Early Quaker Women and Civility Rhetorics

Early Quaker Women and Civility Rhetorics

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Kristina Lucenko

Kristina Lucenko is an Assistant Professor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. Her research and teaching interests include feminist rhetorical histories and historiographies; early modern women’s history; autobiography and life narrative; and disability studies and health humanities.

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Recently I have been thinking about civility. Given the current state of U.S. political discourse, this is likely not surprising. More specifically, I am thinking about how civility is contested and complex—it is both an aspirational mode of disagreement in a diverse and pluralistic society and a tool of exclusion used to silence opposition and dissent. Civility is an important issue for feminists today because women, especially women of color, are often vilified for pushing back in public disagreement. Three notable examples of popular book-length manifestos about the power of women’s political anger include Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Mona Elthahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Rhetorical studies scholars have also analyzed how the very concept of civility disallows or significantly diminishes the public political participation of marginalized groups. In their recent edited collection, Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch gather essays that explore “ethical unruly rhetorical practice” (14) as disturbances that “highlight both the precarity of lives and conditions of being as well as the insufficiency of prevailing or dominant platforms for public conversation” (15). And in an account of civilizing strategies of the academy and specifically within rhetorical studies, Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore powerfully critique “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race as well as calls for more ‘civil and courteous’ exchanges that don’t offend white sensibilities” (331).1 As this work makes clear, civility discourse can be a mechanism to disenfranchise marginalized groups in any number of institutional contexts; strategies to counter delegitimizing practices can include both engaging in unruly speech and action as a form of ethical political expression, as well as historicizing, redefining, and displacing “norms” of civil discourse.

In pointing out how civilizing strategies within and across historical sites have resulted in the silencing and punishment of unruly rhetorical practice, feminists—especially feminists of color—have argued for theories and practices that acknowledge the legitimacy, necessity, and value of angry speech and action.2 English scholar and cultural historian Carrie Tirado Bramen has examined how nineteenth-century reformer and activist Ida B. Wells “understood the limits of niceness…[and] continually had to negotiate between niceness and outrage while combating Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction South” (242). In her famous essay about women and racism, Audre Lorde reminds us that anger is a catalyst for positive change: “[e]very woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” (280). Sara Ahmed echoes Lorde in her assertion that “[a]nger is creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against” and that feminism is the tool through which “associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures” (176). Thus, while feminist anger can be vulnerable to charges of incivility in which “the terms of its reception may ‘undo’ its claim,” it can also be a productive site of invention and dialogue (Ahmed 177).

The contested nature of civility claim, and, relatedly, the delivery and reception of women’s public anger in specific historical moments are central to my research. In my work on political participation by women in England in the mid-seventeenth century, a time of intense conflict and experimentation, I examine a range of women who inserted themselves into the emerging public sphere to write about principles guiding personhood and sovereignty, contracts and oaths, and persecution and toleration. Despite prescriptive and normative decrees against early modern women’s public speech and writing, women from various social groups vigorously participated in heated political debates in print. Pamphlets, books, petitions, letters, and manifestos were an important mode of women’s public political engagement during this time, and the 1640s mark a dramatic turning point for women’s print output. The quantity and range of women’s print publications increased considerably in the 1640s and 1650s—from 1621 to 1640 the total number of new print publications by women was 24, and from 1641 to 1660 that number increased almost tenfold to 236 (Crawford 265).

Despite the significance of this surge in political participation by women in print, these texts comprise an understudied resource for scholars interested in women’s and feminist rhetorical history and historiography.3 In the next section I will present examples of “uncivil” political rhetoric by women in England in the early Friends movement (called “Quakers” by antagonists who mocked their exuberant embodied practice of trembling, sighing, and groaning in worship) to suggest how deployments and assessments of in/civility are historically and culturally contingent. I believe that these examples offer a rationale for feminist scholars in rhetoric and composition to engage the past in ways that help us see that our civility crisis is not new. I will end with resources to access early Quaker writing by and about women. In presenting possibilities for future work that looks to the more distant past, I hope to heed Jen Wingard’s call for analysis that moves “between past and present with an eye toward how each time period is not static, but rather a conversation point in a larger feminist project.” 

“Their Language is too irreverent for a Temple, and too uncivill for a Tavern”

Of the many radical dissenting Protestant sects and congregations that formed in England in the 1640s and 1650s, in part due to the lifting of restrictions on speech, printing, and ways of worship, Quakers were reviled as the most “uncivil” (5). In Donald Lupton’s 1655 anti-Quaker tract he writes that male Friends “sco[r]ne their Superiours, and truly give no man his Due” and that female Friends “impudently rush, and run into all places, not to hear but to controul the Preachers Doctrine: women are called houswives, they should in modesty keep at home; but these are Gadders and Rovers abroad“ (14, 19). When Lupton portrays Quaker women as unfixed and aimless, subverting social order by straying from their proper place of home and eschewing conventional feminine ideals of modesty and silence, he is drawing on a misogynist tradition going back to the Bible (see Proverbs 7) and Aristotle (see The Politics, Book 1, 1260b, 28-31).  Although Lupton’s depiction of Quaker women’s public preaching is gendered and sexualized, all members of the religious group rejected social conventions. Women’s public participation in the movement was enabled by a sect-wide emphasis on the spiritual equality of all humans and a core belief that within each person dwells the light of Christ (called the “inner light”), as well as an emphasis on preaching, prophesying, letter writing, and petitioning. Given the highly individualized and relatively egalitarian nature of the movement, Friends rejected conduct that demarcated and reinforced hierarchical social difference: women traveled and published pamphlets and men refused to remove their hats in deference to social superiors. These factors contributed to the development of Quaker women’s rhetorical-political skills in recruiting and ministering; organizing meetings; engaging in acts of protest, dissent, and disruption; and appealing to public figures in the name of promoting their rights and the rights of other Friends.

Scholars have cited the generous hospitality of Margaret Fell (1614-1702), a founder of the movement, in sustaining the sect by providing her home as a “crashpad” for itinerants, a communications hub for a letter network among Friends across the country and abroad, and a safe space for meetings. One of the most prolific Quaker preachers, writers, and activists of the later seventeenth century, Fell’s best-known tract in defense of women’s public preaching, Women’s Speaking Justified (1666), is widely anthologized.4 But examining rhetorical activities by a broader range of early Quaker women is important in analyzing civility discourse given that all members of the movement were expected to disrupt polite and ordered everyday social interactions in order to draw attention to its message.

Given the role of Quaker women in the history of civility discourse, and the relevance of civility in feminism today, I would like to offer brief but suggestive excerpts from three Quaker texts that engage questions of civility/incivility related to social differentiation.5 Like other egalitarian religious movements of the seventeenth century, Friends embraced women’s preaching and writing by invoking the Christian belief that the low, the poor, the weak will in the end be first. Although deep-rooted cultural traditions and values supported the widespread belief that women were weaker than men in body and mind, the Bible’s edict that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) was frequently summoned by the community. This belief granted women spiritual authority and the grounds to challenge political and religious figures; such challenges were framed as markers of incivility, especially given that women from lower social groups largely made up radical sects like the Friends, and so their refusal to pay deference challenged both gender and class hierarchies.

My first example is a 1654 tract by Anne Audland describing her imprisonment in Banbury for blasphemy. In the tract she describes being unjustly accused of creating “a tumult” in church. In describing how she was violently abused by both minister and churchgoers for speaking back to the preacher, she calls into question the very legitimacy of the church building and, by extension, the state and religious institutions that impart it with authority: “Oh blush, and be ashamed of that which you call your Church, who are so suddenly in a tumult…never call it a Church, who are fighters and strikers, scoffers and scorners, tumulters and false accusers” (230). Shaming her supposedly devout accusers, Audland points out the hypocrisy of her rough treatment and imprisonment, and reframes the terms of the charges against her. As she implies, if a church is both a sacred place of worship and a collective of pious individuals gathered in the name of God, then she should have been welcomed and not abused. The violent treatment she endures within the church building by its members disqualifies it from being recognized as such.

My second example is a letter written in 1657 by Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, to angrily reprimand him for overseeing the persecution of Friends: “When thou wast low, the Lord was thy strength, but now thou hast departed from him, and thy strength is in man…. [T]hou hast chosen the glory of this world, and art as a stinking dunghill in the sight of God…and instead of serving the Lord, thou hast served thy own glory and thy own pleasures” (114). Public letters to political and religious leaders were a common genre of Quaker writing, and women produced twice as many of these types of tracts than men.6 Here Howgill disciplines Cromwell for abusing his power and elevating his own importance, a critique rooted in the Scriptural belief in raising the frail and bringing down the mighty (“Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted,” Ezekiel 21:26). To vividly compare the head of the English republic with a smelly pile of excrement, while undeniably exceeding the bounds of decorum, also reinforces the Biblical idea that God sees earthly riches and glories as repulsive, degraded, and foul. Howgill’s letter carries a clear warning for Cromwell that because he persecuted Quakers, God “is coming for thee…and all thy gallant glory will he bring down” (116).

My third and last example is Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole’s tract co-written in 1655 from prison for disrupting church services to reframe the terms of the civility charges so often leveled at them: “[T]wo of your Priests came to speak with us; and when they could not bear sound reproof and wholesome Doctrine, that did concern them, they railed on us with filthy speeches, as no other they can give to us, that deal plainley and singly with them, and so ran from us” (101). Here Cotton and Cole contrast their practice of proper and skillful rhetoric with the priests’ improper and indecorous speech. The women describe admonishing the priests and offering healing doctrinal knowledge, positioning the priests as incorrect and at fault and themselves as authoritative teachers. In response, the men are shown to uncivilly hurl insults and then flee and foreclose further debate. Through this exchange the women not only portray themselves as more skillful rhetors, but they also point out power dynamics undergirding rhetoricity, in which the men are granted an undeserved authority by their gender and their social positions, and the women, who, as the more highly skilled and ethical rhetors, win the argument but are nonetheless punished with imprisonment.

Lessons from the (Distant) Past

I hope that, with these few examples, I have illustrated why feminist rhetoricians should study what medieval historian Judith M. Bennett calls the distant past. Bennett argues that women’s history needs to be more explicitly feminist and that feminist politics needs to engage a longer and deeper historical view of women’s lives. I direct feminist rhetoricians to Bennett’s call to recognize and forge more substantive connections between the distant past and today’s feminist concerns. One of Bennett’s claims is that women’s history has become truncated to mostly focus on contemporary history. In her survey of major English-language women’s history journals and women’s history conferences, she finds little coverage of women’s history before 1800 and most attention on the twentieth century (30-53). Following Bennett I did a quick-and-dirty review of chronological coverage in Peitho, looking for historical articles in its last ten years of publication, both in its current form as a peer-reviewed journal from Fall/Winter 2012 through Spring 2019 and as a newsletter from Fall 2009 through Summer 2012, and my findings are similar. Although my review is not exhaustive or comprehensive, it demonstrates that Peitho’s historical coverage trends significantly toward the present, with a majority of historical articles covering the last century. While there is some coverage of eighteenth- and nineteen-century women’s rhetorical activities related to feminist political issues such as abolition, suffrage, education, and literacy, there are only three articles covering the ancient or pre-modern period (before 1500).7 There are no articles for the period from 1500-1700, which is troubling. Of course articles in Peitho are not representative of all scholarly work on women’s early rhetorical activities, but given the journal’s charge to support “the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media,” I invite us to reconsider how our field is being shaped by our attention to the past. How can feminist rhetoricians allow our imaginations to reach back further in time and space to see how and where and when the past affects our own research?

As I have argued here, early Quaker women’s writing counts as a rich resource for the examination of a more distant history of women’s rhetorical agency and the role of women in shaping emerging political ideas such as public sphere(s), toleration, and rights. Identities and identifications related to gender, sexuality, race, and class in civility discourse during this time period, within religious sects and in mainstream culture broadly, is an important area for future consideration. Given my own interest in the seventeenth century I would be thrilled if more feminist rhetoricians were curious about the lives of women of that era, but I believe that what is at stake is a more historically informed feminism. Like critical race studies, queer studies, and disability studies, three theoretical-political undertakings to gain momentum in employing modern terminologies and critical approaches while taking a longer temporal view, feminist rhetorical studies can benefit from broadening its view to understand historical change and continuity in women’s lives, and to identify feminist practices and patriarchal ideologies in and across time.8 For example, as a feminist who studies early modern women and rhetoric, I turn to history to understand today’s charges of incivility against marginalized groups, while drawing on feminist methods to be aware of the differences among the women whose rhetorical practices I study. Further, locating the ideological structures and practitioners of in/civility discourse in specific historical contexts can help to craft more rhetorically effective political approaches to exposing systems of injustice and inequality, then and now. Given that early modern formulations of civility were situated within British imperial and colonizing imperatives, these discourses also reveal histories of racial thinking, practices, and institutions that created social and cultural hierarchies that, while rooted in specific institutional conditions and frameworks, persist today. As we think about our feminist commitments and our feminist scholarship, I hope that we will look to the distant past and consider how history can help us see persistent power imbalances and opportunities for rhetorical agency today.

Select Resources for Quaker Women’s Writing (pre-1700)

Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection

This free and open resource contains full text and page images of more than 500 individual Quaker works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Early English Books Online

This subscription database contains more than 125,000 mostly English works printed between 1473 and 1700. While digital archives and texts enable the work of scholars and students unable to visit physical archives, access to EEBO can be limited by the lack of an institutional subscription.

Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655–1700

Teresa Feroli and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, eds. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Toronto: Iter Press; Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018. This collection of forty texts written by Quaker women covers major genres such as warnings, directives/letters to authorities, and sufferings, and is contextualized in a thorough and engaging introduction by the editors.

Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography based on Wing’s Short-title Catalogue

Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale, eds. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. An indispensable reference book on seventeenth-century works by, for, and about women. It offers descriptions and assessments of just over 1,600 items written between 1641 and 1700 (637 by women and 973 for and about women).


  1. Báez and Ore are part of a growing number of scholars in rhetoric, writing, and communications studies who critique how these fields marginalize and exclude scholars of color. See also Chakravartty et al, Law and Corrigan, and Wanzer-Serrano.
  2. For a discussion of tensions between invitational rhetoric and civility see Lozano-Reich and Cloud, especially 220-222.
  3. To be sure there are excellent historical studies of women’s rhetorical practices and theories in the early modern era, notably Glenn, Donawerth, and Graban. More, please.
  4. See Donawerth and Lush’s recently published excellent edited collection of Fell’s writings.
  5. All three texts from which these excerpts are taken can be found in the Feroli and Thickstun edited collection.
  6. Feroli and Thickstun 26.
  7. “A Selection of Secondary Texts Concerning Ancient Women” by Cara Minardi in Peitho 12.1/2 (2010), “Claudia Severa’s Birthday Invitation: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Earliest Artifact of Latin Written by a Woman’s Hand” by Richard Leo Enos and Natasha Trace Robinson in Peitho 18.2 (2016), and “Reviewing Conduct Books as Feminist Rhetorical Devices for Agency Reforms” by Florence Elizabeth Bacabac in Peitho 21.1 (2018).
  8. The work of scholars Heng, Traub, and Bearden engage historical, methodological, and political questions related to race, sexuality, and disability in the premodern and early modern eras.

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2015.
  • Alexander, Jonathan and Susan C. Jarratt. “Introduction.” Unruly Rhetorics: Protest, Persuasion, and Politics, edited by Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch, U of Pittsburgh P, 2018, pp. 3-23.
  • Audland, Anne. “A True Declaration of the Suffering of the Innocent.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 226-236.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Bearden, Elizabeth B. Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability. U of Michigan P, 2019.
  • Bennett, Judith M. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.
  • Bramen, Carrie Tirado. American Niceness: A Cultural History. Harvard UP, 2017.
  • Chakravartty, Paula et al., “#CommunicationSoWhite,” Journal of Communication, vol. 68, no. 2, April 2018, pp. 254–266.
  • Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. St. Martin’s, 2018.
  • Cotton, Priscilla and Mary Cole. “To the Priests and People of England, we Discharge our Consciences, and Give them Warning.” Feroli and Thuckstun, pp. 94-102.
  • Crawford, Patricia. “Women’s Published Writings 1600-1700.” In Women in English Society 1500-1800, edited by Mary Prior, Routledge, 1985, pp. 211-282.
  • Donawerth, Jane. Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900 and Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Woman’s Tradition, 1600-1900, Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Donawerth, Jane and Rebecca M. Lush, editors. Margaret Fell: Women’s Speaking Justified and Other Pamphlets. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 65; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 538. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Elthahawy, Mona. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Beacon, 2019.
  • Feroli, Teresa and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, editors. Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655-1700. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois UP, 1997.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra. Women’s Irony: Rewriting Feminist Rhetorical Histories. Southern Illinois UP, 2015.
  • Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge UP, 2018.
  • Howgill, Mary. “A Remarkable Letter of Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, called Protector.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 112-117.
  • Law, Martin and Lisa M. Corrigan, “On White-Speak and Gatekeeping: Or, What Good Are the Greeks?” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 326-330.
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1997, pp. 278-285.
  • Lozano-Reich, Nina M. and Dana L. Cloud, “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality,” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 220-226.
  • Lupton, Donald. The Quacking Mountebanck Or the Jesuite Turn’d Quaker. London, 1655. Early English Books Online. Accessed 10 August 2019.
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  • Traub, Valerie. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015.
  • Wanzer-Serrano, Darrel. “Rhetoric’s rac(e/ist) problems,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 105, no. 4, Oct 2019, pp. 465-476.
  • Wingard, Jen. “Editor’s Welcome.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2018, p. v.