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Q U I C K   L I N K S

For a sympathetic overview of “the modern Quakers” who “retain nothing of the Extravagancies charged on their Leaders,” see our illustrated digital edn. of two encyclopedia articles on the more reputable institutionalized Quakerism of the 18th century, as first authored by Ephraim Chambers for his Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), and revised by Dennis de Coetlogon, for his An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1745): Library Catalog No. CYCL1728j and Library Catalog No. COET1745a.

For more discussion of 17th-century perceptions of the dangers of sectarian women’s oratory, see the Editor’s Introduction for Lib. Cat. No. THOB1637.

The politically-conservative Margaret Cavendish, a staunch Anglican, ridiculed the religious rhetoric of sectarian women and the laity in her Sociable Letters (1664): see our digital edn. of 8 letters from the marchioness of Newcastle’s CCXI. Sociable Letters, Lib. Cat. No. MC1664a.

William Cavendish, marquis of Newcastle, also believed that literate women preaching “sedition In church & Com[m]on welth” were “one off the greateste Causes off our Late Miseries” and represented a continuing threat to the state. He proposed that post-Restoration Stuart royal policy prohibit dissenters from teaching any level of school — “frome the Pettye Scooles to the Gramer Scooles” — in order to ensure that all schooling “bee orthodoxe ackordinge to the church off Englande.” Moreover, “Even the females, all Girles must goe to the same pettye Scooles, for iff they bee Infected with a wevers Doctrine att firste theye will Infecte their Husbandes afterwardes therfore no teachinge off Scooles eyther pettye or Gram[m]er Scooles butt such as the Bishops shall alowe off and thinke fitt.” (William Cavendish, Letter to Charles II, a scribal publication written c.1650s)

For a survey of late-17th-century caricatures of Quakers, especially women preachers, see the Gallery Exhibit featuring early paintings and engravings of Quaker meetings — a genre invented by Egbert van Heemskerck the Elder (1645–1704).

For more on what the marchioness (later duchess) of Newcastle called “the female slavery,” along with a detailed discussion of the successful Quaker businesswoman, Tace Sowle Raylton — considered “the leading Quaker printer and bookseller for more than half a century (1691–1749),” whose family firm pioneered a lucrative North American franchise — see the Editor’s Introduction to the digital reissue (2014) of Thomas Tryon’s The Planter’s Speech to his Neighbours & Country-Men of Pennsylvania, East & West-Jersey ... (1684) at the subdomain known as Roses.
  See also that website’s illustrated webessay on sectarian violence in 17th-century New England, describing the bloody persecution of Quaker women missionaries by the theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (situated around the present-day cities of Salem and Boston).

New England was not the only Anglo-American province to turn the power of the state against Quakers and radical sectaries fleeing persecutions in England. Virginia did, too. Click/tap here for the text of a statute “for the suppressing the Quakers” enacted in 1659–60 Virginia, where Quakers had been converting and peopling America since 1656 (the same year they first arrived at Boston).
  This same appendix closes with the story of the indomitable Mary Fisher who, before traveling to Barbados and then Boston in America, was thrice imprisoned in England (at York, at Pontefract, and in Buckinghamshire) for witnessing and preaching, plus publicly whipped at Cambridge for preaching.


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First Published:  21 October 2014
Revised (substantive):  1 July 2021


An introductory note for the In Brief topic which follows:
   Maureen Bell, George Parfitt, and Simon Shepherd include more than 200 early-modern Quaker women writers in their A Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers 1580–1720 (1990), noting “it is likely that we have missed many whose writing is ‘embedded’ in testimonies and collections of Quaker writing.” (Biographical Dictionary, 295n1) They give an overview of their important research into this neglected area in section No. 3 of their Critical Appendix, which I have transcribed in full below.
   Marked as non-conforming religious extremists by their clothing, behavior and extraordinary style of public discourse, Quaker women had a uniquely visible role in the political and religious changes of the 17th century — a time when “the female slavery” was enshrined in law. Despite their “covert” legal status and lack of civil rights, a surprising number of women were politically active.
   “In the early part of the century women participated in political demonstrations — notably in the fen and enclosure riots — and in the 1640s and 1650s that involvement seems to have increased. Petitions and demonstrations organised by women are recorded throughout these two decades, and women were involved in the preparations for war, the building of fortifications and the defence of towns. Women were particularly active as preachers and missionaries, and in the Leveller demonstrations. The prominence of women in the political and religious changes of the mid-century is obvious from their vilification by opponents: women petitioners were mocked as ‘The Meek-hearted Congregation of Oyster-wives, the Civill-Sisterhood of Oranges and Lemmons, and likewise the Mealymouth’d Muttonmongers wives’, and individual women, like Mrs Attaway the tub-preacher, were personally abused and their sexual habits publicly debated. (The responses of misogynists, it will be noted, change little over the centuries.) Such women persisted in claiming their right to speak, using as justification their own reading of scriptures, or voicing their common concern with men in the political development of the country.
   “The view that the Civil War and the rise of the sects heralded new freedoms for women needs some modification, however, given the way in which the freedom of speech and action won by women in the early years was withdrawn once such movements were either suppressed, like the Levellers, or established and institutionalised, like the Quakers. The seizure of class power enacted by the sects did present opportunities for women’s involvement in political and religious action, though the entrance of women into religious action and debate was happening long before the Civil War, as is obvious from the writings of Elizabethan puritan women. The puritan emphasis on individual faith gave validity to women’s own spiritual experiences, and women participated in the new kinds of social organisation developed by congregations which operated collectively, voting to admit members and to elect ministers. Women were thus both ideologically and materially enabled to speak, preach, write, travel and take part in actions. A series of women was both applauded and condemned for ‘unwomanly’ behaviour: the visionaries and prophets Lady Eleanor Davies, Anna Trapnel and Elizabeth Poole; the preachers Mrs Attaway and Katherine Chidley; the Quakers Martha Simmonds and Dorcas Erbury. The proportion of female members of the sects is reckoned to be high; estimates have been made as high as 75 per cent for the gathered churches and 50 per cent among Quakers, and certainly women were prominent among the many Quakers who were assaulted, imprisoned and fined.” (Bell, Parfitt & Shepherd, Biographical Dictionary, 246–7)

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)

[ a In Brief topic ]

Early Quaker Women Writers

Opening quotation markMore than one third of the writers included in this dictionary were Quakers. We have already noted that the policy of Quakers to preserve their own writings may account for the apparently disproportionate numbers of Quaker texts which survive; their survival does not necessarily mean that women of other sects wrote less, but only that their work has disappeared. The very fact that so many Quaker texts have survived, however, gives us an opportunity to investigate the connections between Quakerism and women’s writing and publishing, and these texts raise issues which may be of relevance to sectarian women’s writing more generally. Many extant Quaker pamphlets and books are to be found not in the British Library nor other national academic collections, but in Friends House in London: we owe much to the care and diligence with which Friends have collected their own historical documents, and to their generosity in allowing access to them. Yet, despite their high rate of survival, few Quaker women’s texts are available to the reader in anthologies or reprints. Moira Ferguson, in First Feminists, reprints an extract from Margaret Fell’s Women’s speaking justified ... (a text already available in full as a reprint) and Janet Todd includes only six Quaker women in her A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, one of whom is again Margaret Fell. Todd makes clear the representative function of her selection:

The many Quaker pamphleteers who are omitted, for example, are of great interest to a student of family or piety, but the points they make are repeated by the writers who are included, and the general circumstances (particular ones are usually hidden) are duplicated again and again.

 The sheer effort of each individual woman’s entry into print is thus obscured. But all Quaker pamphlets are not the same, and their interest is hardly limited to ‘a student of family or piety’; the language of family and piety is demonstrably a necessary strategy for the discussion of many other things. Quaker women wrote proclamations, prophetic judgments, autobiography, polemics, doctrinal disputes (with other Quakers, Baptists, Anglicans and other sects), accounts of sufferings, appeals for toleration, addresses to and criticisms of political leaders, epistles, verses, testimonies and memoirs. Far from being centred on ‘family’, these writers often left their husbands and families in order to travel as itinerating ministers and missionaries; far from unproblematically affirming ‘piety’, they interrupted church services, engaged in the theatrical acting out of public ‘signs’, spent long periods in prison, suffered persecution at home and abroad, took sides in inter-Quaker factions, campaigned for religious and political change, and organised systems of social welfare and education. A representation of Quaker women writers as all broadly similar, all concerned with ‘family or piety’, not only misrepresents the texts themselves, but denies the material agency of these very active women.

 Engagement with the real breadth and diversity of Quaker production radically alters our view of those few Quaker women reproduced in our culture as ‘representative’. Fell’s Women’s speaking justified ..., for example, with its concessions to Fox’s fear of unruly women disrupting the post-Restoration Quaker orthodoxy, is very different from the earlier, tougher tracts on women’s right to speak, such as those by Anne Audland and Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole, issued in 1655. Cotton and Cole’s To the priests ..., in particular, is fascinating for its recognition of ‘woman’ as construct; their definition of ‘woman’ as a signifier of spiritual weakness in the Bible allows them, daringly, to assign the term ‘woman’ to their male opponents and to reject it for themselves:

Women must not speak in a Church, whereas it is not spoke onely of a Female, for we are all one both male and female in Christ Jesus, but it’s weakness that is the woman by the Scriptures forbidden, for else thou puttest the Scriptures at a difference in themselves, as still its thy practice out of thy ignorance; for the Scriptures do say, that all the Church may prophesie one by one, and that women were in the Church, as well as men, do thou judge ... Indeed, you yourselves are the women, that are forbidden to speak in the Church, that are become women; for two of your Priests came to speak with us; and when they could not bear sound reproof and wholesome Doctrine, that did concern them, they railed on us with filthy speeches, as no other can they give to us, that deal plainly and singly with them, and so ran from us.

 Both Fox himself in The woman learning in silence ... (1656) and Fell in Women’s speaking justified ... (1666) attempt to limit the freedom of women’s speech claimed by the earlier writers; while upholding the principle they manage to justify exclusions, neatly disqualifying from speaking the women whom Fox found troublesome. Fox calls them those ‘not led by the Spirit of God’, describing them as ‘in the disobedience as Eve was, and so goes into tatlings and goes out of truth as Jesabel did’. (The opposition of truth and tattling, i.e. gossiping, is an interesting one, and recurs in these pamphlets.) Women should speak only ‘in the obedience to the power & spirit which does not bring to usurpe, over the man, as the disobedience doth’. Similarly, Fell excludes ‘the Jezebel, and the Woman, the false Church, the great Whore, and tatling women, and busie-bodies, which are forbidden to Preach, which have a long time spoke and tatled, which are forbidden to speak by the True Church, which Christ is the Head of’ and later restates the exclusion: ‘but the Apostle permits not tatlers, busie-bodies, and such as usurp authority over the Man, would not have Christ Reign, nor speak neither in the Male nor Female’. The common threads here are clear: the use of ‘Jezebel’ (a term applied by Quakers to Elizabeth Calvert when she attended Mary Boreman’s ‘wedding’) and ‘Whore’ (used by early radical Quaker women of those opposed to reform), and the repeated reference to the usurpation of male authority.

 Fox, himself presumably the voice of the ‘True Church’, and Fell were concerned to set limits to women’s speaking in order to win the struggle then going on within Quakerism. The activity of Martha Simmonds, Dorcas Erbury, Hannah Stranger, Judy Crouch and a woman known only as Mildred, all of them supported by James Nayler, was seen by Fox as an attack on his own authority and that of the male activists in London. That it is Margaret Fell’s statement on women’s speaking that has been reprinted and anthologised is ironic: Fox won the argument in part by mobilising Fell and other women against the more radical women, and as Quakerism developed under his dominant leadership it shed as less ‘respectable’ elements the uncomfortably vocal women who had opposed him. The selective anthologising which offers Fell as in some way representative, privileges the conservative and leaves out of account that bolder, radical stance (both politically and linguistically) offered by other writers. The marginalisation of the voices of Audland, Cotton and Cole, Simmonds, the early Travers, Dorothy White and a number of other early activists was effected in the late seventeenth century by ‘respectable’ Foxite Quakers for political as well as religious reasons; it is high time for the texts of these ‘forgotten’ Quaker women to be reread, and for their intervention in the history of women’s speaking and writing to be inspected.

 What was it about Quakerism, of all the Civil War sects, that led so many women to write and to publish their writing? The answer may lie in the conjunction between the early acceptance of women’s activity, ministry and prophecy which characterised several of the sects and the Quakers’ particular readiness to exploit print to further their cause. Printing was an important medium of communication for the Quaker movement from its earliest days in the 1650s. Surviving letters between Friends point to the distribution of pamphlets as an integral part of Quaker meetings, and Northern Friends in particular financed publications by collections and personal donations. Quakers seized any opportunity to address a wide public (nobility, tradespeople, judiciary, professionals, artisans) by speaking at markets, fairs and court hearings, and accompanied their speaking with the free distribution of pamphlets. The many itinerating Quakers carried with them leaflets and pamphlets which they distributed in towns they passed through, and consignments of pamphlets were sent to the regions and accompanied missions abroad. The first recorded appearance of Quakers in London was in the persons of two women who had a paper by Fox printed, which they then dispersed in the streets. Records of arrests and imprisonments demonstrate the frequency with which Quakers were involved in distributing ‘seditious’ literature, and it seems to have been a regular practice for magistrates to search Quakers for any printed material they might be carrying. The coming of a sect whose first converts were mostly female, in a society in which women were associated both with demonstrations and with the distributive branch of the printing trade (as hawkers, street sellers and ballad-singers) may in part account for the central role of women in all these activities.

“ Runyon’s analysis of Quaker writing shows that in the years 1658–63 there was a peak in Quaker output, and that the type of writing published by Quakers changed over time: in the early years most frequent were proclamations and prophecies addressed to non-Quakers, doctrinal disputes and responses to attacks, appeals to government and political leaders, and works designed to accompany missionary work abroad. Later, autobiographical works and an increasing number of memorials, testimonies and collected works were published. At particular times of stress, especially from 1658 to the mid-sixties, records of sufferings and epistles to Quakers became more numerous. Although we have attempted no analysis of women’s writing as detailed as Runyon’s is for all Quaker writing, it seems that the pattern of writing by Quaker women is part of the general pattern he identifies, and the prominence of particular forms of writing at particular times varies among women in much the same way.

“ A common feature of all Quaker writing is that frequently it is a communal act. An extreme (and therefore untypical) example is the women’s tithing petition These several papers was sent to the Parliament the twentieth day of the fifth moneth, 1659 ... which consists of separate petitions, each with its own preamble, sent in from different regions. The separate addresses identify different concerns: the abolition of tithes is the theme which runs throughout, but individual areas make their own demands, for example for the abolition of the universities. The preface is signed by Mary Foster/ Forster, but attribution of the rest of the petition’s demands is impossible, the appended signatories numbering ‘above seven thousand of the names of the hand-maids and daughters of the Lord’. The petition was also published by a woman, Mary Westwood. More usual is collaboration by pairs or local groups of women: To the priests and people of England ... was written by Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole while they were imprisoned together in Exeter. Imprisoned Quakers frequently produced joint pamphlets: a group of prisoners at York castle, including Mary Fisher, Jane Holmes and Elizabeth Hooton, in 1652 worked together on False prophets and false teachers described; Fruits of unrighteousness and injustice ..., whose authors include Winifred Newman, was the product of prisoners at Winchester. A number of other multiple-authored texts may well spring from collaborative writing during imprisonment. Later, when the system of meetings was formally established, epistles from one region to another often bear several names. Pairs of women who travelled together sometimes wrote jointly: Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers wrote collaborative accounts of their imprisonments, sufferings and travels to Malta; Mary Elson and Anne Whitehead, instrumental in the setting up of women’s meetings in London, collaborated similarly; Margaret Newby and Elizabeth Cowart together wrote to Margaret Fell describing their experience of the stocks at Evesham; Bridget Pinder and Elizabeth Hopper in 1676, and Bridget Nichols and Elizabeth Nicholls, Anne Whitehead and Anne Clabin in 1665, produced accounts of events of which they were eyewitnesses.

“ In many of these cases of collaborative writing it is impossible to allocate primary responsibility for the text, though in some the text is divided into separate sections which appear over different sets of initials. The compilers of the British Museum Catalogue, Wing and other indexers have ‘solved’ the problem by entering the works under a male name where one is available. The consequence of cataloguing and indexing conventions, which are geared to single authorship and which require decisions (often badly informed) about ‘main author’, is obvious: women writers tend to disappear, and the extent to which Quaker women in particular engaged in collaborative writing is obscured. We are grateful for Smith’s A Descriptive Catalogue of Friends’ Books ... which is remarkable for its careful treatment of multiple authors, and has enabled us to identify women writers rendered invisible by other major indexes. In general, though, the assumptions of indexers are founded on a critical tradition which centres on the author as individual, and the low status of multiple-authored texts is not confined to women’s writing: witness the editorial gymnastics of scholars attempting to prove the consistency (and therefore single-authorship) of Dr. Faustus, the desire to break down the Beaumont-Fletcher canon, and the neglect of products such as Jonson-Chapman-Marston’s Eastward ho!. Literary criticism finds recalcitrant the very writing which was, in its production, an organisational and social event. Inasmuch as Quaker women’s role in collaborative texts is demoted as part of this screening out of messily multiple­authored texts, their work too is hidden. Yet to arrive at any analysis of the connections between Quakerism and the wider practices of women’s writing, this kind of activity needs to be taken into account.

“ What is particularly exciting about Quaker women writers is that, despite the difficulties of access via standard bibliographical tools, so much material does survive and, with persistence, can be identified. This means that there exists a large body of women’s writing which can be studied not only to develop an understanding of how Quaker women came both to write and to publish, but also to investigate how, over several decades, Quaker women’s writing changes its forms and concerns. It seems clear that Quakerism offered particular opportunities for women to act and to write as part of that action; what also needs to be addressed is the extent to which Quakerism itself dictated or limited the forms of those writings. We know from Runyon’s analysis that by the late 1670s and for the rest of the century one of the most prominent forms of Quaker writing was the memorial volume, and this period too saw the beginnings of the regular issue of volumes of collected works. Women’s writing seems to conform to this development: whereas the first decade of Quakerism saw the publication of women’s prophetic declamations, doctrinal disputes, exhortations, political appeals and records of sufferings, later women’s writing is often hidden as prefaces, testimonies or contributions to the memorial volumes issued to honour the first generation of respected Friends, recently dead. The development of this new genre of writing, still collaborative, but within which women’s writing is much less visible, needs to be considered as part of the wider development of Quakerism from sect to ‘church-type’ religion. One of the results of the institution of hierarchical meetings and tighter organisational structures was the separation of male policy meetings from women’s meetings dealing with fundraising and social welfare. Women who in the 1650s and 1660s had been active as itinerating ministers, interrupting meetings, preaching and prophesying, had by the 1670s become the mainstays of the women’s meetings, concentrating on education, poor relief and prison visiting. Most of the ‘troublesome’ women of the earlier decades had by now either left Quakerism, emigrated to America, or died, and it seems likely that in opposing and eventually seeing off the dissident women, the ‘respectable’ women were able to gain support from more conservative Quakers for the development of their own style of women’s meetings. In investigating women’s writing, we need to examine the interconnection between the changes in women’s social role, from prophet to carer, and the changes in the organisational structure which were beginning to regulate publishing. In the earlier period Quaker publishing, like preaching, had been enthusiastic and ad hoc, unsystematic, locally financed and organised; Fox’s imposition (as critics saw it) of unity and hierarchy eventually led to the establishment of what was in effect a board of censorship. The extent to which women may have been affected by this ‘in house’ censorship is discussed on p. 286 below.

“ The material exists, much of it in the library of Friends House in London, for a close examination of Quaker women and writing in the second half of the seventeenth century. Questions which we can only raise on the basis of our own, limited, reading of some of the texts need exploring further, so that we can begin to see how the specifics of religious, political and social conditions provide opportunities for different kinds of writing by women at different times. What seems to be a cycle of women’s early active involvement in a new movement at its inception, their initial enjoyment of greater opportunities, and their gradual exclusion or containment as the movement becomes formalised or institutionalised, occurs not only in seventeenth-century Quakerism but in religious sects in other periods. Moreover, it is not confined to religious movements, and it has been demonstrated that a similar cycle of free participation followed by exclusion accompanied the rise of history as an academic subject. By attending to the many as yet unanthologised Quaker women writers we can examine such a process in detail, and refuse the separation of political struggle from literature which the elevation of Margaret Fell as ‘representative’ Quaker woman attempts.Closing quotation mark

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SOURCE:  Maureen Bell, George Parfitt, and Simon Shepherd, A Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers 1580–1720. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990. 257–263.

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)


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“set limits to women’s speaking in order to win the struggle then going on within Quakerism” — “It is interesting that while Cotton and Cole’s pamphlet was published by Giles Calvert, brother of Martha Simmonds, the Fox pamphlet was published by Martha’s husband, Thomas, who seems to have distanced himself from the demands and actions of his wife and her women friends.” (M. Bell, G. Parfitt, and S. Shepherd, Biographical Dictionary, 295n5) ::

“Runyon’s analysis of Quaker writing” — I.e., D. Runyon, “Types of Quaker Writings by Year 1650–1699,” in Early Quaker Writings, ed. by H. Barbour and A. Roberts (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1973). ::