As I examine the whole of my religious past, I can say without equivocation that I observed one essential constant. Even from a very young age, I recall the active presence of women in positions of leadership and authority. Women have long been a majority in the congregations of the average Christian or historically Christian church, but attaining full gender equality in leadership roles has sometimes taken centuries. Liberal denominations and faith groups have made a particular effort in this regard, where conservative ones still drag their feet.
Raised a United Methodist, I recall the church that I would formally join at age 12. As is true with some groups, I went through a process of confirmation before I could be considered a formal member. The minister who taught the classes was female. I honestly don’t recall anyone having a problem with it, male or female. Because I was an exceedingly shy child, the Reverend felt particularly maternal towards me. Had I been able to apply the vocabulary and knowledge I now know, I would have identified her as a fellow introvert.
When at age 18 I became a Unitarian Universalist, the installed minister was also a woman. Because of my religious upbringing, I never believed that there was anything wrong with it. I never could understand the reservations of those who thought otherwise.
For a sense of perspective, from its foundation roughly 370 years ago to its cohesion as a formal faith group 20 years later, the Religious Society of Friends were quite progressive on the subject. Women were granted a degree of autonomy from the beginning, allowed to preach during Worship, pen Epistles, and vocally state their opinions. Being part of the direct leadership structure, however, could be problematic. Certain Meetings were opposed to the idea of women in positions of power and some Meetings were not. But there were enough passionate, energetic people involved that the issue was never buried completely and constantly remained in debate.
A concession to this controversy was the formation of separate men’s and women’s Business meetings. It should be noted here that women were not prevented from participating in Meeting for Worship, should they choose. That was a joint gathering. The nature of unprogrammed Worship places authority for speaking in the hands of whoever feels a leading from the Spirit, male or female. That in itself is a kind of leveling of the playing field, though many did not wish for it to stop there. George Fox, the founder, sought to give women’s meetings a further degree of autonomy. He did so by insisting that they be granted the ability to oversee marriage requests performed under care of the entire Meeting. This was an unpopular sentiment among many Friends, but Fox held fast to it, in his typically stubborn style.
The opposition regarding precisely where marriage intentions were submitted was not necessarily motivated by Patriarchal beliefs. Instead, those who opposed the distinction did not wish to have proscribed roles for either sex. In the beginning of the Quaker movement, a liberating and attractive element for many was present in its relative fluidity and organizational near-anarchy. Meetings in the North of England did, however, adhere to beliefs found in the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament. Those scriptural passages stated that women must cover their hair and take a submissive role within the church. The more progressive voices in the South of England did not adhere to these beliefs, nor did Fox.
An early and severe conflict within Quakerism began in the form of a well-spoken, intelligent, and charismatic London-based preacher named James Nayler. To begin with, several of Nayler’s female followers made substantial waves with existing Quaker leaders. The conflict between the two was never fully mediated. But it should be noted that Nayler had intensely loyal male followers as well, though the effect produced was a paradoxical kind of adoration and isolation. Sometimes inherent in this adulation was a projected kind of eroticism. Or to put it another way, a cult of personality formed around him, insulating Nayler from the rest of the world. Like a celebrity whose unwise choice in company proves to be his or her undoing, this decision would eventually have disastrous repercussions.
Even before Nayler’s eventual arrest and conviction for blasphemy, it had been strongly rumored that he was sexually involved with his most visible and vocal associate, Martha Simmonds. This might have been less objectionable if it were not for the fact that Nayler left behind a wife and child in his native Yorkshire. Later, Nayler would assert that he felt strong sexual desire for at least one of the women around him, but was quick to say that he never consummated the relationship. Nothing was ever proven, though some always had their doubts. Though he never believed himself to be anything other than mortal, some of his followers began to believe that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated.
Should this issue have occurred within any other faith group, the backlash against women might have been swift, even brutal. Instead, the conflict centered around the followers of the rogue minister Nayler and the more orthodox followers of George Fox. Though matters remained tense for a time, they were eventually resolved. It is worth noting that the incorporation of women into the Quaker framework was such an automatic given that no one felt any need to reach for a very commonplace scapegoat. Once we all can reach that apex, we can focus on other matters.