Daughters of Light
It was refreshing to read about Quakerism from a feminist, but not religious point of view. For example, I had not understood that London Yearly Meeting was originally composed only of male ministers and representatives of the men’s quarterly meetings. I didn’t realize that women were not allowed to attend the powerful Meeting for Sufferings in London. And that it was very questionable whether they should come to meetings of ministers and elders, but women prevailed in the end.
It was good for me to be reminded of how unusual it was for eighteenth century women to travel away from their homes, to be listened to in public, to be valued as instruments of the Lord, not just as domestic child-bearing resources. It matters a great deal to me that a Quaker can pursue a ministerial “calling” without renouncing marriage or motherhood.
It was inspiring to read about the sacrifices that women made, and their husbands and families so that they could follow the leadings of God. Larson describes some of the ways that families helped each other, caring for each other’s children and other household tasks in the absence of a mother/minister, for a few weeks to a few years. As I prepare to be gone from my household for a few days, traveling in the ministry, it is good to put this in a larger perspective.
I can hardly imagine the drama of Margaret Lewis, a 40 year old mother of nine from a farm in Pennsylvania, sailing away to England and discovering mid-Atlantic that she was pregnant. Lewis nonetheless continued to travel in the ministry through the mountains of Wales for the next six months. After lying-in at Bristol for two months before and after the baby was born, she then left the baby in the care of Friends and continued to travel for another two years before going home, having finally discharged her duty to God.
Being a minister allowed women to transcend ordinary categories of class as well as gender. When Jane Fenn first struggled with her gift for ministry, she was a 24 year old maidservant. However, when her employers hosted traveling ministers or she herself traveled in the ministry, she was expected to sit at the dinner table with the guests, rather than with the servants.
Larson illustrates the ways that Quaker men respected their wives and other women, in the social, political and domestic spheres. And how Quaker women came to be respected in the wider culture as well, although this declined after the American Revolution when Quakers became more inwardly focused.
Larson also points out the impact women ministers had on the renewed attention to discipline in the transatlantic Quaker community in the mid-1700’s. I first read about that time in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta. Marietta mentions the women ministers Mary Peisley and Catherine Payton in comparison to Samuel Fothergill. He describes that the women traveled earlier, farther, longer and promoted the reformation more “pugnaciously” (Marietta, p. 41), but still decides that they were less influential than the men. I have no way to judge the truth of this claim, but reading Larson’s book reminds me that the general invisibility of women in history is not over.
Labels: good books and music
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