New Critical Studies on Early Quaker Women


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Michele Lise Tarter, Catie Gill
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


New Critical Studies on Early Quaker Women, edited by Michele Lisa Tarter and Catie Gill, represents the beginnings of what may well lay the groundwork for an exhaustive and modern exploration of women and their role within the early Religious Society of Friends. Its twelve scholarly essays by as many authors—all but one of them women—offers readers a chance to glimpse a wide array of historic figures who were important in early Quaker history on both sides of the Atlantic. They range from Margaret Askew Fell Fox, whose career overlapped with that of her second husband George Fox in its influence among Friends, to now almost forgotten women such as Priscilla Wakefield, who in the 18th century devoted her life to educating girls.

Most of the essays follow mostly traditional patterns in their examinations of their subjects; in others, the authors take a more anachronistic approach and provocatively impose modern conceptions of a feminist nature on their subjects. Judging by their “Introduction” and contributions, the editors, both literary scholars, embrace the latter and offer, for this reviewer anyway, the less compelling view. In this fashion the collection feels a bit disjointed, for not enough sources exist for longer studies of most of the women covered, so short essays have to suffice.

There is an aura about the essays that hints at more than a little selectivity about the women chosen for the volume.  This work, without mentioning it specifically, continues a discussion of the role of women within Quakerism that has been going on almost since the sect’s birth pangs.  First Friend George Fox, was, to use a modern word, a strong feminist who laid out the principle that God’s spirit could speak to everyone including women.  He then went on to articulate the practical and theological rationale for setting up women’s meetings that were equivalent to the men’s.  When he included among the powers of these meetings the authority to first approve marriages, he set off a dispute that shook the movement to its very foundations in the 1670s and later.  With the exception of Margaret Fox, who was next behind her husband in influence, the other women selected as subjects for these essays were all relatively unknown. But in the hands of the editors and essayists, they should not be overlooked.

The broad outlines of the editors’ direction appears in essay number four by editor Michele Lise Tarter; she sets forth its parameters for the approach that she and Catie Gill seek. Using what she calls “poststructuralist feminist theory” (70), Tarter posits that by the end of the 17th century Quaker men censored or prohibited women’s publications in a way that suppressed the connection that she claims Quaker female writers saw between their physical bodies and the theologies they preached. She deems these Quaker women to be the group’s “Spiritual Mothers,” a phrase encased in quotation marks when first used but retaining only its capitalization when it appears later. She labels Margaret Fox a “Nursing Mother” (71), even though she was never described that way when she lived.  And George Fox was never referred to as “Father” (72) among a people who believed they had been called out of the 16 centuries of apostasy that proceeded them and certainly did not aid those who charged they were Jesuits in disguise. Subsequent accounts, written often by males, continued to ignore what the “Mothers” had to say. These essays are to restore them to what Tarter regards as their rightful place.

Or perhaps create a place for them.  In the very first essay Hilary Hinds, professor of Literary Culture at Lancaster University, proposes that a practically unknown Sarah Jones sketched out a theology that predated any actual Quaker publication by at least two years.  However interesting, it is a case that simply cannot be proved.  And for almost 50 years, from 1758 to 1807, Elizabeth Drinker of Philadelphia kept a diary of inestimable use for later historians and any seeking insights into that time, yet beyond these invaluable chronicles in three dozen notebooks, she was of little import except to her family and Friends.  But our essayist, Desirée Henderson of the English Department at the University of Texas Arlington, does a good job of highlighting its merit on literary grounds.

Let it be emphasized that the essayists do achieve the goal of locating their places so nicely that they do not even have to acknowledge Tarter’s “poststructuralist feminist theory”; they are content to emphasize the promptings of divine love and truth in their subjects’ hearts and do so by following, in their historical writing, the Quaker testimony of “plain speaking.” They show that Quaker women, with men, were notorious for their tactics in carrying the word across the world, to the Low Countries in Europe, Rome, the islands in the Caribbean, the English colonies in North America, even to Muslim Turkey. They published, preached, and prophesized everywhere they landed.  Some were revolutionaries, true enough, but others, like Margaret Fox and the influential Mary Penington—overlooked by the essayists—knew when to temporize and how to cooperate with the leadership of George Fox so that women could remain legitimate carriers of the Quaker message.  The early Quaker movement is simply more complex and nuanced than “poststructural feminist theory” would allow.

This collection offers an array of examples to scholars and others who might find them interesting and provocative. Yet to concentrating on theories, as George and Margaret Fox might have said, is to dwell on mere notions, pure and simple; the truth lies deeper in the center, where the Light shines.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Larry Ingle is retired from the History Department of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
January 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michele Lise Tarter is Professor of English at The College of New Jersey. She has published and presented extensively on early Quaker women's writing, Quaker pedagogy, and on Quaker texts and the expansion of the American literary canon. Her publications include Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America (co-edited with Richard Bell; University of Georgia Press, 2012).

Catie Gill is Lecturer in Early Modern Writing at Loughborough University with research interests in gender and religion. Her publications include Women in the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Community (Ashgate, 2005) and the edited collection Theatre and Culture (Ashgate, 2010).


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