Early Quaker women: general overview

This article has been developed from notes provided by Dale Hess and draws on the book ‘Witnesses for Change: Quaker Women over Three Centuries’, edited by Elizabeth Potts Brown and Susan Mosher Stuard, and published in New Brunswick in 1989 by Rutgers University Press.

Traditionally, women have occupied a very subservient place within Christianity. Martin Luther, for example, identified woman as a creature created by God, but who was different from man by being far weaker in intellect. John Calvin wanted women to be wives subordinated to their husbands. The Dominican monks, when identifying witches, assumed that woman, characterized as left and evil, was more susceptible to the wiles of the devil than man, characterized as right and good. But this was not always the case. For example, the Abbess Hild of Whitby was a noted teacher and a woman of influence in the 7th century, but by the 13th and 14th centuries, women, such as Julian of Norwich, had moved away from powerful institutional roles and turned to individualistic piety. By the 17th century, public expression was denied to women in society generally as well as within the church. The Puritans understood that the ministry was a vocational calling open to males only. Women were active within groups such the Levellers and Ranters, but were later marginalized when the rebellious religious groups became more institutionalized. It was “unnatural” and “unladylike” for women to take a leading public role, and the elimination of women preachers was thought to be a small price to pay for religious toleration. Quaker women, however, were from the start preachers and prophets; in the 18th century they consolidated their power in Women’s Meetings for Business, by preaching abroad, and by joining the movement to abolish slavery; in the 19th century they participated in and led the movements for women’s rights and participation in the public sphere; in the 20th century they helped found, and remained in the vanguard of, the movement for world peace. These women set themselves the task of transforming society as their faith directed. Quaker women recovered roles for women as religious teachers and leaders that had existed earlier, but had disappeared.

Quakers practiced a form of group mysticism, subtracting all rituals and outward arrangements from their worship; they had no ecclesiastical hierarchy. This created a climate of acceptance of women and Quakerism took a clear stand for women’s full and equal participation within the community. The Quaker doctrines of perfection and feminine spiritual symbolism enhanced women’s confidence as interpreters of the divine will. However, a more discriminatory gender ideology was deeply entrenched within the culture, and Quaker men were forced to rethink the gender roles and choose between the way of the Spirit and the traditional theological position. Friends chose to reject orthodox doctrine and developed a fundamentally new social position. The gender definitions were loosened and thus women and men could speak and act with the traditional attributes of both sexes. It liberated men to use the verbal and body language of femininity and infancy, and women to use the verbal and body language of masculine authority to address magistrates, clergymen and monarchs. Women, who in the private arena appreciated the spiritual motherhood of Margaret Fell, in the public arena presented themselves as angry biblical prophets. Margaret Fell and George Fox asserted that women had every right to testify to God’s Word. Fox in his personal witness took terms associated with women and linked them to the soul. Fox and Fell advocated the Women’s Meeting to enhance the opportunities for women’s participation in charity and ministry. Fell and her daughters provided instruction for Women’s Meetings and theological justification for women speaking and acting. Friends maintained women’s prominent role as a radical practice, and this subjected them to censure and persecution.

The use of language was particularly telling. The wider society used highly gendered language reflecting the respective social roles of men and women: transgression was expressed in metaphors of wifely infidelity, antisocial crime was female witchcraft, the pinnacle of social harmony was the king or familial patriarch. In this atmosphere it would not have been possible to communicate the Quaker meaning of living in the Light or the warnings of an angry God without using the language of both masculine and feminine.

The authority for a Quaker woman to preach was that when she preached she was not woman, but was God’s bride and being obedient to God. A Quaker woman in the Light had transcended her womanhood. The maleness and femaleness must die in order for the soul to flourish. The meaning of Womanhood held a negative abstraction for Quakers, but, for sanctified women, the individual description was rejected. Thus they justified female prophets in a patriarchal world. The self-transcendence of male Quakers was analogous to his own gendered individuality, but for women it was a total rejection of self.

Leading Quaker women combined preaching with child rearing, charity work, reaching out to Friends in prison, petitioning Parliament and negotiating with magistrates. The name for this archetypal female Quaker, who preached in the streets or in meetings and then came home to nurse babies and serve supper, was “Mother in Israel.” They included Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooton, Ann Downer, Rebecca Travers, Margaret Newby and many others. Male Quakers tended to be zealots wholly given to preaching as a vocation. Far from being excessively hysterical and undisciplined, women in the early Quaker movement held the movement together.

More than two hundred Quaker women prophesied in the early years of the movement and their audiences were impressed by their extraordinary zeal and audacity. The youngest and oldest Quaker public preachers in the 1650s were female. Elizabeth Fletcher, age 16, was among the first missionaries to Ireland; Mary Fisher and Anne Austin were the first missionaries to America; Mary Fisher was the first and only missionary to Turkey; Mary Fell, age 8, told the local Anglican priest that the plagues of God would fall upon him; Elizabeth Hooton, aged about 70, admonished the king.

Visiting women ministers from both sides of the Atlantic visited the Quaker communities in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island. These visits enabled women to learn from and inspire one another, and gave a respite from the isolation that plagued women’s lives. The success and prosperity of the Quaker communities on both sides of the Atlantic gave women the opportunity to initiate reforms and build welfare institutions as they identified the needs.

One such woman was Elizabeth Hooton. She was already a Baptist teacher when she encountered George Fox and it was she, not her husband Oliver, who became the first convert and a leader in Quakerism. She was thrown into prison, but seemed to have no fear of any worldly authority, and became an aggressive agitator against the corruption of the clergy and magistrates. After her husband died she undertook a missionary journey to New England, where she confronted magistrates and ministers, time and again, in spite of being stripped and whipped from town to town and abandoned in the forests to die. She returned to England and harangued Charles II with such intensity that some said she was a witch.

She made use of vicious anti-female metaphors, for example in her address to Boston and Cambridge: “by your unrighteous decrees hatched at Cambridge and made at Boston you are the two breasts of New England where all cruelty is nursed up…” She urged Friends to suffer continually. She was an ascetic, yet also protective of her possessions. A formidable and contradictory women.

Elizabeth Hooton and other early Quaker women displayed singular personal qualities. After verbal confrontations with clergy and magistrates, they submitted to the inevitable persecution with physical restraint, even before pacifism became the official policy. Women like Elizabeth Hooton were champions of heroic endurance. Not only did they attempt more exotic journeys than their male counterparts, but they suffered more theatrically than men, e.g. when they were stripped to the waist, bound and whipped, while clasping a baby to their chest. Quaker women departed from the conventions of acceptable feminine behaviour far more radically than other women visionaries. Quaker women were like Old Testament prophets and their duty was to initiate direct encounters, teach hard truths, condemn moral decadence and social injustice, and to warn sinners “that God may justified in his judgments”. These women denied class and status differences, they refused to use verbal or body language of deference, they denied gender differences.

Some commentators have criticized their behaviour as being a form of emotional catharsis and a symptom of psychic instability. This assumes that the women were expressing non-religious needs, based on aggression and emotion. Quakers viewed all human drives as superficial. The deepest and most authentic aspect of the self was divine love and God’s love was imbedded in the self in the Light or Seed. Unlike other visionaries the Quaker prophet was not in a trance when she preached. Preaching was an act of expressing the Light from the depth of the soul which catapulted the layers of appetite and habit, of social status and gender. The language of Elizabeth Hooton and others of her ilk was emotional and their voices were intense, but it was an expression of anguish over the state of the nation.

The nature and intensity of expression was not consistent throughout England. The women from the south tempered their writings by a gentler, more mystical and introspective tone. This was expressed in a greater emotional range and self-absorption often in feminine imagery. The behaviour of the northern women was more aggressive than their southern counterparts, and they endured more physical punishment. Northern women like Elizabeth Hooton did not acknowledge any difficulty in giving up the routine comforts of life, whereas southern women were painfully aware of the material and intellectual sacrifices that were required by their conversion. The most unsettled and emotional women came predominately from the south. The northern prophets came from a relatively isolated, rural, class-conscience and profoundly biblical culture. Many of these women had been part of Bible-study or Seeker groups. There was less cultural distance between their previous life experience and their new role as Old Testament prophets. The southern women came from a more complex, urbanised environment. They were exposed to many more forms of religious expression and to other female visionaries.

The women were not without their critics from within Quakers. Fifteen women, including Martha Simmonds, Jane Holmes, and Mildred Crouch, were criticized by Quaker leaders for unruly behaviour. But their behaviour was no more bizarre than that of Thomas Holme, Solomon Eccles, Richard Sale, Francis Howgill, or James Nayler.

Despite the criticism from within and without, and despite some extreme – even bizarre – forms of behaviour, in the finest moments of early Quakerism, both women and men were able to balance states of spiritual ecstasy with a real concern for the practical side of life.

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