Submit, Fight or Leave

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Eight Mennonite women in a hayloft. 48 hours to decide how they should respond to the return of men who have drugged and sexually abused them. Should they forgive the men and return to “normal,” stay and fight for justice, or leave. Based on a true story, novelist Miriam Toews sets up a prism to explore relationships in a close community and the foundations of Christian faith. Heartbreaking and humourous, the story respects tradition and resonates with current issues. 

The love and tensions between mothers, daughters and grandmothers unfold in talk about housework and hair-dos, as does the impact of the male-domination in their lives. Two family groups, the Loewens and the Friesens, spar in ways that are familiar in any close church community. The anger and harm suffered by the survivors of abuse is tempered by the resilience and humour of these women. Their faith in God is shaken by the abuse of power and betrayal by respected Men of God, but they draw on Scripture to work through the meaning of justice, forgiveness and pacifism for themselves. They are honest as they compare their status with the value given to work animals on their farms. Each one has their own personality, but they all agree when Ona says that the minimum condition for staying is that women be allowed to think for themselves. She captures the essence of the long struggle for respect for the equal moral agency of women. I won’t divulge what they decide to do.  

Because they cannot write, minutes of their discussion are narrated by the only male present, August Epp, a sensitive teacher, who adds insights from his own rejection by the powerful male leaders of the community. In an interview, Toews suggested he is “everyman”; different ways of being a man add another layer to this story of society in a hayloft.   

At a writer’s forum, Miriam Toews was asked whether she was still a Mennonite and some readers observed that the church gets off too easy in the book. Toews answered, “I am Mennonite; that’s who I am.” The women talking cling to their faith and love a church that hurts them, a space many women find themselves in these days. Toews has gifted us with a profound and delightful mirror to see ourselves more clearly.    


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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