Amish Dating Practices

By: Stephanie Kucera

Though many would argue that the United States is essentially an egalitarian society wherein men and women are treated equally, Americans know that inequalities still persist. In our culture, gender lines are being erased, but men and women continue to face different obstacles. As a subculture of America, the Amish seem to reject our strides towards gender equality in order to keep their charter of separation from the world. Within themselves, the Amish are divided along gender lines more than mainstream America. The chasm between the two is seldom bridged. The two genders meet for courtship, but the cultural norms allow the desires of the man to set the course towards matrimony.

It is essential for the understanding of Amish culture to realize that the spheres of men and women seldom overlap. Thus, a marriage partnership is essentially that: a combination of forces to form a corporation (i.e., a farm). More specifically, a man tends to the land and the animals, while the woman keeps house. By adhering to their predestined roles, the separate genders ensure that the homestead is productive. Amish children learn early what their society demands. The importance of finding a good mate has been ingrained in the psyche by the time the child reaches courting age. To establish a productive pairing, careful consideration is crucial on the part of both genders. An Amish girl or boy seeks to marry a person that will uphold the traditions of the church and aid in the family's livelihood. The search for such a person begins in young adolescence and culminates in a marriage when the young people are approximately twenty-two years old (Hostetler 145-154).

Viewed simplistically, an outsider could contend that the qualities an Amish person seeks in a mate do not differ greatly from that of an "English" person. The selection of a mate in Amish culture is based on attraction and compatibility to a certain extent, but the underlying Amish requirement of dominance by the men and submission on the part of the woman is rejected by most mainstream Americans. As in any patriarchal society, the Amish woman must accept her place as a marginalized member of the society in which she lives in order to prosper. Evidence of the widespread adherence to this role can be found by an examination of the mating rituals in which the man has an unequal share of the power.

In the Amish household, it is the man who makes the decisions. "The wife is often consulted when family problems arise,..., but her husband's word is regarded as final in domestic matters" (Hostetler 151). In the practice of dating, men also make the decisions. American culture allows, and even encourages, the assertiveness of females in the dating relationship. Amish culture, however, keeps courtship a male-dominated endeavor. Girls are not permitted, socially, to take the initiative. Only an Amish boy may ask a girl for her "friendship." Problems arising from such restrictions are inevitable for females in a society in which their desires are subjugated and their judgment is deemed less important.

Signing herself "Distressed," a young Amish girl writes to the Amish adolescent magazine "Young Companion" with a problem. She has found herself the object of attraction for a young Amish male whom she believes is guilty of hochmut - a cardinal sin in the Amish belief system in which a person thinks highly of himself. Her dilemma stems from the position in which she has been placed. She does not wish to enter into a relationship with this boy, but she fears a negative reception to his efforts at courtship might result in her own reputation being tarnished. She wonders, "By saying no, would I then be thinking I'm better than he is?" She has to consider her own eligibility in the marriage market. A display of pride by pronouncing another person sinful would have negative repercussions in the future. The replies she gets from the editors of the "Young Companion" seem to support the Amish girl, but their replies indicate that they, as men, are far removed from the situation. "Stephen" states simply, "Why not tell him what you told us?," not realizing that the very reason she wrote to the magazine was in avoidance of such an approach. "Jonathan," no more helpful, essentially tells her to cheer up ... he may not ask for her friendship anyway! "Seth" implies that she will be to blame if her situation reaches a crisis point. After all, "if [she] is living a virtuous life, he might not seek [her] company." In trying to give good advice, these men just reinforce the Amish girl's entrapment. Since she cannot actively seek the companionship of another boy, she exposes herself to the interest of the boastful suitor. She fears she lacks the capacity in which she can honestly explain her reasons for not wanting his companionship should he ask her for it. Most, if not all, of the "Young Companion" writers sympathize and side with 'Distressed" in her dilemma, but they do no truly understand the societal pressures she faces by challenging a boy's humility.

"Distressed" is in a position familiar to probably most Amish girls. An Amish girl in particular must be aware of her conduct in regards to dating. These issues are explored further in Clara Bernice Miller's novel Katie. Katie is the exploration of one young woman's conflict of faith. Katie is at a stage in her life where she is questioning the beliefs that have been instilled in her since her childhood. A large part of this book deals with Katie's quest for a mate and her evaluation of the dating practices within her Amish society.

To Katie, dating is an enjoyable past time at which she has proved herself successful. She has dated nearly every boy in her community and "made them feel at home" (Miller 41). However, her disdain for being a "good date" appears one night during a date with the bishop's son, Edward. She realizes that all men want in a wife is "...someone to go to bed with and cook their meals and bear their children"(41). She ends her date with Edward abruptly and is left to deal with the consequences of her actions the next day. Her employer, having heard the commotion the night before, accuses her of being unable to "behave herself"(Mller43). Katie finds herself in an unfortunate position. She is accused of being boy crazy, but she wonders, "What are you supposed to do if a boy asks you for a date? Snub him?" (44). Like "Distressed," Katie knows what her limitations are when it comes to dating. She knows that she has to maintain a good relationship with her employer. After all, "nothing spoiled a hired girl's reputation as quickly as falling out with the people she worked for" (47). If Katie's reputation for being a good worker is soiled, the knowledge would spread around the community and her potential value as a wife would depreciate. A reputation for having her own mind would not be looked on favorably.

A turning point in Katie's life comes when she joins the "covering bunch" - a group of girls who wear their prayer veils on dates. Finding the dating practices among her Amish brethren unchristian, Katie wants to change them. The community reacts negatively to the reform efforts of the girls in the covering bunch. Mose, Katie's steady date, supports her in the beginning, but he gives in to the pressures around him and questions Katie's motives. Dissatisfaction plagues the community, and the covering bunch is the cause of strife among the young people, according to some (163). This affects Katie's relationship with Mose and they eventually part ways.

Katie views her tribulations as God's plan for testing her faithfulness. She does not attempt to challenge the notion that men are spiritually superior to women. She listens intently as her brother-in-law, Mahlon, delivers a wedding sermon in which he urges the bride "...to submit [herselfl unto [her] husband" (272). By the end of her story, she seems to accept her place as a woman in Amish culture. Her efforts to change dating practices stemmed not from the feeling that women did not have enough power, but rather from the feeling that the boys she was dating were not behaving as Christians. Essentially, Katie has accepted her culture's standards of the ideal woman.

The research of John Hostetler has exposed patterns of dating behavior consistent in Katie and "The Young Companion." In these three sources, gender influences the dating life of each individual. From my perspective as an outsider observing a culture from a distance, I would contend that females are at a disadvantage in the mating rituals. I have arrived at this conclusion based on the personal opinions which I have brought to the readings. An Amish person's views on this subject would be impossible for me to gauge.