- Women in the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Community: A Literary Study of Political Identities, 1650-1700
This carefully focused study augments prior scholarship on early modern women writers and on the copiously publishing Society of Friends. Gill examines the strategies of authorship and literary genres employed by Quaker women who appeared in print in the late seventeenth century. Three chapters on accounts of sufferings, petitions, and prophecies are preceded by an introduction to Quakerism in the 1650s and followed by a discussion of post-Restoration Quaker writing. Especially helpful to other scholars will be the extensive bibliography of Quaker publications, with cross-referencing for each contributor to collectively authored texts and notations about signers of petitions. Gill's attention to women printers and to the material conditions of the book trade is also of particular value.
Building on the work of earlier scholars, including her mentor Elaine Hobby, Gill makes the modest "contention" that "women's contributions to both the Quaker movement, and its published writing, were significant" (1). The numbers are impressive: of nearly four thousand Quaker texts published between 1650 and 1699, 220 were solely or mainly authored by women, and one-fifth of all women publishing in seventeenth-century England were Quakers when women authors [End Page 950] overall amounted to only one percent of the total. In addition, over seven thousand women signed petitions against tithes, thus crossing into the public sphere of political action.
Gill agrees with prior sources in seeing the first decade of the Quaker movement as more evangelical, turbulent, and dynamic than the period after the Restoration, when the Society of Friends coalesced into a small but stable minority of Dissenters. During the revolutionary period, Quaker women were exceptionally active as preachers, prophets, missionaries, martyrs, organizers, and activists. Gill celebrates this activity and introduces many little-known figures in addition to the prolific Margaret Fell Fox, whose "Women's Speaking Justified" was preceded by two other Quaker women's tracts defending women's preaching. In women's conversion narratives, Gill especially notes the interdependence of self and community as "mutually contingent, not opposing, elements" (23). But community was still gendered: when repression created martyrs, Quaker accounts highlighted the different sufferings of gendered bodies and privileged men's experiences. Gill teases out these differences, although in official rhetoric: "Quakers suffer together as one, eschewing gender distinctions" (63). Quaker women also published prophecies, in which Gill analyzes the interdependence of their "communitarian focus" (123) with the writer's personal interpretation of "the inwardly experienced word" of God (128). "[R]esonant" with "power and authority," sometimes even "bombastic" in their prose (138), these texts show Quaker women speaking "in the voice of a 'higher' power than their own" (143). However, Gill judges this position problematic in that "[t]he prophetic mode established in Quaker texts de-essentialises the woman writer" by putting her in a position that "conforms to masculine notions of writerly authority" (133).
After the Restoration, the dominant mode of Quaker writing for women narrowed to the deathbed testimonial, often collectively written. Dying wives might instruct their husbands, and Gill therefore finds that "death could be an empowering experience, for women" (154). More frequently women were ancillary figures praising the virtuous lives and pious deaths of their deceased husbands and children. Gill claims such narrative conventions illustrate women's "fractured" identities as authoritative mothers but subordinate wives, and as assertive first-person authors who assigned themselves relatively passive parts in their texts (158). With the formation of separate women's meetings in the period, Quaker women took on more feminized roles distinct from those of Quaker men. For example, they distributed charity, thus becoming, according to Gill, "complicit in processes that resulted in self-enclosure" at the same time that they may have helped to create "a new kind of liberal humanist identity" (166, 165).
Tracing the trajectory of seventeenth-century Quaker women's writing, Gill finds...