Friend-ly Women Made History

Women's speaking was a normal event in Quaker meetings - as in this scene ca. 1732

A L-O-O-O-N-G chapter in women’s church history is taken up by the contributions of Quaker women, beginning in the 17th century.

The Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, showed early and persistent tolerance for women’s preaching and teaching, as a matter of religious principle. Even though later Quaker practice effectively turned down the volume on women’s voices, and under-reported the voluminous contributions women made to Quaker thought between the 17th and 19th centuries, Quaker life continued to encourage women’s active engagement in the life of their communities. As a result, Quakers and Quaker-educated women rose to prominence across a wide range of areas of social life, particularly in England and the United States.

The history of early Quaker women is one of determination and persistence in the face of official and popular hostility, as they engaged in promoting the principles of the group, and insisting on the equal calling of women to engage in preaching and prophetic activity. Margaret Fell (1614 – 1702), called the “mother of Quakerism,” was a nobly born Englishwoman with property and resources of her own. She was a founding member of the Religious Society of Friends, who made her estate, Swarthmore Hall, available for Friends meetings, and used her high position to intercede for members of the group. She herself was imprisoned for her beliefs 1664-1668, during which time she wrote numerous pamphlets and letters. The most well-known of these, “Women’s Speaking Justified,” was a spirited defense of women’s preaching.

Other members of the “Valiant Sixty,” the early promoters of the Religious Society of Friends, included many women. Among them were Mary Fisher (1623 – 1698), who undertook missionary journeys to the Americas, in the company of another woman, Ann Austin. Later, she undertook a mission to the Turkish Sultan, Mehmed IV, which succeeded despite the obstruction of English officials. Elizabeth Hooton (1600 – 1672), who was convinced of the truth of Quaker doctrine as a mature woman, endured considerable hardships to promote Quaker teachings in the American colonies. There, the 63-year-old woman’s punishments included being taken into the woods and abandoned — she found her way back to the coast, and returned to England. She died, of natural causes, at the age of 72, on a mission trip to the West Indies.

Mary Barrett Dyer (1611 – 1660) paid for her persistent promotion of her Quaker principles with her life. Her conviction that the intolerance confronting Quakers in Massachusetts Bay Colony must be challenged led her to return to Boston again and again to preach, teach, and visit other Friends in prison (see Matthew 25:36). In the end, the colony sentenced her to hang, a sentence carried out speedily on Boston Common, making her an early martyr to religious exclusivity.

Later Quaker women were equally ardent and immovable in challenging social injustices. Elizabeth Fry (1780 – 1845) championed prison reform in England. The abolitionist cause in the United States was heavily populated by Quakers, whether lifelong or, like the Grimké sisters, converts from other denominations (like the Presbyterian, in the case of the Grimkés). The leadership of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States was dominated by Quakers or women with Quaker backgrounds, including Lucretia Mott and other organizers of the Seneca Falls convention, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul.

Quaker women’s courage and persistence is probably not be a coincidence. Quaker doctrine includes emphasis on the inner light, the attentive hearkening to the voice of God in the convictions and urgings of the inner person. While such guidance is not ignorant of Biblical pre- and proscriptions, it remains open to extra-Biblical insight and God’s through the inner person. One consequence of this religious attitude is an ability to empathy with victims of injustice seriously, and to perceive the wrong in arrangements others have come to regard as normal and acceptable. As Quaker women let their lights shine, they transformed the face of modern society.

Read More . . .
Quaker Women, a website dedicated to Quaker women’s contributions and writings, 1700-1900

On Quaker Women, by Sue Hyatt, at the International Christian Women’s History Project

Margaret Fell’s texts Women’s Speaking Justified and her Letter to King Charles II protesting the persecution of Quakers

On Mary Barrett Dyer, the online text of Horatio Rogers’ The Quaker Martyr that was hanged on Boston Common June 1, 1660″

On Alice Paul, a biography at Women In History or The Alice Paul Institute

Votes for Women (R for Violence)

image of National Women's Party picketers outside White House

Women insisting they are included in 'the people' who have the right peaceably to assemble

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. We are, however, allowed to be aware of other forms of violence against women during the month of October as well.

A particularly dramatic, historical example has been making the rounds by e-mail and showing up on blogs and campaign websites as we move into the last weeks before the mid-term election. [See, for instance, this recent post in AAUW Dialog, or this page for Henrietta Dwyer] It’s the story of the “Night of Terror” endured by 33 members of the National Women’s Party on Nov. 15, 1917.

The violence turned on Lucy Burns, Dora Lewis, Alice Cosu, et al. because of their refusal to back down from the demand for women’s suffrage, belied the anti-suffrage forces’ professed regard for women’s “ladylike” dignity, and the alleged desire to “protect” women from the coarse, rough “men’s world” of politics. The real issue, it seems, was that of control. When milder forms of social control failed, harsher forms were used. (Domestic violence, which is also about power and control, operates according to that same fundamental principle.)

The story of these women’s fight — literally — for the right to be considered adults and citizens of their own country is deeply moving. So moving, in fact, that local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the AAUW, labor unions, friends, relatives, colleagues and fellow citizens have felt impelled to pass along the powerful text and its linked images. It serves as a powerful reminder that a right which many contemporary women may treat, frankly, pretty casually was not won easily or cheaply.

In fact, the story provides a fascinating illustration of the metamorphosis of a textual tradition, and the ways that metamorphosis can damage as well as preserve the memory needed to preserve women’s history, along with its main content.

image of suffragist Inez Calderhead

Inez Calderhead

Connie Schultz’s column “And you think it’s a pain to vote” appeared February 19, 2004 in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. (The text is reprinted by permission in her 2006 anthology Life Happens and other unavoidable truths, which can be previewed at Google books.)

In it she refers to the 2004 HBO film Iron-Jawed Angels, directed by Katjia von Garnier, which tells this long-ignored militant side of the struggle women waged for the vote in the United States. (The existence of this film continues to surprise readers of this viral text, and to excite interest.)

Somewhere along the line, someone added images to the text they passed on, evidently from the extensive collection of the records of the National Women’s Party held by the Library of Congress. The images of Inez Calderhead and Nell Mercer are not among those in general circulation, perhaps because these African-American members of the NWP are not mentioned in the text by name. They too, however, were among those jailed for the cause of suffrage.

image of suffragist Nell Mercer

Nell Mercer

Depending on the version with which one begins, it can take some time to retrieve Schultz’s name and her link to the text. Many transmitters assume the author is Anonymous. I’ve yet to find a credit for the illustrated version. References to the recency of the film, the author’s personal involvement with voter registration, and her account of meeting Geraldine Ferraro have fallen out of the tradition. Information about the release of the HBO film on DVD has crept in. Different redactions present the story as concerning “our mothers and grand-mothers” or “our grandmothers and great-grandmothers;” versions differ in their specific pleas for taking voting more seriously. Most urge readers to share the information. Some invite skeptics to check out the facts (at least two different online truth-or-fiction sites have dealt with the material: Truth or Fiction.com and Snopes)

All that in just 6 short years. (Just imagine what could happen to a story in 90 — or 900.)

Readers who are interested in learning more about Alice Paul, the NWP, and the later, militant phase of the suffrage movement in the US might want to check out:

The Women’s Center has tentatively scheduled a screening of Iron Jawed Angels for Friday, Oct. 29, 7:00 p.m., in the Women’s Center, pending acclamation of that date and time by the many students who have expressed interest in seeing the film.