Monday, April 22, 2013

The paradox of motherhood in seventeenth-century England: The interesting Quaker example

by Susanna Calkins

In early modern England, the idea prevailed that a disciplined family was at the heart of the social order. This notion forms much of the backdrop of my debut novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, a historical mystery set in seventeenth-century London.

In the most simplistic sense, wives were expected to obey their husbands, servants their masters, and children their parents. In return for this obedience and fidelity, the head of the household, more a benevolent patriarch than a tyrant, was expected to perform his duties as husband, father, or master properly and to maintain the family livelihood.

Women, idealized as "chaste, silent, and obedient," were expected to maintain their homes in a godly manner and to oversee the spiritual and physical nourishment of their husbands and children. Such ideas were derived from scripture, disseminated in household manuals, and affirmed in children's catechisms. Children were viewed as the reward of God, and husbands and wives were expected to follow the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply.

Within this context, there was a highly prescriptive understanding of what it meant to be a “good” mother, found in sermons, advice manuals and other similar directives. Even before giving birth, the good mother was expected to “take tender care of herself,” which included among other things, praying, consulting with almanacs (to assure an auspicious birth) and avoiding vigorous activities like dancing. After birth, mothers were expected to breastfeed their infants and otherwise stay close to them.

As William Gouge heartily admonished: "Be not so unnatural as to thrust away your own children" (Gouge, 1622, pp. 18-19)—which may well have been a warning to upper class women who sent their babies off with wet nurses.

Nor did injunctions for "good" motherhood seem to change for mothers of older children. Richard Baxter, a non-conformist, admonished parents to raise their children on a "temperate and healthful diet," and to keep them busy in order to avoid idleness of mind and body (Baxter, 1624, p. 5). Mothers were to be diligent, keeping their children from pursuing vices ("gaming for money, from cards, dice and stage plays, play books and love books and foolish wanton tales and ballads") or untoward familiarity with tempting persons of another sex" (Baxter, 1624, p. 5)

While, of course, women may not have achieved this ideal (or even wanted to, for that matter), the expectations for good motherhood were at least generally clear. What’s interesting, however, is that there was a newly emerging understanding of motherhood arising in the writings of Quaker women during the 1650s-1680s, indicating a renegotiation of the ideal mother.

On the one hand, Quaker mothers, like all mothers, were expected to teach their children the proper ideas about God, the right way to behave, the right way to carry themselves with each other and in society. William Penn advised parents to love their children wisely, to explain "the folly of their faults," and to use the rod sparingly and judiciously. The virtues extolled in this literature implicitly assumed that a good mother was physically present, corrective, and watchful of her child.

However, on the other hand, Quaker women as a group did not adhere to this ideal in practice.

First, Quaker mothers were not purified ritualistically after childbirth, nor did they have their babies baptized, two expectations of good motherhood held by the Anglican Church. Second, Quaker mothers often ignored the expectations for good motherhood established by the medical community. After all, there are examples of Quaker women—either pregnant or new mothers--withstanding long bouts in prisons, traveling long distances by foot or horseback, and even crossing the Atlantic.

Third, many wives and husbands stayed apart from one another in a deliberate attempt to minimize pregnancy, as the presence of young children impeded women's abilities to carry out their mission for God (Trevitt 2000).

Moreover, Quaker women who left their children to follow the will of God were clearly uneasy or anxious over their actions. For example, in 1670, Elizabeth Stirredge was allegedly stunned when God called her to leave her children:

“…I did not think that the Lord would make of such a contemptible Instrument as I, to leave my habitation, and tender children…to go to King Charles which was an Hundred miles from my habitation, and with such a plain testimony as the Lord did require of me, which made me go bowed down many months….(1810, p. 37)”

Quaker mothers seem to have navigated this tension by ultimately creating a new ideal of motherhood. Although they were separated from their children, many sought to become spiritual mothers of the community. Such "Mothers in Israel” offered solace, comfort, religious training and physical and spiritual nourishment to fellow Friends.

In such ways, the Quaker women offered a fascinating reinvention of what it meant to be a “good” mother; transcending expectations imposed on women, while still pursuing what mattered most to them.

Baxter, R. (1624). The Poor Man's Family Book. London.
Gouge, W. (1622). Of Domesticall Duties. London.
Penn, W. (1771). Advice to Children. In J. Fothergill (Ed.), Select Works of William Penn, London.
Stirredge, E. (1810). Strength in Weakness Manifest: In the Life, Various Trials, an Christian Testimony of that Faithful and Servant of the Lord (2nd ed.). London.
Trevett, C. (2000). Quaker Women Prophets in England and Wales 1650-1700. Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press.

A longer version of this piece appeared in Calkins, S. (2005). Forsaking their children: Distance, community, and unbecoming Quaker mothers, 1650-1700. In Diana L. Gustafson (Ed.), Unbecoming Mothers: Women Living Apart From Their Children. New York: Haworth Press.


  1. Excellent article, Susanna. My WIP is a biographical novel on William and Mary Barrett Dyer, she being famous for her civil disobedience and resulting execution in 1660. Many people have asked how Mary could leave her six children (aged 1.5 to 17), to return to England for almost 5 years. (Partly, there was the First Anglo-Dutch War that kept her in England until hostilities ceased.) And again in New England, she would intentionally provoke arrest and prison terms, and finally her death, when she had a family at home. Even her husband didn't understand her religious calling. She spent time with other Quakers, men and women, who had left their young children and followed God's call, unto death if necessary. My belief is that she irrevocably offered up her love of family as a sacrifice. She could have gone home to family and safety, but chose instead to spend her last months with Quakers on Long Island. Based on testimonies I've read of other Quakers, she probably saw herself as a true disciple of Christ, who had "left father and mother" and everyone dear, to take up her cross and follow him, and that God would be a better parent to her children.

  2. Thank you Christy! Actually I'm fascinated by Mary Dyer too. In particular, the statue of her on Boston Common really reflects a transformation--a beatification of sorts--if you note her calm peaceful expression and the way she sits serenely. There is nothing in there that suggests her radical past.


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