Contesting Cultural Norms: Women's Public Speech

The social upheaval produced by the English Civil War and Interregnum (1642–60) prompted women on both sides, royalist and revolutionary, to take on new roles in the absence of their husbands. Many now had full responsibility for their household. Others undertook sometimes dangerous partisan activity, like the royalist Anne Halkett (NAEL 8, 1.1764), who took part in managing the escape from parliamentary custody of the Duke of York, the future King James II. Some ventured upon new kinds of authorship, e.g., Lucy Hutchinson's republican history of the Interregnum, set forth as a memoir of her husband (NAEL 8, 1.1758), and the royalist Margaret Cavendish's science-fiction utopia The Blazing World (NAEL 8, 1.1780). And some were prompted to claim a voice in the affairs of state and church, contesting their exclusion from the public sphere (on the grounds spelled out in The Law's Resolutions of Women's Rights).

One example of such a voice is a women's petition supporting several imprisoned leaders of the Leveller party who had been agitating for a new political compact, an Agreement of the People, to settle the government after the regicide. Whether or not women actually drafted this petition, it is remarkable for its defense of women's share in the freedom of the commonwealth and their right to engage in political agitation. Also, some female prophets appeared among the more extreme religious sects, scandalizing the more conventional by their preaching and testimony; examples are Elizabeth Davies, Mary Cary, and Anna Trapnel. These were individual voices, but a species of regular female ministry appeared among the Quakers, sanctioned by their theology of the Inner Light, which might illuminate any Friend, male or female. The treatise of Margaret Fell defends women speaking in church meetings against the supposed Pauline prohibition of such speech. (1 Corinthians 14.14–15: "let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak. * * * And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.") The same prohibition had been cited by the opponents of the martyred reformer Anne Askew in the previous century.

 

From The Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women

To the Supreme Authority of England, the Commons Assembled in Parliament. The Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamlets and Parts Adjacent. Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of Sept. 11 1648. (May 5, 1649)

* * *

Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighborhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defenses of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, >> note 1 our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children , and families? Are not our husbands, o[u]r selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they? * * * And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affections, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?

Have such men as these continually hazarded their lives, spent their estates and time, lost their liberties, and thought nothing too precious for defense of us, our lives and liberties, been as a guard by day and as a watch by night; and when for this they are in trouble and greatest danger, persecuted and hated even to the death, should we be so basely ungrateful as to neglect them in the day of their affliction? No, far be it from us. Let it be accounted folly, presumption, madness, or whatsoever in us, whilst we have life and breath we will never leave them nor forsake them, nor ever cease to importune you, having yet so much hopes of you as of the unjust judge (mentioned, Luke 18), to obtain justice, if not for justice's sake, yet for importunity, or to use any other means for the enlargement and reparation of those of them that live, and for justice against such as have been the cause of Mr. Lockyer's >> note 2 death.

* * *

And therefore again we entreat you to review our last petition in behalf of our friends above mentioned, and not to slight the things therein contained because they are presented unto you by the weak hand of women, it being a usual thing with God, by weak means to work mighty effects.

 

Margaret Fell, from Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures. All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus

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Let this word of the Lord, which was from the beginning, stop the mouths of all that oppose women's speaking in the power of the Lord; for he has put enmity between the Woman and the Serpent; and * * * those that speak against the Woman and her Seeds speaking, speak out of the enmity of the old Serpent's Seed. * * * Moreover, the Lord is pleased, when he mentions his Church, to call her by the name of Woman * * * and those that speak against the woman's speaking, speak against the Church of Christ.

* * *

Mark this, you that despise and oppose the message of the Lord God that he ends by women, what had become of the redemption of the whole body of mankind, if they had not believed this message that the Lord Jesus sent by these women >> note 3 of and concerning his Resurrection? And if those women had not thus, out of their tenderness and bowels of love * * * if their hearts had not been so united and knit unto him in love, that they could not depart as the men did, but sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the sepulcher until the time of his Resurrection, and so were ready to carry his message, as is manifested, else how should his disciples have known, who were not there?

* * *

And now to the Apostle's words, >> note 4 which is the ground of the great objection against women's speaking. * * * Here the Apostle clearly manifests his intent; for he speaks of women that were under the Law, and in that transgression as Eve was, and such as were to learn, and not to speak publicly.

* * *

And what is all this to women's speaking that have the everlasting Gospel to preach, and upon whom the promise of the Lord is fulfilled, and his Spirit poured upon them according to his word.

* * *

More might be added to this purposed, both out of the Old Testament and the New, where it is evident that God made no difference, but gave his good Spirit, as it pleased him both to man and woman, as Deborah, Hilda, and Sarah.

* * *

And so let this serve to stop that opposing spirit that would limit the power and Spirit of the Lord Jesus, whose Spirit is poured upon all flesh, both sons and daughters, those in his Resurrection; and since that the Lord God in the Creation, when he made man in his own Image, he made them male and female; and since that Christ Jesus, as the Apostle saith, was made of a woman  * * * and when he was upon the earth, he manifested his love, and his will, and his mind, to the Woman of Samaria, and Martha, and Mary her sister, and several others, as has been shown; and after his Resurrection also manifested himself unto them first of all. * * * And thus the Lord Jesus has manifested himself and his power, without respect of persons, and so let all mouths be stopped that would limit him, whose power and Spirit is infinite, that is pouring it upon all flesh.

And thus much in answer to these two Scriptures, which have been such a stumbling block; that the ministers of Darkness have made such a mountain of; but the Lord is removing all this, and taking it out of the way.


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