Zealots not harlots

How Quaker dissenters became England’s first feminists
A Quakers’ Meeting” by Egbert van Heemskerck, second half of the 17th century

We tend not to associate devout religiosity with women’s liberation – in fact, it’s usually the opposite. Spiritual absolutism for women usually conjures up restraint, suppression and denial of the full expression of mind, body and spirit. Yet, two hundred years before the advent of the Suffragette movement, England saw the first flickers of feminism, thanks to an emerging Protestant sect: the Quakers.

We have many day-to-day reasons to be indebted to the famously discreet Quakers, one of which is bringing us the chocolate bar as we know it. To this, we can add such diverse benefits as our regional banking system, Clarks shoes and ideas of form and function. In the eighteenth century, they were innovators of the Industrial Revolution, the inventors of Sheffield steel and the instigators and drivers of Abolition. But to middle England in the seventeenth century, this new religious movement presented something deeper: the possibility of spiritual autonomy for those who otherwise possessed no power or money and little material comfort. Everyone, according to the Quaker founder, George Fox, deserved love and respect as a fellow human before God.

One young woman who was determined to carry Fox’s message across the country was a Pontefract-born housemaid, Mary Fisher. An indentured servant with a family in Selby, Yorkshire, she was inspired by the charismatic 27-year-old Fox when he came to preach at their home, as was the entire household; together with her mistress, Fisher took Fox’s message to the Selby streets. Her new belief made her fearless – it was commonplace for Quakers to lose their servants to this new evangelism – as Quakers had to be. They challenged the hierarchy of the priesthood and refused to take oaths or pay tithes to the church, for which they were imprisoned, or worse, shipped to Barbados. Fisher herself was locked up in the prison of York Castle for sixteen months for “speaking to a priest”. She met other incarcerated Quaker men and women there and together they gave each other comfort, told stories of inspiration, and affirmed their core beliefs.

Quakerism was effectively the only cover for a woman to go out into the world as freely as a man

When Fisher was released, no longer illiterate and more dedicated than ever, she joined up with another spinster, the 50-year-old Elizabeth Williams, to take the Quaker message of the “Northern Army” to the Fen country. It was December 1653; as two unmarried women leaving their home town to march unaccompanied through England’s countryside, they must have known they were putting themselves in danger. They hiked through Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and down towards Cambridgeshire; finally reaching the university town of Cambridge, they crossed over the River Cam and arrived at Sidney Sussex College.

The women had ostensibly come to preach, but their actual targets were the students at the priesthood training college. Fisher and Williams stood outside and shouted out their denouncements of the fraudulent scholarship they believed lay within the seminary walls. They were vilifying young men who were in training, as they saw it, to snuff out the spiritual light of the individual by commandeering it for themselves – and they were to be paid for it. At the time it was illegal for women to preach, and amused students gathered around these two women from Yorkshire, asking them teasing questions. Antagonised and defenceless, Fisher and Williams responded that the young men were “Antichrists!” and their college “a cage of unclean birds!”

The students complained to the mayor and the female troublemakers were summoned for his inspection; he asked where they were from and where they had stayed the night before, to which they replied that they were strangers and had lodged at the local inn, so no vagrancy crime could be pinned on them. But when they refused to identify themselves, saying their names “were in the book of Life”, and that they were unmarried because they had “no Husband but Jesus Christ”, the mayor was both irritated and outraged. Declaring them “whores!” he called for a warrant for them to be whipped in the marketplace, “so that their bodies [would be] cut, and slashed, and torn, as never were the bodies of rogues or thieves.” They refused the order to remove their clothes but were forcibly stripped to the waist and tied to the whipping post, the familiar stake of shame that once stood as a warning in all Britain’s market squares. They were flogged, according to a witness, “far more cruelly than is usually done to the worst of Malefactors.” Despite their suffering, they were said to have remained stoic, praising the Lord “without the least Change of Countenance”. Afterwards, they washed the blood from their flayed backs with freezing water from the square’s fountain, re-covered themselves and were escorted out of town. Although the local justices later signed a memorial saying they had no hand in the barbarity, no one came to their aid for fear of “the current of popular prejudice”.

To contemporary minds, Fisher and Williams’s verbal attacks on the students might make us think of the maniacal outbursts of Kathy Bates’ character Annie Wilkes in Misery; yet, here was the bloody beginning of feminism in England, powered by Protestant zealotry. From the outset, Quaker women were abused and imprisoned alongside their male brethren for criticising Anglican law. Standing steadfast beside their husbands, brothers and sons, they were equally at liberty to speak out, to preach, to contribute to discussions on how to live, to write pamphlets and to campaign. To the Quakers, it was clear that equality and education were crucial for both boys and girls and, as it turned out, for an evolving, healthy society.

Two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, the Quakers pioneered girls’ secondary education with The Mount School in York, which aimed to provide teaching “for curious children”. By then, their progressive ideas were slipping into the mainstream, for in five generations they had gone from being seen as extremist oddities on the fringes of society to the backbone of British mercantile success. Their network had been forged in shared pain and persecution, and for self-protection they had applied a strict code of mutual trust, efficiency, frugality, and a horror of indebtedness – a quality Anglicans wanted to emulate. Perhaps, at the root of their ingenuity, was the Quaker community’s hardy mutual support system, which gave them unusual stability and the freedom to think, dream and innovate in an atmosphere of trust and openness.

The campaigner Elizabeth Fry, a Norwich-born Quaker, took her first bold steps towards prison reform during the Christmas of 1816 – although “prison reform” is a rather dry term for what she achieved. With her Mary Poppins-style certainty and brisk approach to order and cleanliness, Fry brought dignity, purpose and hope to women who had been broken by life and then ground into the dirt. She achieved psychological as well as physical change. At Newgate goal, her work transformed filthy, half-naked, perma-drunk wretches, who fought among themselves and provided sexual favours to the gaoler, into clean, properly dressed, self-respecting persons with skills that would give them a living on the outside. She ensured their half-starving children, born into this “hell above ground” were bathed and warmly clothed, and then cleaned up a prison cell and turned it into a mini school. Many believed her results to be “miraculous”, but the miracle was achieved by a combination of earthly factors: attention, respect, tender encouragement, and a sense of purpose, all overseen by her calm, unfailing commitment, something few of the women would have encountered before.

Fry was fortunate that she was already held in high regard as a member of the Gurney banking family based in Norfolk, and her wide circle of influential friends opened doors and arranged meetings with the right people. But it was only through her status as a Quaker minister that she could justify (to herself and to the world) pursuing a career as a welfare tsar in Regency Britain. Fry’s work might have been driven by moral and religious fervour, but she privately admitted her personal motivations: prone to anxiety and depression, had her duties as a wife and mother been her only focus in life, she would “nearly…have sunk under them”, she reflected. Quakerism was effectively the only cover for a woman to go out into the world as freely as a man. Fisher and Williams led the way, being flogged and labelled “whores” for their courage, while Fry succeeded in demonstrating women could change the world for the better, and in the most fundamental way, one person at a time.

Elizabeth Sharkey is an actress and voice-over artist. Her debut book “Why Britain Rocked: How Rock Became Roll and Took Over the World” is also available in audiobook. More info at whybritainrocked.co.uk

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