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