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Mothers of Feminism: THE STORY OF QUAKER WOMEN IN AMERICA by Margaret Hope Bacon (Harper & Row: $16.95; 273 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Patricia W. Levering | Most recently an administrator with Friends United Meeting, headquartered in Richmond, Ind . , Levering is a free-lance writer and consultant among Friends. and

With the controversy in the Christian community still raging over the ordination of women, we are very much aware of the role of the church in suppressing the rights of women. In looking at the history of women in the Society of Friends, Margaret Hope Bacon presents the opposite picture. With numerous examples from the early history of Friends to the present, she shows how Quaker faith and practices actively fostered equality between women and men and developed the leadership abilities of women that in time Quaker women pioneered in the Women's Rights Movement.

George Fox, known as the founder of Quakerism, believed, according to Bacon, that salvation through Christ restored men and women to the paradise condition of Adam and Eve in which they were "helpmeet" or equal to one another. In Christ, women were equal and had an equal right to speak, Fox argued, and cited as evidence examples of women commended by Paul as co-workers in the church.

These beliefs opened the way for women to be as active in ministry as men. The radicalness of Friends' practice is documented in the stories Bacon tells of married women ministers with young children, who were approved by their local meetings to travel in the ministry, often for lengthy periods and to faraway places.

But Quaker women did not have to be ministers or travel to gain important leadership experience. Beginning in 1670 and continuing until the late 19th Century, women had their own business meetings. Although it was a separate-but-not-equal institution, the women's meeting did put women in charge of the welfare of women and children, thus giving them an opportunity to pay attention to their own needs. The women led themselves, made presentations in the men's business meetings, kept records and sometimes handled fund raising and other financial matters.

The skills and independence developed in these meetings transferred easily as Friends became involved in such reform movements as abolitionism, prison reform, temperance and women's rights. Bacon makes her case that Quakers were the mothers of feminism when she elaborates the contributions of women such as Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelley Foster, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul--Quaker women whose names and accomplishments should be familiar to all Americans. Bacon makes it clear that the wider, conservative, anti-feminist cultural milieu of which Friends were a part had its effect on the Friends and that the Society as a whole was often unsupportive or worse of many of its women reformers. Yet Friends' practices and values--from nonviolence to consensus decision-making--permeated the reform movements.

Quakerism from its beginning until the early 20th Century created a remarkable number of strong women able to lead the way in ministry, education, the professions and reform. The disproportionate prominence no longer exists. Margaret Hope Bacon, whose expertise in Quaker history and experience as a Quaker woman has given us a fascinating account of these leaders, argues that the decline in Quaker leadership can be attributed to the rise of social concern among women in other groups. It may also have occurred because Friends women have lost touch with the roots of their faith and the vitality of their history. This book can correct that loss. It also can remind readers of the positive impact on women's rights of a religious tradition--Christianity--that some contemporary feminists are so ready to dismiss as hopeless.

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