Sunday, December 13, 2020

Quaker Women in the Seventeenth Century

 By Maren Halvorsen

The image of the Quakeress, from the 18th century on, is the very picture of decorum: a woman dressed in gray, solemn, even dour, her head covered, her eyes lowered. Quakers in general were seen, and are understood even now to be, plain and quiet. Even the Quaker women of the 19th century, active in their opposition to slavery and advocates of their own liberation, displayed a public image of rectitude and sobriety. The modern weekly Meeting can often be a peaceful place of utter silence, as the participants, men and women, wait for God’s Light to speak through them.  

But when we take a close look at the first generation of Quakers, those who followed the Quaker leader George Fox (1624-1691) as the movement swept like fire through the North of England and beyond, we are confronted with a very different picture. At the heart of the theology of the Society of Friends was, and is, their belief in the spiritual equality of all, and this belief trumped everything else. They refused to use honorifics, refused to doff their hats to their “betters,” and insisted on the primacy of faith over the concerns of this world. They adhered so closely to a literal interpretation of Scripture that they refused to take oaths,and insisted that “the sprinkling” (baptism) did no good. Some early Quakers took to heart Fox’s exhortation to “run naked for a sign,” stripping off their clothes and running naked through towns as a way of protesting worldly wealth. Their refusal to take oaths, combined with their disregard for earthly governments, made them suspect to the authorities, and for most of the 17th century they were subject to arrest and imprisonment.  

Fox by Lely

A key aspect of the egalitarianism of the Society of Friends was the inclusion of women as central figures in the spread of the movement. The most famous of these early converts was Margaret Fell (1614-1702).  Married to a barrister, prominent and wealthy, Margaret Fell met Quaker founder George Fox in 1652 and became an early member of his movement. She was sufficiently active as a proselytizer to be arrested more than once, her imprisonment lasting years as she continued to write pamphlets and letters to encourage her fellow Friends and win over new believers. After the death of her husband Judge Fell, Margaret married George Fox in 1669. Her subsequent canonization as the “Mother” of the faith lends her a propriety and formality that is at odds with her vibrant, fiercely iconoclastic defense of the movement. In fact, even her marriage to Fox was unconventional; they spent most of their married life either in jail or separate, as Fox continued to preach all over the British Isles until his death in 1691. It is worth noting that Fell was very much opposed to the plain “uniform” that was beginning to be adopted by the Quakers and instead celebrated her own fashion sense at every opportunity.  

Margaret Fell

In 1666 Fell wrote an essay answering St Paul’s injunction against women speaking in church. Women's Speaking Justified cites the numerous examples of powerful women in the Bible, from Judith and Sarah of the Old Testament to Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb in the New. A century ahead of such early feminists as Mary Wollstonecraft, Fell demanded that women’s voices not only be heard but that they be central to the Quaker movement. By highlighting the discovery of the empty Tomb, one of the most significant moments in the development of the Christian faith, along with Mary Magdalene’s role, Fell is insisting upon the value and power of women’s speech. Parsing the language of Scripture, she argued that while women should seek the advice of their husbands before speaking in church, they themselves were the final arbiters of their decision to speak. 

While Margaret Fell was perhaps the most prominent, there were several other first-generation Quaker women who were viewed as leaders during that time of persecution and prophecy, both in England and the Colonies, including Elizabeth Hooton (1600-1672), Mary Fisher (c. 1623-1698), and Mary Penington (1623-1682). It’s easy to imagine the exhilaration and sense of possibility that these early Quaker women felt, being part of a new movement that at its very core rejected many of the societal values they had been raised to accept.  The days of the week were renamed, and the religious holy days that marked even the Protestant calendar were gone. Mary Penington, in her brief memoir written for her children, talks of a youth and young adulthood of spiritual seeking, resisting the religion of her family, and eventually finding her way to the Friends after her second marriage. There is a powerful sense of agency in her narrative, refusing to attend the church of her guardians, composing her own prayers, and eventually, as a young widow, refusing to have her own daughter baptized. During her second marriage, to Isaac Penington the Younger (1616-1679), she devoted much of her time to the design and reconstruction of their home near Chalfont St. Peter while Isaac was continually hauled off to jail for his religious writings and for his refusal to show proper deference to a local nobleman. Her daughter by her first marriage later married William Penn.  

Margaret Fell and Mary Penington exemplify the radical nature of that first generation of Quakerism, as it spread throughout the British Isles in the 17th century. Its appeal, for many, lay in its rejection of the rigid hierarchy of power, both spiritual and material, which the Quakers saw as oppressive and false. Unlike Fell and Penington, most new converts to the Friends tended to be from the lower or middling classes. They found in its message a powerful critique of the established order. For women too, there was a clear hierarchy that many chafed against. The Society of Friends was the pathway to making their voices heard.  

To some extent this seizure of power was short-lived: the Women’s Meeting, originally a feature of Quakerism fought hard for by women such as Penington, and seen initially as a symbol of women’s power within the movement, quickly became more of a women’s auxiliary, focused mostly on “women’s issues” having to do with children, family, and service. Indeed, the writings of Mary Penington likely only survived because of the fame of her husband and her son-in-law (see Norman Penney’s introduction to her memoir in Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington, Friends Historical Society, 1992). On the other hand, the potential was there, and we see a “second wave” of Quaker feminist activism especially in the United States, mostly linked to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and the Grimke sisters (Sarah, 1792-1873, and Angelina, 1805-1879) went well beyond finding their place within the faith to making real change in the world around them.


Maren Halvorsen is a novelist whose most recent manuscript, The Bailiff’s Wife, was a Finalist in the category of historical fiction at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual literary competition.  Earning her Ph.D. in History at the University of Washington in 2002, she is a specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.  She currently lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. 


  1. Another wonderful post! Both this and your previous essay (including the handy links) led me to learn more about the people and events mentioned. Fascinating. Thank you!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.