People often ask me whether or not my religious beliefs conflict with my feminism. Truthfully, I can say that they don’t. I can, however, understand their reservations and why they exist. Scriptural passages have been used to justify the subservience of women to men and many religious groups still maintain this interpretation to suit their own ends. Women have been denied the pulpit, or demanded to cover their heads, or told way back in the beginning that it was somehow their fault for talking to that snake. But I’ve always been able to disregard these beliefs, feeling certain that they did not speak to my own condition. From the beginning, Friends were very different.
Quakers hold a strong sense of spiritual egalitarianism, including a belief in the spiritual equality of the sexes. From the beginning both women and men were granted equal authority to speak in meetings for worship. Margaret Fell-Fox was as vocal and literate as her husband, George Fox, publishing several tracts in the early days of Quakerism. Early Friends argued that inequality between men and women arose from the Fall from the Garden of Eden, but that since Christ has come to redeem our sins, this inequality should no longer stand. For example, George Fox wrote in 1674:
And some men say, “Men must have the Power and superiority over the woman, because God says, ‘The man must rule over his wife, and that man is not of woman, but the woman is of the man’” (Gen 3:16). Indeed, after man fell, that command was. But before man fell, there was no such command. For they were both meet-helps. They were both to have dominion over all that God made. . . And as man and woman are restored again, by Christ, up into the image of God, they both have dominion again in Righteousness and Holiness, and are helps-meet, as before they fell.
Fox’s idea of a union between man and woman as meet-helps is not only an uplifting notion, it is also an especially tender one. I also see no reason why it could not be expanded to a same-sex relationship. Both partners help each other as they meet. Once I met a fellow Quaker who, along with his wife, changed his name to Helpsmeet once they got married, itself a variation on this same concept.
George Fox, the founder of the faith, met Margaret Fell, herself a wealthy member of the landed gentry who became one of his earliest and most trusted supporters. The powerful conviction of her eventual husband’s preaching led her to embrace the new movement completely. Though at the time she was married to someone else, she nevertheless devoted herself to the Religious Society of Friends, writing epistles, funding missions to spread the new faith, and turning her home, Swarthmore Hill, into the epicenter of Quakerism. After the death of her first husband, Fell married Fox.
Eventually known as the mother of the faith, Fell was every bit the equal of her soon-to-be husband. She is best known for writing a religious feminist tract entitled Womens Speaking Justified in the late 1660′s. In it, she concludes,
By these we see that Jesus owned the love and grace that appeared in women, and did not despise it. And by what is recorded in the Scriptures, he received as much love, kindness, compassion, and tender actions towards him from women, as he did from any others, both in his lifetime, and even after they had exercised their cruelty upon him.
Notice this, you who despise and oppose the message of the Lord God that he sends by women. What would have become of the redemption of the whole body of mankind if they had no reason to believe the message that the Lord Jesus sent by these women about his resurrection? These women had received mercy, and grace, and forgiveness of sins, and virtue, and healing from him, the same that many men had also received. If the hearts of these women had not been so united and knit to him in love that they could not depart like the men did, but they sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the tomb until the time of his resurrection and so were ready out of their tenderness and love to carry his message as it was revealed to them, how would his Disciples, who were not there, have ever known?
These ideas found their way into the Testimony of Equality. Quaker Testimonies are not dogmatic or doctrinal. One is supposed to apply them to oneself and one’s own personal leadings. Some Friends don’t feel as strongly about gender parity as I do or may interpret Equality in a different way. I could argue that the same thing is true with Feminism. Each of us has our own unusual, idiosyncratic perspective. Our intersections differ.
We also have our own reasons for why we devote ourselves to feminist evangelism, to quote Jessica Valenti. A more across-the-board belief would surely be easier to manage, but that would also rob us of our ability to choose freely. The challenges that face feminists are often the same challenges that face Quakers. What keeps us all on the same page and focused towards the same desired conclusion? Do our own unique leadings draw us together or push us apart?
My own suggestions follow. I’ll answer here as I would if I were speaking to a fellow Friend or in the middle of Worship. When vocalizing an idea, speak towards the center, not to the sides. Speak not in opposition to anyone else’s Truth unless it is deliberately meant to inflame or provoke, and try to speak out of love should you decide to respond. Take the time to carefully consider what you are about to say. After each person has spoken, use an extended period of centering silence to contemplate the message.
Some perspectives take a while to sink in completely. I have become a big proponent of inward contemplation, especially since I am consistently around so many people with passionate opinions. Passion is a wonderful thing to have, but some means of articulating it are less helpful than others. I direct this suggestion towards no one in particular, nor any group, community, or on-going event. This is meant to be merely something of which we may need to be mindful.