Rights of Women
The notion that ‘God in every man’ applies equally to women stems from the earliest days of Quakerism.
As early as 1646, George Fox wrote in his journal: “I came upon a sort of people who held that women have no souls, adding in a light manner, ‘no more than a goose.’ But I reproved them, and told them that was not right; for Mary said, ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord.’”
Not long after, he challenged a priest who would not permit a woman to speak in a church. “For the woman asking a question, he ought to have answered it, having given liberty for any to speak.”
One of the first to be ‘convinced of the truth’ by George Fox was Elizabeth Hooton (1600-1672). Having met Fox in 1647, she “felt herself moved publicly to preach the way of salvation to others.” Having travelled all over Britain and New England preaching, meeting often with a hostile reception. In 1671, she joined a Quaker mission to the West Indies and died in Jamaica in 1672.
Of the ‘valiant sixty’ – the group of farmers and tradesmen who became Quakers’ first itinerant preachers – eleven were women. They included the remarkable Mary Fisher (c1623 – 1698) who travelled to the Ottoman Empire in 1658 and obtained audience with Sultan Mehmed IV. “They are more near Truth than many nations,” she wrote on her return.
Fox’s wife, Margaret Fell, wrote the pamphlet, ‘Women’s Speaking Justified’, a scripture-based argument for women’s ministry. Fox instituted separate Women’s Meetings for Business to oversee such matters as poor relief, and even gave them priority over the Men’s Meeting in approving marriages.
Quakers actively promoted the education of girls as well as boys. As early as 1668, George Fox set up Shacklewell School “to instruct young lasses and maidens in whatsoever was civil and useful.” In Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr was founded in 1833 as a liberal arts college for Quaker women. Quakers were also among the first to encourage women into medicine, founding the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850. In the first year, eight women, five of them Quaker, enrolled for the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Those students included Ann Preston (1813-1872) who later became the first woman dean of the college and campaigned to have female students admitted to clinical lectures at Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Hospitals.
In 1848 Lucretia Mott, a Quaker prominent in the abolition movement, was one of a small group of women, almost all Quakers, who organised the First Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York – often seen as the birthplace of the modern Women’s Movement. One hundred men and women signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which included a resolution that it was the duty of women to secure the right to vote.
In Britain, the role of Quaker women in the Women’s Suffrage movement is less well known but nonetheless significant. Priscilla Wakefield published her book on feminist economics, Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex in 1798, just six years after Mary Wollstoncraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Anne Knight, an elderly Quaker, published the first leaflet that advocated votes for women in 1847. In the 1870s, Ann Maria Priestman and her sister Mary were first suffragists to use the method of non-payment of taxes as a means of protest. They also saw beyond the question of women’s suffrage and campaigned against the exclusion of women workers from skilled trades.
In 1876, Helen Bright Clark (1840–1927) gave a speech in favour of a Bill to remove voting disabilities for women, in opposition to her own father (a liberal MP). Her daughter, Alice Clark (1874–1934) founded the Friends League for Women’s Suffrage in 1912.
Quaker missionaries in Kenya in the early 20th century were among the first to intervene to prevent the practice of female genital mutilation, and Quakers in Africa continue to raise awareness of its harmful effects.
Today, Quakers support women’s groups in the developing world. Change Agents for Peace International works in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, and the South East Asia Peace Alliance works in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In 2010, QUNO was instrumental in getting the UN General Assembly to approve new standards for the treatment of women prisoners, known as the “Bangkok Rules”.