In This World but Not of It: Midwives, Amish, and the Politics of Power

by Natalie Jolly
University of Washington Tacoma

Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 13

Received: 18 Oct 2012     Accepted: 5 Mar 2014    Published: 31 May 2014


In this paper, I investigate the role of the non-Amish midwife in Amish society. Conventional research on the Amish has overlooked the role the midwife plays in the structure of the Amish community, given that midwives who serve the Amish are not members of the community they serve and are not themselves Amish. Despite their status as outsiders to Amish society, I draw on ethnographic data collected during a two-year study with a non-Amish midwife to argue that the non-Amish midwife provides Amish women and men access to knowledge about sex and sexuality, provides them resources such as books and condoms, and shapes the structure of Amish society through these channels. Her power is clearly demonstrated in her ability to broker access between the Amish and non-Amish worlds, and her fingerprints on the community she serves exist long after she has caught a baby. So while the non-Amish midwife has largely remained invisible when viewed from conventional analyses of Amish society, I suggest that her position on the margin between Amish and non-Amish society is worth considering. As an analytic category, this position 'neither fully part of Amish society nor fully extricated from it' has something to offer studies of community power within the field of Sociology and augment future studies of Amish society.

Keywords: Amish, Qualitative, Midwifery, Power, Rural Sociology, Women


They modify the milk machine to suit the church, they change
the church to fit the chassis, amending their lives with hook-and-eyes.
Their dress is a leisurely protest against chairmindedness.
We know their frugality in our corpulence. We know their sacrifice
for the group in our love for the individual. Our gods are
cross-dressers, nerds, beach-bums, and poets. They know it.
In their pure walk and practice do they eye us from their carts.

Excerpted from Why We Fear the Amish
A poem by Robin Becker

1.1 In this paper, I use the lens of community power to evaluate a non-Amish midwife's position within the Amish community she serves. The main questions motivating this analysis are twofold: does the non-Amish midwife exercise power within the Amish community and what does that power look like? To answer these questions, I embarked upon a participant observation of Amish midwifery, which is primarily practiced by non-Amish midwives. My data suggest that a non-Amish midwife does occupy a position of power and I explore the ways that this power results from her unique location on the margin between Amish and non-Amish societies and as a broker between the Amish and the English (or non-Amish) worlds. I further discuss how the non-Amish midwife leveraged her power for change within the Amish community; her ability to traverse the borders between these two worlds allowed her to shape Amish society in both subtle and profound ways. I conclude by asserting that these findings offer support for analyses that attempt to make power visible through non-traditional investigations, and may create a new category for analyses for understanding community power within Amish society. Understandings of communities such as the Amish can be augmented when we consider those who inhabit the boundaries of a community; though they may not be highly visible, they nonetheless may play a significant role brokering power behind the scenes. (Stovel 2012)

Conventional work on the Amish

2.1 The Amish have long been a subject of academic fascination. Fields as diverse as Anthropology (Olshan 1991), Religious Studies (Kraybill 1991, Cosgel 1993), Political Science (O'Neil 1997), Medicine (Hoffert 1998, Elliott 2004, Greksa 2004), History (Hostetler 1993, Cosgel 1993), Geography (Cross 2004) and Rural Sociology (Goreham 2002, Krep et al. 1994, Luloff and Krannich 2002, Smith et al. 1997) have placed the Amish at the center of investigation. As a result, there exists a great deal of information on the Amish, spanning a number of different disciplines. Certain topics have remained popular over the years—in particular, sustained interest has been focused on Amish agricultural practices (Cosgel 1993, Blake et al. 1997, Cross 2004) and other employment (Smith et al. 1997), Amish patterns of technology adoption and disavowal (Kraybill 1993, 1994, 2001a, 2001b; Elliott 2004, Tenner 2005), the Anabaptist faith (Kraybill 1991, Kraybill 2001b, Hostetler 1993, Cosgel 1993, O'Neil 1997, Luloff et al. 2002), and the general exclusivity of the Amish community (Gruter 1986, Reiling 2002). Each of these themes has been taken up in numerous ways over the past several decades.

2.2 Scholarship investigating the Riddles of Amish Culture (Kraybill 2001a) has largely inquired into the public sphere of Amish society. Such a focus is not uncommon, and the majority of historical, anthropological and sociological work uses the public sphere as a point of entry into discussions of social structure, power and influence. And while much can be gleaned from research that is situated around these topics, much can also be obscured. The tendency to focus on the public 'leaves difference, particularity, and the body behind in the private realms of family and civil society' (Young 1997: 194) and has resulted in research that overlooks the contribution that women make in all aspects of social life (Hawkesworth 1998). I posit that these 'riddles of Amish culture' cannot be puzzled without inquiry into the private sphere of Amish society, and I draw on ethnographic data to discuss how power operates from the perspective of the domestic realm. In addition, I look to members outside Amish society to better understand how the Amish society is connected to the surrounding community. I use this study to consider how people who inhabit the margins can sometimes serve as catalysts in 'knit[ting] together discrete segments of a population.' (Stovel 2012: 154)

Community Power

3.1 A number of social theorists have informed a discussion of what power is and how power operates. Scholars such as Arendt (1958), Deleuze and Guattari (1988), Foucault (1980) and Weber (1979) have shaped the ways in which sociologists have thought about power. In particular, we have been encouraged to reimagine power as not a single force, exerted top-down upon individuals, but instead to appreciate that 'The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.' (Foucault 1980: 74) . Power has become less straightforward to understand, measure and analyze and likely exists in places, people and actions we had not previously anticipated.

3.2 In a similar vein, geographers have encouraged us to question where rural is, and explore how epistemic categories such as Amish/ non-Amish or rural/urban are always co-constituted. (Irwin 2001) Examining 'these processes of line-drawing […] reveal(s) the human values, judgements, assumptions, choices and power dynamics that inform them.' (Bryan 2012: 80) Further, feminists have wondered who constitute a community, and what can be learned from directing our attention to the spaces where women are 'actually located: . . . active; . . . at work; [and] . . . connected with particular other people in various ways' (Smith 1992: 91)? (quoted in Naples 1997) Naples suggests that these locations can reveal how power dynamics are organized and experienced in a community context rather than as a set of identifiable knowledges. (Naples 1997: 65) All of which suggests that inquiry into power is fraught and contingent, and can sometimes benefit from attention to the particular, the obscured and what lies outside the gaze of conventional analysis. Scholars focusing on research in rural communities have had mixed results in their ability to incorporate these critiques into their analyses. And while many have shown an interest in understanding the intricacies of power within communities, (Molotch 1976, Beaulieu 1984, Lyon 1987, Bridger 1992, Bourke and Luloff 1998) more recently, studies of community within the field of Sociology have fallen out of fashion. (Sherlock 2002) In response to this, some have championed a resurrection of community studies within rural studies (Liepins 2000), and my work supports such a revival. In particular, I found it useful to return to Molotch's influential theory of communities as growth machines and to join others who have attempted to broaden his considerations of social power from the hierarchical vantage point of community elites. He suggested that 'Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine' (Molotch 1976: 309). And while his growth machine referred to the particular topic of urban growth, his more general argument—that scholarly inquiry should focus on the social, economic and political situation of the elite to understand communities—has become a shaping force in the discussion of power in rural society, and has had particular impact on Amish scholarship. (Hostetler 1993, Kraybill 2001a) The notion that communities can be studied (and, it is presumed, understood) through an examination of community power continues to inform much of the work done on rural communities and on Amish communities more specifically. Below, I trace the impact that this focus on elites has had on investigations of power within rural community studies, and explore the critiques that have been leveled against it before offering my own research as an example of what might be gained by a more holistic understanding of community power.

3.3 In their prominent study on the structure of rural communities, Lionel Beaulieu and Vernon Ryan (1984) employed network analyses to demonstrate how community power can be understood in terms of hierarchy. They suggested that those who have highly visible positions within the community are more likely to have influence or power over others, and concluded that: 'Given the strong association between the two networks [power networks and action networks], it seems reasonable to conclude that power, as measured by organizational leadership roles, serves as a critical factor in determining the hierarchical structure of the action network' (Beaulieu and Ryan 1984: 114). In short, the authors lay a foundation for work done on rural communities (see: Bridger 1992; Buttel and McMichael 1988; Putnam 2000; Tonnies 1988; Wilkinson 1991) asserting that power resides in those involved in leadership positions within the community. They urge other scholars to consider those occupying positions at the top when attempting to understand how communities function, how power operates, and how change happens. Others have followed in similar fashion (Lyon 1987) and have attempted to systematize power analyses within rural communities. Lyon's detailed formula for discovering 'individuals who are likely to possess knowledge about power in the community and how it is used in local issues' (Lyon 1987: 208) involved a methodical analysis of people who held 'official positions in the community' (Lyon 1987: 208). His focus on presidents of businesses, directors of organizations, and pastors of churches echoed Bealieu and Vernon's earlier call to center rural community analyses on community leaders and those with obvious social influence.

3.4 I do not mean to suggest that this focus on community power has emerged without critique. Community theorists have turned a critical eye to the implications of research solely attuned to a hierarchal conception of power (Sherlock 2002)and have heralded the call to consider the latent, covert and 'subjective dimensions of power'. (Lukes 1974: 25) As of yet, however, this revisioning has not fully addressed the concerns inherent in conventional understandings of community power. For example, in Bourke and Luloff's (1998) attempt to bring gender into the discussion of community power, the authors contend that conventional analysis represents a narrow understanding of community power and misses the important contributions of women, writing that 'Rural women have wielded influence through less formal strategies than leadership' (Bourke and Luloff 1998: 239) and further that 'Studies of women […] have claimed that women use different strategies than men to gain influence' (Bourke and Luloff 1998: 240). Despite recognizing that women's perceived lack of influence and power often precipitates out of research focused on the 'defined, prestigious and preferable roles for men' (Bourke and Luloff 1998: 238), it often proves difficult to operationalize these sorts of critiques. This leaves researchers to conclude that 'men run the community' (Bourke and Luloff 1998: 251) even while they admonish us to 'celebrate the achievements, hard work, commitment, spirit and leadership of rural women' (252). Similar conclusions are drawn about Amish women, for whom it is assumed, 'The work is hard and the hours long, but there is quiet satisfaction in nourishing thriving families, tending productive gardens, baking pies, sewing colorful quilts, and watching dozens of grandchildren find their place in the Amish world.' (Kraybill 2001a: 83) Very few have acknowledged that 'When confronted by crisis and unavoidable change, conservative Anabaptist traditions have creatively recast gender construction to sustain male authority; but women have been equally creative in cultivating their own opportunities for self-definition, autonomy, and resistance.' (Pederson 2002: 357) And if we hope to heed the call raised by scholars to make visible the ways in which power is quietly being transacted, we would be wise to direct our focus to the fringe, the boundaries, the margin, where these moments of self-definition and autonomy are often located.

Research Questions and Study Methodology

4.1 In this project, I focus on the private sphere and focus more specifically on domestic spaces of Amish life.  I expected that this focus would open new possibilities for understanding community power within Amish society—who has power, how it is gained, and how it is exercised. In particular, I was interested to investigate whether conventional work on Amish society had overlooked the ways that women (both Amish and non-Amish) occupy networks of power in manners that are often less straightforward, but no less consequential. The main questions animating this analysis are twofold: does the non-Amish midwife exercise power within the Amish community and, if so, how does her power shape the structure of Amish society?

4.2 To answer these questions, I undertook an ethnography of Amish homebirth and the midwives who serve Amish women.[1] This ethnography was structured as a two-year participant observation with a non-Amish midwife, whom I will refer to as Vivian[2]. Under Vivian, I served as a volunteer healthcare worker and apprentice. When I began, I had no formal medical training, but over the two year period I engaged in the reading and learning commiserate with that of a conventional apprentice-trained lay midwife. Consent from Amish participants was obtained and all participation was voluntary. My observations served as primary source data and were drawn from my attendance at 40 Amish homebirths as well as countless prenatal visits and postpartum checkups over the span of 30 months. In addition to observation, I conducted much of my data collection through active participation in Amish pregnancy and birth care.

4.3 In serving Amish women as an apprentice midwife, I provided labor support, prenatal and postpartum care to the birthing women and their families. In doing so, I was able to speak informally with Amish women and men, and observe their daily practices as they related to pregnancy, delivery and life post-partum. And while I primarily focus on the experiences of Amish women and their midwives, Amish men did play a central role in the birth experience, and actively supported their wives during labor and delivery. Acting as a participant legitimized my presence in Amish life beyond my role as researcher, and fostered a relationship that was built on mutual support and reciprocation. Relying on participant-observation facilitated my investigation of the particular practices of Amish birth and midwifery—it allowed me to draw on my analysis of local phenomena to inform a theory of interconnection between broader social processes (Eisenhardt 2002). And while the notion of participant-observation may seem inherently paradoxical, it is precisely this tension between becoming a fully invested active participant and a completely detached passive spectator that allows the researcher to admit subjectivity, or vulnerability, and to become a vulnerable observer (Behar 1996). It encourages us to straddle the continuum between overt researcher and covert participant. (McKenzie 2009)

4.4 Active participation in the research process served as a point of strength in both my data collection and my data analysis process. Dewalt and Dewalt (1998) find twofold benefit in this position as participant observer, 'First, it enhances the quality of the data obtained during fieldwork. Second, it enhances the quality of the interpretation of the data. Participant observation is thus both a data collection and an analytic tool' (p. 264). 'To throw one's self into the field, body and soul, is now not only a valid research stance, but marks investigatory excellence' (Irwin 2006: 157), and so under this premise, I prepared for extensive and intensive data gathering process. Participant-observation augmented the research both because I gained a tacit understanding of Amish culture and because it allowed for 'New understandings [to] develop from shifting the ethnographic angle of vision to the everyday lives of women' (Naples and Sachs 2000: 196). My ethnographic experience in the Amish community and my sustained connection to my gatekeeper, Vivian, offered regular opportunities to triangulate my work and refine my theoretical framings. Ethnographers have often used an apprenticeship to gain this knowledge and achieve an intensive enculturation (Coy 1989), and my Amish midwifery apprenticeship experience offered me "ways of knowing" that were distinctly Amish and encouraged me to 'learn to see' from a new perspective (p. x).

4.5 While actively participating in the routine work of Amish midwifery, I recorded regular notes on conversations that transpired, observations I made, questions that were asked, etc. and these notes became my primary source of data for this analysis. Frequent examination of these notes yielded themes of interest, and these I pursued further with my gatekeeper. Because of her considerable experience in numerous Amish communities (totalling nearly 20 years), she was helpful in clarifying, substantiating and elaborating on the patterns that precipitated out of my participant observations. These patterns became points of analysis, and I found that particular events and exchanges would become emblematic of a more wide-spread phenomenon. In this paper, I present data in the form of specific vignettes taken from my field journal. Each is to be read as both observation and analysis; each has undergone significant scrutiny in terms of examining its legitimacy, reliability and ability to exemplify the underlying social pattern. Using the data in this fashion not only provide a window on Amish women's relationship with their non-Amish midwife, they also become a lens through which we can view the mechanisms by which power operates, and is transacted between individuals and groups.

On selecting a non-Amish midwife

5.1 Within Amish society, the profession of midwifery was varied, and both non-Amish and Amish women served as midwives. In my study community—a network of several small villages located in central Pennsylvania—the majority of Amish women were served by non-Amish midwives, though there were a few Amish midwives who served a predominantly Amish clientele.[3] The number of Amish women who served as midwives was low for a variety of reasons having to do with both the strict social pressures exerted on Amish women and the transportation difficulties associated with Amish disavowal of automotive technologies. Because the Amish do not use vehicular transportation, they must employ a driver (a non-Amish woman or man) to take them to and from their destination. Furthermore, without easy access to a telephone (another technology avoided by the Amish), Amish midwives had to find a driver willing to serve as the nexus of communication: taking calls, fetching the midwife and transporting her to the birth and then returning her home when the event was finished. Alternatively, some Amish midwives performed deliveries at their own residence and required laboring women to come to the midwife's house to deliver, though without telephone communication even these logistics became difficult to negotiate.

5.2 A few birth centers run by Amish midwives did exist in the communities I studied, and some Amish women did travel to these centers to deliver. The difficulty was the nuisance associated with hiring a driver coupled with the prospect of laboring and possibly delivering while in transit—a scene that became all too real for a number of Amish women.

On our first prenatal visit, Anna relays the story of her last birth. She was about to deliver her third baby when she had the unfortunate experience of laboring and nearly delivering on her way to Martha's birth center.[4] She was woken up in the middle of the night with what she thought might be a stomach ache. Her due date was approaching but still was several days off and she did not expect to be feeling the rhythmic contractions that felt so akin to labor. After watching the clock – doing some timing and quick arithmetic – she woke her husband and told him to summon a driver and send for a neighbor to sit with the children once they awoke. As he made his way to the phone shed (located a quarter mile down the road) she quickly gathered her things and prepared for her departure. When the driver arrived nearly an hour later, she was in the full throws of labor, with contractions coming hard and fast. As they drove to the birth center, she could feel the baby moving down and the labor intensifying. The moment the van pulled in front of the birth center, she flung open the door and nearly ran to the door. Once inside, she did not even make it to the bed before delivering her son. "I didn't even have time to get my pins out!" remarks Anna when she tells me the story, referring to the numerous straight pins that fasten her apron to her dress. After telling her birth story, Anna says emphatically "THAT is why I have hired Vivian as my midwife. This time she can come to me!"
Such sentiments were repeated by other Amish women, who reported selecting a non-Amish midwife for the convenience that it afforded them.

5.3 Amish birth centers, such as the one in which Anna so nearly missed delivering in, were not only rare because of the difficulty associated with getting to them. Amish women shouldered a great deal of familial pressure and had little time to pursue a career in midwifery while raising their large families. The domestic duties that attended Amish life were substantial and left little opportunity for a focus outside of the household. The particular birth center that Anna visited was operated by Martha, an early-widowed great-grandmother (in her seventies), and two of her young teenage granddaughters. And though the birth center, which consisted of a 4 room house that sat in front of Martha's larger farmhouse, had existed for decades, there was constant concern that once Martha retired, the birth center would close. So while there were options to birth with midwives who were themselves Amish, this option imposed significant logistical restriction on the Amish birthing women I met. For these concerns (and for others which I will explore below), the Amish women I studied often opted for midwives who were not Amish.

The non-Amish midwife on the margin

6.1 In addition to the logistical determinants that made using an Amish midwife difficult, Amish women reported selecting a non-Amish midwife over an Amish midwife or Amish birth center because of the social position that the non-Amish midwife occupied. Non-Amish midwives were seen as being neither fully located within the Amish community nor fully outside of it. This 'outsider within' (Collins 1986) status made her particularly attractive to the Amish women she served. As I suggest below, the non-Amish midwife was able to leverage such positioning in important ways, and enjoyed a good deal of power within the Amish community as a result. One way that this proved useful to the non-Amish midwife was that it aligned with Amish women's desire to have an outsider attend them during pregnancy and birth. My research uncovered a substantial amount of embarrassment and shame associated with the pregnant body in Amish society, and many Amish women were self-conscious about the state of pregnancy itself. Contrary to our popular culture's hyper-vigilant scrutiny of and discussion around a woman's pregnancy, Amish women hide their pregnancy from both family and acquaintances.
Lydia, a bubbly first time mother, is always eager to chat when we arrive at her prenatal visits. Her husband works at a nearby shop, leaving her great expanses of time to clean her house and wait for the delivery of her first baby. One afternoon Vivian, Lydia and I begin talking about her motivations for choosing Vivian as her midwife. Lydia succinctly responds that she "couldn't imagine seeing my midwife in Church or somewhere after I delivered!" and goes on to detail the degree to which this encounter would discomfort her. "I love seeing you now," she reports, "But I would be so embarrassed to see you then."

6.2 For Lydia, and for many other Amish women I met, the desire to employ a non-Amish woman was precisely her outsider status. Like many Amish women, Lydia became enamored with Vivian's vibrant personality and warm-hearted demeanor, but was careful to note that the intimacies of the relationship would not transfer into her daily life once the birth had taken place. It was precisely the midwife's outsider status that allowed her this entrée into Amish society; though once she has entered the community as a midwife, her position within it became one of substantial insider influence.

6.3 The midwife's insider status was not necessarily universally bestowed, but was the result of an active cultivation. Non-Amish midwives have to work quite hard to be accepted into the Amish community and to maintain their insider status. Vivian saw herself as being an insider in the Amish community, and engaged in behaviors that reflected her investment in Amish society. From frequenting Amish businesses and roadside stands to hiring Amish construction crews to help build and repair her house, Vivian was deeply invested in supporting the local Amish economy. She regularly read the local and regional Amish newspapers (the Budget and Die Botschaft) to keep current on the social landscape of the community. Vivian spoke the local dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch (a German dialect) and used the language to banter and joke with her clients. Midwives were occasionally invited to attend Amish ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, and Vivian and I attended several such culturally-significant events. Most interesting was her regular practice of connecting with her Amish clients through a detailed exploration of their extended families.

On any given outing with Vivian, our conversation eventually drifts to the women we will see that day. "We're starting with Nancy Beiler," Vivian says. "She's the sister-in-law of Sylvia Esh, who lives in Sugar Valley and she's the daughter of Arie Stoltzfus. Then we'll stop in at Mary's – did you know that Mary is best friends with little Melinda over in White Deer? Melinda married Sam Lapp from Brush Valley and now they live out there, but she used to live next door to Mary."
A non-descript farm flies by in the distance. "Right there!" Vivian gesticulates wildly to the rapidly shrinking farmhouse. "That's the house where all those Swarey boys grew up – Samuel, John, and Raymond. Their dad is the bishop and his wife, Rachel, had all her babies over at Martha's place. Raymond married Rebecca – did you know that she and Nancy are actually cousins – and, anyway, they just moved to Wisconsin and now the others are thinking of going, too. Well, after Mary, we'll check on Katie who doesn't want her sister-in-law Linda to know that she's pregnant."
In an unsure voice I ask "Linda Stoltzfus?" "Yes," Vivian replies. "But not that Linda Stoltzfus – I know who you are thinking of. You are thinking of her sister-in-law, she's the Linda Stoltzfus that's married to Ben Stoltzfus. You know his brother David Stoltzfus, his wife is Linda, too. They have that big farm over in Penns Valley and she has a twin brother named Amos and they look identical… remember them?" In this way we map the day's events and Vivian attempts to convey the interconnection between her clients.

6.4 This tracing of familial linkages served an important function (Ransom 1997): it distinguished the midwife's allegiance to and alliance with the particular communities she served and it acknowledged the centrality that these kinship ties played in Amish society. Upon meeting a new client, Vivian always asked the woman about 'her people,' meaning the particular family to which she belonged. Because there were several very common surnames (Stoltzfus, Lapp, Beiler, Zook, Fisher) coupled with a number of common first names (John, Jacob, Ben, and Sam for men; Mary, Anna, Lydia, Arie and, surprisingly, Barbie for women) it was rarely possible to know to which particular family anyone is referring. Instead, a more detailed tracing was necessary, often spanning several different families—a woman began by saying that she is one of John and Mary Beiler's girls and then went on to say from which area she hailed (up on the hill in Loganton or down in the valley in Nippenose, for example) and may have also referenced a well known uncle or grandparent. From there, the conversation would turn to questions about her siblings and the midwife might ask if Sam Beiler in the Sugar Valley is her brother or to whom her sisters are married. A similar line of questioning would be repeated for her husband's 'people', all of which gave the midwife a detailed understanding of the ways in which this particular family was situated within the larger Amish community. As Vivian would get to know a couple, she would often discover connections between families ('I didn't know that your husband was Sadie May's brother' or 'Is your mother the one who makes the quilts for Rebecca's shop?') and an emphasis on these extended familial networks enjoyed a prominent place in ongoing conversations. Interestingly, her Amish clients would frequently seek out Vivian's knowledge of these relationships—she often knew more about these connections than they did—and they would ask her to remind them of where Anna Fisher's people came from or whether Barbie Lapp's husband is from Brush Valley or Penns Valley. Her mastery of Amish family relations was regularly remarked upon by her Amish clients. In addition to being a pleasant way to get her clients talking and feeling comfortable with her, this attention to familial lineages legitimated her position as an insider within the community. It demonstrated her acknowledgement of the centrality of family ties in Amish life and it provided her with a detailed understanding of the network of relations between community members. More generally, mapping these familial linkages reminds us all that membership matters. In the Amish society, kinship relations mark out who belongs and who does not, and speaks to what Foucault terms deployment of alliance, 'a system of marriage, of fixation and development of kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions' (Foucault 1978: 106) in order to mark out social obligations and matrixes of power. In attending to these matrixes, the midwife cast herself as an insider and substantiated that position through her mastery of kinship knowledge in the communities she served. As a result, she exercised a great deal of influence over the women she served, and served as a point of connection between the Amish and English (non-Amish) worlds.

Midwife as a source of community power

7.1 The non-Amish midwife was influential in terms of both her involvement in shaping the nature of Amish reproduction and in her authority in matters related to Amish women's lives more generally. And though some may suggest that a non-Amish woman serving as an Amish midwife was not properly a member of the Amish community, my data suggest that the opposite is in fact true—a non-Amish woman who serves as a midwife was allowed status that few others enjoy. Because the midwife was not Amish, many Amish women were able to establish a relationship without the cultural constraints that shaped many of their other relationships. As a result, the midwife regularly had access to particular aspects of daily life that were reserved only for those inside Amish society. Her power, then, came from being neither fully Amish nor a complete stranger to the Amish community. She was, as the Amish say of themselves, 'In this world, but not of it.' (Kraybill 2001a: 40).

7.2 A non-Amish midwife's power was most apparent in the access she brokered, connecting Amish women to resources outside the Amish community. The midwife was sought out for her ability to make both material goods and knowledge of mainstream (non-Amish) society available to Amish women. Advice from Vivian was solicited on a variety of matters, and not solely on those issues specifically linked to reproduction. Her extensive medical knowledge (which extended beyond the realm of maternity care), along with her detailed familiarity with family kinship patterns and awareness of Amish customs resulted in her becoming a significant community resource. Vivian frequently admitted to being woken by calls from her Amish clients and their families to ask for her advice, and though (for her) this was often more frustrating than empowering, it demonstrated the centrality of her role within the community. The Amish greatly valued Vivian's position—she was a link to the world outside Amish society while still being deeply entrenched within the community she served.

7.3 One particular way that the midwife bridged the Amish and non-Amish communities was in the access she provided to birth control. Though there is the popular assumption that Amish women are not using birth control to control their fertility, my observations with Vivian and more recent research suggest otherwise. (Miller 2007) Because of the secrecy associated with Amish pregnancy, midwives practiced a strict confidentiality and did not divulge the identity of their clients, and even two sisters may not know that they are being attended by the same midwife. As a result, Vivian enjoyed a great deal of trust and her advice was often solicited on sensitive matters. She was regularly consulted on issues associated with natural family planning and child spacing, and though the Amish do not openly condone these practices, there is increasing evidence to suggest that fertility rates are declining within various Amish communities (Greksa 2002). Vivian taught women about their fertility cycle, explained concepts such as ovulation, and educated about the female reproductive system more generally. Several Amish women asked about the efficiency of extended breastfeeding to delay ovulation and many were interested in ways to delay their next conception using natural family planning methods.

When Vivian arrives for a six-week postpartum visit, she often sits at the kitchen table and has a glass of water or coffee while meeting with her client. On one such occasion, she asks Barbie (the mother of a rapidly growing family of five) for a glass of water and then helps herself to a clean glass from the rack where the dishes are drying. As she fills it with water at the sink, she notices five condoms neatly drying alongside the glasses in the dish rack. "Didn't I tell you not to reuse these?" asks Vivian, knowing that the Amish are scrupulous when it comes to reusing and recycling. "Oh yes, I know." Says Barbie with a sheepish grin. "But we don't see you enough to get new ones for each time, so I just wash them out."

7.4 Vivian was asked to procure condoms for several couples and, after having to tell more than one couple that condoms were not reusable, she acknowledged that many Amish couples were using them with some regularity to help space their children. Again, access to a non-Amish midwife gave Amish women a connection to a different world that provided them with the ability to control their reproductive capacities and make decisions about family size and child spacing. Vivian served as a bridge between Amish society and mainstream society and helped women access the resources necessary to maintain their health and well-being.

7.5 The midwife's non-Amish context also provided Amish women with information to which they would otherwise be restricted. Questions about child spacing were posed without fear of judgment, and Amish women were able to honestly explore their reproductive concerns without fear of disapproval or social censure. The midwife was further consulted on matters sexual in nature and helped several Amish women and their husbands discover more fulfilling sex.

After one particularly giddy prenatal visit with first time mother Arie, Vivian and I stand up to leave. As we head for the door, Arie lowers her voice and reports that her and her husband had recently stopped having sex. After Vivian asks her a few questions to make sure there was no illness or infection making intercourse painful, she gently eases into a conversation with Arie about sex and sexuality. "I don't ever get a thrill" Arie suddenly reports, referring to an orgasm. "I've heard women can have a thrill, but I don't know how." Vivian launches into a primer course on the female anatomy and suggested experimenting with new positions. She and Arie talk about foreplay, lubrication and more generally about intimacy in marriage. Vivian serves as part therapist, part sexologist, part biology teacher and, after the tutorial, Arie is visibly relieved to have had the conversation.
Such conversations would likely not be possible with an Amish midwife within the community and are yet another way in which the non-Amish midwife's social context became an asset to the women she attended. Her relationship to Amish women was both deeply personal and yet culturally distinct. The non-Amish midwife was a portal, through which both materials (books, condoms, medicines, etc.) and knowledge flowed into the Amish community. Amish society is not a closed unit, and indeed there is sometimes a vibrant exchange across the imagined boundary that separates the Amish world from the English world. The midwife's position as an outsider within enabled her to blur the divide between the two, despite the illusion of separateness.

7.7 I argue that with the access she provided to resources and knowledge outside of Amish society, the non-Amish midwife possessed no small amount of power within the Amish community. As a portal to the non-Amish world, she provided Amish women access to materials and information from mainstream society. She not only brought products such as condoms and books, but she also brought knowledge about sex, sexuality, child spacing and methods of birth control. In doing so, she played a role in shaping Amish women's understanding of their own body and their sexuality. More generally, the non-Amish midwife is subtly influencing the structure of the community and the ways in which the Amish community is connected to non-Amish society. As Amish women have fewer children, they are able to play a more active role in the market economy and the cottage industries (running roadside stands featuring baked goods or sewing projects, or contributing to a store that features these sorts of products) that are increasingly characterizing Amish society (Schmidt 2001: 98). The ways that this will continue to refigure the structure and dynamics of Amish society remain to be seen, but it nonetheless suggests that non-Amish midwives do much more than merely 'catch babies.'

The shifting locations of Community Power

8.1 Critiques of conventional understandings of power have become a foundational part of Sociology and the social theory upon which it is built. Foucault brought our attention to the power of discourse, Lukes asked us to consider the 'three faces of power' and James C Scott made visible the weapons of the weak. Despite these paradigmatic shifts in focus, "Molotch's (1979) 'growth machine' continues to hum" in studies of Amish society. (Bowman 1987: 123) Previous work on the structure of Amish communities asserted that clout is tied to those who occupy highly visible positions within the community structure. (Hostetler 1993, Kraybill 2001a) My data suggested otherwise, and I found that power could accrue in those individuals most unlikely to be vested with it, particularly those who inhabited the margins of Amish society. In particular, I found that community power derives from the midwife's position between Amish and non-Amish societies. Her social location made her invisible within conventional analyses of community power in Amish society, but it was precisely this context that provided her with cultural capital within Amish society. Power is gendered within the Amish society, and analyses focused on formal networks of influence and relation missed the vibrant and vital flows of power that resided below the surface and at the margins. Vivian had substantial influence in the lives of Amish women and men, and her marginal position within Amish society allowed her access to and influence in the daily lives of Amish women while providing her with a measure of distance not afforded to those who were officially insiders in Amish society.

8.2 As an analytic category, this marginal position—neither fully in the community nor fully extricated from it—has something to offer studies of community within the field of Sociology, and particularly work focused on rural communities. For instance, while traditional work on community power within Amish society has relied on analyses of hierarchy, prestige, local elites and the conventions of community structure, (Hostetler 1993; Kraybill 1991; Kraybill 1993; Kraybill 1994) my research suggested that community power can also reside in unconventional locales. Just as the travelling salepeople who brought wares and words from afar have long been a key figure in rural communities, people on the margins continue to play a significant (though largely invisible) role in rural society. And though they are both intentionally and unintentionally shaping the structure of Amish society, their function within the community structure has been largely overlooked by Amish scholars. This averted gaze has obscured a more holistic understanding of how community power operates, how Amish communities are structured, and even how Amish society changes and is changed over time.

8.3 Because we hope to gain an understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of Amish society, we are wise to focus on the boundaries in addition to the center. That those who occupy these nearly invisible positions are often women is of consequence—both for what we know about Amish communities and what we know about the gendered nature of power. Without including this category into our analyses, our knowledge of how power operates in Amish society remains partial and incomplete. My work adds further evidence to those who have redirected our attention to the myriad dimensions of power. So while we know better than to focus our gaze solely on those highly visible community members when asking questions about power and influence, we may do well to also consider those not actually considered insiders at all. People who travel between two communities can serve as an important bridge between two worlds even while having a very marginal public profile in either community. The non-Amish midwife enjoyed considerable power within Amish society despite the fact that her influence was not accounted for within the metrics of conventional analysis.


1The research was approved by the Pennsylvania State University Human Participant Research (IRB) in the Office for Research Protections. [0]All participation was voluntary.

2All names have been changed to protect privacy.

3Both Amish and non-Amish midwives reported serving non-Amish women who were interested in having a non-medicated out-of-hospital birth.

4Martha was an Amish midwife who served the surrounding community. Many of Vivian's clients had previously delivered with Martha.


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