, and the inaccuracy of these assumed divides for women in the “Third World’ or global South (Quick, 2008). The implications for women (and men) run deep, because when poor, racial-minority immigrant women confront the moral imperative of wage work and the necessary “shadow work’ (Illich, 1980) of the domestic realm, not only do they find themselves on the edge of mainstream culture and society, their place, their social value, among their own people is threatened (Boris, 2013).

A concept that guides our analysis, and seems most appropriate for the work that Mennonite colony women do, is “social reproduction.’ This term, which captures the various productive and reproductive aspects of women’s work, is “understood as encompassing both the reproduction of society (namely, its social institutions, culture, polity, as well as productive economy) and the closely related reproduction of households and families (involving biological, daily and inter-generational reproduction)’ (Locke, Seeley, & Rao, 2013, p. 1873). We offer this key concept as a guidepost as we invite you into the lives of Mennonite colony migrant women.

Colony life
Mennonites first migrated to Latin America in the 1920s in response to the growing pressure from the Canadian government to assimilate. Owing largely to the requirements of new educational policies, and in the wake of World War I when this German-speaking, pacifist group felt increasingly uneasy, approximately 7,000 migrated from the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and Paraguay. Here they settled on large tracts of land, known as colonies, and re-established their agrarian, subsistence communities. As soon as they moved to Latin America, Mennonites started returning, but it was in the late 1950s that they began returning in greater number (Fast, 2014). The majority who return to Canada come from Mexico, and return not only to the provinces from which they originated, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but also in large numbers to Ontario and Alberta. This migration continues today and is primarily economically driven (Fast, 2014; Good Gingrich, 2016; Krahn and Sawatsky, 1990; Loewen, 2013, 2016).

This migration follows the agricultural season in Canada. Families arrive in spring to work in the tomato, cucumber and tobacco fields of Ontario or the potato and cereal crop fields in Alberta, but then return to spend the winter in Mexico. Some families continue this back-and-forth migration for a few years and then remain in Mexico when they have earned sufficient cash to meet their needs, and others settle permanently in Canada (Good Gingrich and Preibisch, 2010).

In its ideal, a colony is a tract of land designated to be used by the Christian community, Jemeent, as a cohesive unit, to embody God’s kingdom on earth. In this sense, all colony activity is religious activity and an expression of the Jemeent. In other words, the boundary of the church and the community are coterminous. However, practically and organizationally, colonies are divided into the sacred and secular domain.

At the heart of Old Colony life and faith is a commitment to maintain the ways of the earlier generation – “to do as we were taught’ – and to be distinct from society around the colony. It is the responsibility of all members to ensure that tradition is maintained and that people live right or follow the Ordnung, the disciple or rule that governs colony religious life.

Women’s domestic reproductive work
In migration, colony Mennonite women invoke a range of adaptation strategies made necessary on the edge. They rework traditional colony practices to protect religious ideals outside the colony. The vulnerabilities and uncertainties they encounter in migration provide space, some leeway, that they are not afforded living by the Ordnung and expectations of the colony. Women take full advantage of this leeway, some to escape the restrictions of the church, but most to create, as Tina Krahn [1] said, a “Christian family life’ on the edge.

Much of the work Mennonite women do when they migrate to Canada remains the same, particularly their domestic work. They continue to be responsible for their households in such matters as cleaning, laundry, food preparation, clothing family members and childcare. However, in a drastically different social context, the meaning of their work shifts substantially. On a colony, women’s work is an integral component of a family’s success – it is fundamental to the reproduction of colony life because much more is at stake than economic success. How well women manage the household, how well they instruct their sons and daughters, how well they manage the livestock, matter economically, socially and religiously. In Canada, colony Mennonites encounter an economic worldview that situates and valuates domestic work as only domestic work, and the real and important economic activity is the wages that are earned. Migrating Mennonites have little choice but to adopt practices consistent with the overarching framework of the dominant economic pattern, and husbands look for longer term, permanent jobs while the wives keep the home. There are times when Mennonite mothers do, in fact, work for a wage, but this is usually temporary and for short periods of time to augment the family income.

On colonies, families function as economic units. Women are responsible for the domestic realm and food production and usually play an important role in tending to the livestock (e.g., they oversee the fowl and often have some responsibly for the dairy herd). Men look after field work, machinery, marketing crops and the public and business aspects of farming. Perforce, Mennonite migrants abandon this pattern of work and, on the surface, they conform to Canadian labor patterns, but they do not abandon their strong commitment to the family working and living as an economic unit even if the husband/father brings in most of the earnings. The family’s material needs are attended to by everyone, and to the extent possible, members of the family work together in productive activities and provisioning work. All individual wage labor and resulting earnings, whether contributed by the husband, the children or the wife, are counted as family work and income. Unmarried children who are no longer school age (which is often 13 or older) are expected to live at home and contribute their wages to meet the family’s needs.

The differences between the colony practice of “making a living,’ or working to be self-sufficient, and the capitalist imperative of “earning a wage’ are pervasive and profound. For example, Margaret Peters remarked, “You have to buy everything here. You don’t have eggs, a cow that gives cream. Nothing. You have to buy everything here.’ Shopping in Canada for the necessities that cannot be produced by the family becomes an important part of “making a living.’ Many women describe going shopping to the nearest “superstore’ or big box store as a monthly family outing. Thus women’s domestic reproductive work bleeds into provisioning work, and back again.

Women’s provisioning work
All colony Mennonites – men and women – are drawn to rural regions and agricultural work in Canada. Tina Krahn explained that they moved to southern Alberta because “here there’s land, which men like, to work on the fields.’ Almost all women who engage in wage labor work in agriculture or in food production: harvesting; working in tomato, pepper and cucumber greenhouses; grading potatoes; and packaging and processing vegetables. Many will spend a few weeks (often with children who are old enough) picking fruit or vegetables in the fields. Elizabeth Harms described her family’s experience picking cucumbers:

Every one of us on that machine and we all picked. Tried to ensure that we picked just the smallest ones. The small ones, 700 dollars per ton. Tried really hard to pick only the smallest ones. That earned us the best money. . . . We did six rows at a time and then at the end we had to turn and then the next six rows. That’s what we got done in the morning and when we reached the end of the row we had lunch. Then another turn and another set of rows. At the end we usually had an apple or something, had a break and then we turned. Then one more length of rows and then it was evening. It was often dark by the time we got to the end of the last set of rows. . . . From seven to seven, till the evening, we picked cucumbers. It was a long day. Like that. Then the next day we continued where we had left off.

Frustrating employment counselors and social workers, women prefer these “dead-end’ jobs because their precarious nature provides important flexibility.

Work habits are rooted in a collective sense of identity. For example, when colony Mennonites speak about the work that their families do, they often use the first person pronoun “we.’ The Klassen sisters (aged 15, 17 and 19 at the time they were interviewed) worked together at the same greenhouse. One sister reported, “We’re thinking of getting a different job next year. We’re getting rather tired of it.’ Elizabeth Harms, who has lived in Ontario for 18 years, described the work her family did in the first year they were in Ontario during the agricultural season as a family affair:

When we were here, one year we worked. . . . First in the greenhouse, tomatoes, then salad cucumbers. . . . Then later on the field, picking cucumbers, hoeing and then picking. . . . We did asparagus and then we picked cucumbers and then when the cucumbers were done then we graded peanuts in Waterford.

It was only after she was asked, “Did you [singular] enjoy that?’ that she had to clarify that the only work she had done in the agricultural season was pick cucumbers but none of the other jobs. “My husband and the kids did all the other jobs. I stayed at home. I was a home . . . mom.’ The only reason she picked cucumbers was because “it worked better that way,’ meaning that a certain number of pickers were needed to fill a machine for a family to maximize its picking efficiency, and she was needed as such.

Women’s domestic reproductive/provisioning work
Colony women actively resist the model of the “working woman’ and can be quite sharp in their criticism of Canadian women who engage in wage labor. In part, this critique arises from their strong commitment to maintaining the family as an economic unit. But they also care deeply about maintaining the family as a social and religious entity and the emotional attachment that must be fostered if the family is to be cohesive. This is more important to them than the increased economic prosperity wage labor might bring them. This commitment is very clearly articulated by Tina Krahn from Alberta. She and her family decided to set up a greenhouse where all the children could work. This would ensure that the family could remain a unit and that outside influences, in this case, employment in town for her daughters, would be minimized.

We didn’t want our children to work there for those people. We wanted a family project. We wanted our family to work together. That’s the only reason. . . . Our daughters were working for neighbors, one worked in a bakery. . . . Once we had the greenhouse, she just worked three days a week there [in the greenhouse]. We didn’t want our daughters to always have to have a job. We wanted a family life. And we still do. That’s the biggest reason why we wanted to set up the greenhouse. Because of the family project. We didn’t want our family to be off in so many directions.

While the quality of family life that owning a greenhouse fostered in the Krahn family was paramount, for Tina it was also an opportunity to manage the family business. Few families, however, have the economic resources of the Krahn family and so must depend on wage labor. Often women, as a component of their reproductive work, manage these wages as part of managing a household. This is a way for them to resist the devaluing of domestic work that they encounter in Canada and re-infuse more of the co-managerial role they play on a colony with their husbands. It is also an important way to maintain family cohesiveness.

Susanna Heide has taken the skills she developed in managing a household in Mexico and adapted it to manage a busy Ontario household. She takes her children to school if it is cold, she greets them with a hug when they come home, she manages the wages of several of her teenage children, she cleans, cooks and does laundry for her family, she looks after an incapacitated husband, which includes making regulars trips to specialists in the regional city and investing much time in English classes so that they will not have to pay a translator during doctor visits.

Women’s social reproductive work
Life on the edge of both colony life and mainstream Canadian society changes the nature of Mennonite migrant women’s reproductive work. When Mennonite families move to Canada, they are faced with decisions about their children’s schooling that are foreign and unnecessary on their colony. Schools on colonies are central to cultural and religious reproductive work but not women’s reproductive work; schools are an extension of the church, and a core element of the curriculum is learning and practicing religious rituals. On the colony, teachers are almost always male, and the school is governed by a village council consisting of all the adult men of the village. 

Canadian schools are, in many ways, diametrically opposite to colony schools. They are purposefully non-religious and they are mainly the domain of women – principals, teachers, mothers – especially elementary schools, which is where most Mennonite colony families encounter Canada’s education system. Coupled with the fact that most colony men work full time, the feminization of schools means that Mennonite mothers become the primary link between their children and the school in a way they never had to be on a colony.

Canadian schools pose dilemmas for colony Mennonite women because secular education exposes their children to cultural practices and norms that threaten their religious and cultural values. Yet they have little choice about whether to send their children to school, as attendance is mandatory for all children up to 16/18 years of age depending on the province. While many families comply with attendance laws to avoid surveillance of school attendance officers, women – as mothers – are very aware of how their role of reproductive work is threatened when they send their children to school.

However, being on the edge of colony life also affords women an opportunity to adjust their views on the value of a Canadian education. For example, Katherine Froese expressed that she wants her children to have a different sort of life than she has had. Learning English is paramount in this and so she would like to send her 4-year-old son, when he reaches school age, to the local public school. Even though she was clear that she did not want her children to receive sex education, the distance from the colony that migration afforded her made this a less clear-cut matter for her. She attributed her unexpected pre-marital pregnancy – which meant she had to marry the father of her child – to her own ignorance about sexual intercourse. Her husband, in her opinion, was far from ideal. She wanted to spare her children her marital unhappiness. While she would not want her children to be privy to the full gambit of sexual knowledge taught in public schools, she acknowledged that they would not get enough education in this regard on a colony.

Margaret Peters was much less equivocal about the value of a Canadian education for her children.

Our children, in Ontario they had a really good school, the older children, the older children had a very good school. It was always stressed, when a new kid came, they were not supposed to tease that child. They should take them by the hand and help them. That’s how they were taught and now often, I’m really glad they’ve learned that.

For Margaret, school became a tool that assisted her in her reproductive work of raising children with Old Colony values, in this case, looking after the more vulnerable members of society, something that she and her family did not experience when they, living on a colony in Bolivia, faced several years of crop failure and could no longer support themselves. It was only the generosity of her husband’s former Canadian employer that saved them from economic ruin. The edge-living that had been a part of Margaret’s experience enabled her to recognize value and worth in what she, as an Old Colony woman, was taught to shun, namely the world. And in these moments of everyday living, all elements of women’s work – social reproductive work, domestic reproductive work and provisioning work – merge.

To conclude, we offer a few summarizing comments. First, Mennonite colony migrant women invoke a range of adaptation strategies made necessary on the edge. They rework traditional colony practices to protect religious ideals, even (or especially) outside the colony. Moreover, the vulnerabilities and uncertainties they encounter in migration provide space, some leeway, that they are not afforded living within the Ordnung and expectations of the colony. As migrants, they practice a very different – even radical – gender division of labor, challenging the now dominant “urban consumer society’ and the associated contrived split between production and social reproduction (Boris, 2013, p. 75). Moreover, such inequalities are exacerbated, even to the point of absurdity, by the global spread of “market patriarchy’ and the social and economic restructuring that supports it (Friedman, 1988). Through their commitment to making a living over earning a wage, Mennonite colony migrant women (and men) resist the devaluation of women’s work and lives that is so essential to market patriarchy. In a world where “money is not everything, but without money (almost) everything is nothing’ (Vobruba, 2000, p. 605), material gain is not their ambition. Money is only part of a much larger and generations-old project. The meager wages they earn picking vegetables in the fields in rural Canada are vital to this higher purpose. In this way, often against all odds, Mennonite colony women quietly and resolutely produce and reproduce anti-capitalist and profoundly counter-cultural lives.


  1. All names are pseudonyms.


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