Re-Imagining, or, The Face of God

A ceremony featuring the sharing of milk and honey occurred at the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993

As Bill Berneking notes, ” . . . it would be difficult to write a history of women in America without mentioning the 1993 Re-Imagining conference and subsequent movement.”

The Conference was a watershed or turning point in many ways. On one hand, it sparked an ongoing Re-Imagining Community that continued to champion the theology and practices of the initial conference. On the other, it made clear, especially for mainline protestant denominations, just how contentious the principle of women’s equal value could be when it came to expression in religious language and practice. It gave other Christians a powerful symbol that summed up their dissatisfaction with a specific direction of change in the church, and may also have marked the time when the term “feminist” became synonymous, for these Christians, with something like “godless.”

The Re-Imagining Conference took place November 4-7, 1993, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. More than 2,000 people attended, with more on a waiting list for space. Approximately 1/3 of the attendees were members of the clergy of various denominations, including the PC(USA), the UMC, and the ELCA. All of these denominations had participated in conference planning through arms of their national organizations, and had contributed church funds for travel to the conference. The conference had been three years in the planning, and was the midpoint of the World Council of Churches’ Decade in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998. Its purpose was to demonstrate and disseminate current theology and practice that incorporated feminist methods. Feminist theology perceived the longstanding exclusion of women and women’s perspectives from organized religion, only recently being overcome, to stem from more deeply-rooted linguistic and doctrinal practices that sanctified images of God that privileged things masculine, and social arrangements based on domination and coercion.

To that end, God was invoked by names different from those in ubiquitous use in the churches, including “Father,” “Son,” “Lord,” and “King.” The conference explored and presented alternative names for and images of God — from the Bible, from other religious traditions, and from women’s religious experience — that depicted God in a feminine mood. The list of speakers was a Who’s Who list of feminist theologians and religious from across the spectrum, including Mary Daly, Delores Williams, Rita Nakashima Brock, Carter Heyward, Chung Hyun Kyung, Mary Hunt, Virginia Mollenkott, Kwok Pui-Lan, Catherine Keller — and the Women’s Center’s Johanna Bos.

Immediate, intense, and lasting controversy exploded in the aftermath of the Conference. Critics challenged the use of other religious traditions and of images drawn from women’s experience as “idolatrous” — more in the sense of being invented by humans without being informed by divine revelation, or in the sense of not having divine authorization, not in the sense of being a limited image that is improperly taken to be complete that becomes an obstacle to communion with the living God. The use of a “milk and honey” ceremony — designed to skirt differing theologies around the eucharist, which problematized sharing communion at the conference — was seen by some as a rejection of the Christian sacrament, or a blasphemous parody of it. Since a number of speakers questioned the deployment of certain Christian doctrines, which detractors recognized as essential tenets or fundamentals, like “the atonement,” the conference was seen as a place where heretical views were championed and applauded. Particular objections were to addressing God as “Sophia,” which critics understood as a form of idolatrous goddess worship such as that which preceded the Babylonian exile, and the generally warm reception given to lesbians attending and even speaking at the conference, who from the critics’ perspective should have been rebuked or at least ignored rather than embraced and listened to.

(It is possible that the most heretical act of the conference was the one called out by James R. Edwards in his article “Natural Born Sinners”: “Most distressing, however, was an undisguised intolerance for other viewpoints, which belied the spirit of inclusivity, diversity, and nonviolence that was touted as the feminine way. No male voice was heard in four days of the conference (only 83 men attended), and never was heard an encouraging word about the masculine gender.” The conference was not enough about men.)

The money was a particular problem. Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans who heard that their national organizations had funded a conference where heresy was celebrated and Jesus and his Father lampooned were irate that their contributions had been used in this way, and let their bureaucrats know that they would not be contributing to more of the same. Conference organizer Mary Ann Lundy, of the PC(USA)’s Women’s Division, resigned. “Were you at Re-Imagining?” became a litmus test that prospective pastors and professors might have to pass. The response to Re-Imagining was as much the event as the conference was, and perhaps more.

What the event of conference and criticism made clear was that the church was deeply divided theologically and theoretically, between at least two groups: a group that believes there is a definitive revelation, well-understood by the tradition of the church, and well-expressed by its traditional language, which establishes the parameters for legitimate and acceptable experience, and which ought to instruct and discipline lives that deviate from those parameters; and a group that believes revelation has been in various respects mis-understood, mis-represented, and oppressively communicated throughout the tradition and practice of the church, and needs to be corrected by the experience of suffering to which that misbehavior has led, especially since that experience is an ongoing vehicle of revelation.

The first Re-Imagining Conference sparked the development of a Re-Imagining Community which has continued to hold conferences annually since; the group Voices of Sophia continues to uphold it as a positive force. For others, Re-Imagining serves as a symbol of dangerous excess, against which the faithful must be on perpetual guard. The legacy of Re-Imagining is contemporary history. Its issues are issues we Christians involved with practical and doctrinal theology and church governance live with today.

[Editorial comment: What seems to have been obscured in the controversy — at least as it has come to be remembered by the Internet, which seems only to be “forever” for those who make use of it — is the nature of the hope that drove over 2,000 people to make a pilgrimage to Minnesota, with more on a waiting list for spaces. What did those people think they were going to hear in Minneapolis? Probably what I thought I would have heard, when I first heard about Re-Imagining, the following year: about how the church they already loved and participated in might openly and unashamedly acknowledge and return their love by reflecting their creation in God’s image in its speech and practice, thereby turning a face of God towards them in which they could glimpse the outlines of the best version of themselves — something the church has done for men all along. Since cultivating the best version of each of the unique and precious lives that are the members of the Body of Christ is one of the tasks of the church, it — we — ought to learn the lesson of that hope. That lesson is a hard one. It is that the church is not doing its job “at home,” here “on the ground,” when people have to go to Minneapolis — and suffer condemnation for it from their church — to see a face of God that should already have been turned towards them daily in and by the home of the good news of Jesus Christ.]

Read More . . .

An internet search for “Re-Imagining 1993” will yield an immense volume of criticism of the Conference (a good representative would be the comments at Brethren Renewal Online, which include the text of a statement of protest signed by many leaders of the critical response from other denominations); it is far more difficult to find neutral or positive treatments of the Conference (but maybe I didn’t use the right key words).

Stephen Goode’s analysis “Feminists’ crusade sparks holy war” from Insight on the News July 25, 1994 tries to cover both conference participants’ and critics’ interpretations and motives

Sojourners made space for Janice Love’s, “Commentary – Finding Space to Reimagine God” (free registration required to access the article)

LPTS Alum Alexa Smith covered a Re-Imagining Revival in 1998 and the shadow of Re-Imagining in Mary Elva Smith’s remarks about plans for the Women’s Ministries Program Area in 2001

Janet Fishburn, in “Theological Education: A Reformed Imperative”, advances the thesis that the “Old Light/New Light” controversy is still with the Presbyterian Church, uses the Re-Imagining Conference as a case in point

Rosemary Radford Reuther, in “Can Women Stay in the Church?”, has a different negative take on Re-Imagining

Or, read the memoir: Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds., Re-Membering and Re-Imagining


Laying Hands on Women

Louisa Woosley, ordained 1889 in Kentucky

In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul urges Timothy “Do not ordain anyone hastily . . .” The church certainly took this advice to heart in the matter of the ordination of women.

Among Christians in the Presbyterian tradition, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was first to ordain a woman: Louisa Woosley, in 1889, in Nolin Presbytery, Kentucky. The ordination did not go smoothly. The 1890 General Assembly challenge the Presbytery’s action and a motion was made to remove her name from the presbytery’s rolls — which died for lack of a second. The Presbytery stood by its decision. To make their position unmistakably clear, Nolin Presbytery elected her as a delegate to the 1894 General Assembly — where her credentials were debated. Woosley herself wrote a book, “Shall Woman Preach? The Question Answered” (still in print, available from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) which seemed to contain her entire, definite, response to the controversy — i.e., “of course.” Nolin Presbytery finally resolved the problem by granting Woosley the status of a “minister in transitu,” a technicality which allowed her to preach and retain her ministerial position, and also allow the Presbytery to remove her name from the rolls to comply with the Synod’s order. Woosley’s ministry spanned the decades until her death, in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1952.

In the United Presbyterian Church (the “northern” church), the first woman to be ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament was Margaret Towner, in 1956. Towner, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, held the position of Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, Pennsylvania prior to her ordination, and continued to direct religious education after ordination and being made assistant pastor. Her ordination was national news in the climate of mid-50s US culture, which is on unselfconscious display in the Life Magazine article about the first “Lady Minister” in a nationally-organized church. Towner’s own comments in the article minimized the threat of her ordination — she was not expecting to preach much, she was part of a “team” of several ministers, she would be running the church school. In a retrospective interview with Presbyterian Outlook, she regretted some of her early comments — perhaps because her experiences with the profound but subtle prejudices and discrimination directed against her as a solitary woman in ministerial work in her presbytery, and as a minority for much of her career, taught her the wisdom of Woosley’s approach of stalwart conviction.

It would be another 20 years before an African American woman — Katie Geneva Cannon, also (later) a graduate of Union Theological Seminary (Ph.D., 1983) — would be, in 1974, ordained a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. Cannon, noted ethicist, professor, and author of works including Katie’s Cannon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community and Black Womanist Ethics, is the acknowledged inspiration of many — including the Women’s Center’s, which named its annual Katie Geneva Cannon lecture after her in recognition of her lifelong, public prophetic ministry that names and challenges structures of oppression with intellectual power and rhetorical grace. The lecture series itself was officially inauguraged by Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon at Wind and Flame – a conference celebrating the anniversaries of the ordination of women to office in the Presbyterian Church: 1906 (deacons), 1930 (elders — with Sarah E. Dickson of Wauwautosa Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the first woman to hold that office), and 1956 (Minister of Word and Sacrament)

An alternative translation of “ordain” in 1 Timothy 5:22 is “lay hands on” — that is, in effect, “give spiritual and ecclesial power to.” In the end, it is power that is at stake in the question of ordination: who may or may not, shall or shall not, be trusted with the exercise of power. Only recently has our tradition begun to answer that question with women’s names.

Read More . . .

On Louisa Mariah Layman Woosley (1862-1952)

Presbyterian Outlook, “Women Ministers (1955-1966) and Margaret Towner”

An AAR interview with Katie Geneva Cannon

Presbyterian Outlook on the Wind and Flame conference

Women on Women 1700-1900

A few good books on the subject . . .

A dozen titles related to women making church history as Quakers, Methodists, evangelists, preachers, and reformers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries

Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz, eds., Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives: Documents in Early American History (1998)

Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (1998)

Vicki Tolar Burton, Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe (2008)

Phyllis Mack Crew, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (2008)

Wendy J. Deichmann Edwards, Carolyn De Swarte Gifford (eds.), Gender and the Social Gospel (2003)

Eileen Razzari Elrod, Piety and Dissent: Race, Gender, and Biblical Rhetoric in Early American Autobiography (2008)

Chanta M. Haywood, Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913 (2003)

Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775 (New York: Knopf, 1999)

Sue Morgan, Women, Religion, and Feminism in Britain, 1750-1900 (2002)

Teresa Anne Murphy, Ten Hours’ Labor: Religion, Reform, and Gender in Early New England (1992)

Priscilla Pope-Levison, Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (2004)

Susie Cunningham Stanley, Holy Boldness: Women Preachers’ Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self (2002)


William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (1986)

“. . . to preach release to the captives”

Abolitionist Charlotte Forten Grimké

The movement for abolition in England and the United States was instrumental in motivating women to assume an active role in the shaping of public events. Abolitionist women broke new ground in the areas of public speaking and writing. The urgency and gravity of the cause of abolition outweighed social conventions that restrained women from assuming this public role.

The earliest American woman to participate in the abolition movement — indeed, the first woman to speak publicly as a woman to a mixed audience — was Maria W. Stewart. Her landmark address at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston and her publication in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator occurred in 1831. They were followed by 3 additional public addresses, all subsequently published in Garrison’s paper, and the publication of a set of Meditations. Stewart undertook her public speaking career as a response to a profound conversion experience; her exhortations and public defense of freedom for enslaved Africans and dignity for women were her answer to a divine call. Controversy surrounding her public activities, however, may have encouraged her withdrawal from the public scene in 1832; her activist career, however, continued until her death in 1879.

Stewart was quickly followed by other forceful women around the country, who wrote, spoke, and undertook civil disobedience in the cause of ending the social evil of slavery. These included the free black women who organized the first woman’s anti-slavery society, the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts in 1832. The Society was re-organized in 1834 to include white women; it came to include among its members prominent abolitionists like Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond and Charlotte Forten (later Charlotte Forten Grimké). The list of women who later became active in the movement for women’s suffrage who gained their political skills in the abolition movement is legend. The history of these two causes, for racial and for gender justice, remain deeply intertwined — another lesson of women’s history.

Read More . . .

Biography of Maria W. Stewart and another biography of Stewart with questions for discussion

Online Text of Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart presented to the First Africa Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston, which includes “Reliigon and the Pure Principles of Morality,” “Meditations,” “Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall” and “An Adress Delivered at the African Masonic Hall”

Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, “Maria W. Miller Stewart, ‘Lecture Delivered at Franklin Hall’ (21 September 1832), a thematic, historical-critical analysis of Stewart’s address

Commentary on the African Meeting House, Boston

Margaret Washington, “‘Rachel weeping for Her Children’: Black Women and the Abolition of Slavery”
Discusses Maria W. Stewart in the larger context of African-American women’s leadership in the abolitionist cause.

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Exploring the Lives of Black Women During the 19th Century discusses Maria W. Stewart in the larger context of African-American women’s participation in the movements for abolition and women’s rights

About the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts and Salem, Massachusetts

A biography of Charlotte Forten Grimké

Biography of Sarah Parker Remond, abolitionist, activist, physician

A Method for Empowering Women

Amanda Berry Smith, pioneer of the Wesleyan holiness tradition

19 in a series for Women’s History Month

Women’s history is, to a significant degree, the history of a people endowed with significant gifts seeking opportunities for their exercise. In the 18th and 19th centuries the development and spread of Methodism, in its various manifestations, afforded these opportunities to many women.

A list of the 66 designated leaders of the London Methodist Society – a “society” being the group of Christians of Methodist convictions in a town or city – included 49 women. Wesley implored Elizabeth Fox, a leader in the Oxford Society, to delay a move to another town to avoid leaving her group without its “head.” Wesley was apparently reluctant to issue a blanket sanction of women’s preaching, in part to maintain a distinction between the Methodists and the Quakers who permitted women’s preaching on principle. Nevertheless, he encouraged Sarah Crosby (1729-1804) to continue her leadership of large prayer meetings, which involved public addresses, albeit suggesting that she “keep as far from what is called preaching as you can.” On the strength of this encouragement, she travelled widely in England and Scotland for 20 years, calling men as well as women to a revival of Christian faith. Wesley more explicitly approved the preaching of Mary Bosanquet (1739-1815), on the grounds of her “extraordinary call.” Bosanquet also carried on a long-standing compassionate ministry as the director of a house in Leytonstone that was part school, part orphanage, part hospital, and part sanctuary for the destitute, which she administered for some 30 years.

In North America, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) became the “mother of American Methodism” by exhorting the preacher Philip Embury to do his duty by their immigrant group, and by taking an active part in organizing the first Methodist society in New York. When political events drove the Hecks to Canada, Barbara Heck became the founder of the first Methodist group in that territory as well.

The need for evangelism in the New World afforded further opportunities for women to make use of their considerable gifts. Jarena Lee (1783-1849), recognized as the first woman to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, pursued her clear call to preach the gospel as an itinerant, after convincing Bishop Richard Allen with a demonstration of her ability. She travelled extensively in the Eastern and Midwestern US beginning in 1819, and while she encountered hostility and obstacles, she also attracted wide audiences of men as well as women, white as well as black. Julia A.J. Foote’s (1823-1900) call to evangelical preaching ministry did not enjoy the same authorization from her denomination; the consequence was that she embarked on an independent preaching career, which led her through upstate New York, across the Alleghenies into Ohio and Michigan, and the holiness revivals in the Midwest in the 1870s. Ultimately she became the first woman ordained a deacon and the second woman to hold the office of elder in the A.M.E. Zion church. Both Lee and Foote authored autobiographies, contributing to the distinctive genre of spiritual autobiography in American letters.

The holiness movement that developed out of Methodism likewise owed much to its early women preachers, and became a door to religious activity as evangelists for many others. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) is recognized as one of the founders of the Holiness movement. In 1840 she organized and hosted “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” in her home in New York, which included both clergy and laypeople, men as well as women. This activity first led to her own experience of sanctification, and later to a traveling ministry, along with the publication of a text, The Way of Holiness, that lay the theological foundation for the holiness movement. Her insistence that public witness was indispensable to retaining holiness, which characterized the movement as a whole, provided an incentive for increasing women’s public speaking within the movement. Palmer’s younger contemporary Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915) recorded having attended Palmer’s Tuesday meetings in her autobiography, and receiving a call to preach in 1869. Smith traveled and preached extensively at camp meetings and revivals across four continents, serving as a missionary in India and later Liberia, as well as in the British Isles and North America; she also augmented her preaching ministry by founding an orphanage and school for African-American children in Harvey, Illinois in 1899. Smith’s preaching fueled the holiness revival begun by Palmer.

The opening for women’s leadership and the expression of women’s faith and gifts that Methodism provided arose from a theology that acknowledged the significance of personal experience as one avenue to knowledge of God’s will. By crediting experience, discernment, and a perception of the movement of the Holy Spirit in immediate circumstances, it became possible to weigh this evidence in balance with isolated texts of Scripture that seemed to prohibit women’s preaching or authoritative participation in church life, to come to new conclusions, and to challenge scholastic objections. These women’s practice then further generated persuasive experience of women’s callings in their listeners.

These Method-ical pioneers created the precedents that paved the way for the much later, more general acceptance of women’s ordination in mainline Protestantism.

Read More . . .

Jenny Lloyd, “Revivalist Women Preachers in 1860s Britain”

Janie S. Noble, A Calling to Fulfill: Women in 19th Century American Methodism”, a paper for the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, August 2007
A bit more of a paper on Wesley’s legacy, with notes on women’s preaching from Wesley

Click to access microsoftwordthelegacyofjohnwesley2.pdf

Victor Shepherd, “Women Preachers in Early-Day Methodism”

on Jarena Lee

online text of Julia A.J. Foote’s A Brand Plucked from the Fire

online text of Jarena Lee’s Religious experience and journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, giving an account of her call to preach the gospel, revised and corrected from the original manuscript written by herself (1836)

online text of Phoebe Palmer’s The Way of Holiness

A Fire at the End of the Day

'The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.' Labor activist Rose Schneiderman

At the end of the day, injustice is a matter of life and death. That fundamental lesson is also one of the lessons of women’s history. And there may be no better day than today to remember it.

Today, March 25, is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (the “Triangle Fire”). The fire, which claimed 146 victims in 30 minutes, traumatized the conscience of the nation. It was a moment of profound intersections, in which the history of prominent individuals and “ordinary” women and men, of the labor movement and the women’s movement, and of diverse ethnic, religious, and class traditions, converged. And it was a moment that demonstrated, dramatically and tragically, the consequences of unrestrained privilege and power.

The New York textile industry had only recently weathered a lengthy strike that had brought some relief to the garment workers, in the form of contracts that focused on working conditions, and that stipulated fire safety measures, emergency preparedness standards, and the like. The strike had been galvanized by the testimony of a young Russian immigrant, Clara Lemlich. Her decision to speak in the union meeting on November 22, 1909, had turned the tide, and raised the voice of the rank and file women who worked the sewing machines and other low-wage jobs in the industry, a constituency neglected by male union organizers. Rose Schneiderman was another key organizer. The industry-wide strike that followed involved 20,000 – 40,000 workers, and concluded in February, 1910, with collective bargaining agreements between the Women’s Trade Union League and most of the New York employers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, however, had held out. Unconstrained by labor agreements, the owners were at liberty to have fire hoses unconnected to any water supply, and doors locked to keep their workers at their posts, in the three crowded floors of the Asch Building occupied by the factory. When fire broke out near the end of the day on the 8th floor, and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors, the workers — mostly young immigrant women from Southern and Central Europe, many of them Jewish — were trapped. Some died trying to use a fire escape that ended in mid-air over a skylight, and that collapsed under the weight of those trying to use it, plunging them to their deaths. Others died by jumping from the 9th floor windows to escape the flames. Others perished in the blaze. Fire Department assistance was to no avail: their ladders reached only to the 6th floor, their nets were not strong enough to catch the victims who jumped from the top floors.

Shocked witnesses on the street looked on helplessly as the event unfolded — among them Frances Perkins. Perkins would later serve as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becoming the first woman to hold a presidential cabinet post in the US. She would bring to her position an understanding of the significance of labor relations touched by her experience on March 25, 1911, and of the perspective of labor gained in part from hearing Rose Schneiderman’s address to those gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2 to respond to the issues raised by the fire.

100 years later, the arrangements that led to the Triangle Fire and its tragic outcome are not things of the past. Sweatshop labor is a contemporary phenomenon. Government and management challenge collective bargaining in industry after industry. One of the harsh lessons of the Triangle Fire — that costly protections for the poor and powerless do not come from the goodness of the hearts of the powerful, but are put into place when society at large insists yet more powerfully, through the vehicle of its laws– has yet to be learned as fully as necessary. This is why, in New York, the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State commemorates the anniversary of the Triangle Fire with an annual 40-hour fast, calling participants to remembrance and renewed commitment.

At the end of the day, justice is a matter of life and death.

Readers of the Bible know what they are urged to choose.

Read More . . .

Cornell University’s ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations) School maintains a website devoted to the Triangle Fire, which includes full accounts from primary and secondary sources, and the recently updated, most accurate list of the victims.

The New York Times has devoted a special series of articles to the centenary of the tragedy, including profiles of prominent figures somehow affected by the fire — including Perkins, Rose Schneiderman, and Anne Morgan, and a discussion of the recent identification of hitherto unidentified victims of the fire.

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