Women Ministers

episode 26 women ministers

We talked some about women preaching when we talked about the new covenant, but chapter 5B in Traditional Quaker Christianity is specifically about women ministers.

The book we’re using takes care to point out that women ministers weren’t part of a political or secular equality movement for women. It wasn’t motivated by feminism (which didn’t exist yet).

Women ministers explained

Instead, it was motivated by the oracular nature of ministry combined with Biblical prophecy:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.
— Joel 2:28–29 and Acts 2:17–18

For many denominations, women are frequent missionaries. Mary Magdalene is called Apostle to the Apostles for being the one who told them Jesus was back. This is true for Quakers too. Mary Fischer went to Turkey. Mary Dyer was hanged in Puritan Massachusetts. Before the Turkey trip, Mary Fischer and Elizabeth Williams were the first Quaker missionaries in Cambridge, England. They were locked up. They (and the men who came to get them out of jail but ended up with them) were very sassy.

The big piece of writing we tend to think of for defending women ministers among Quakers is Margaret Fell’s “Women’s Speaking Justified.” There were earlier ones, though, and that’s kind of a summary piece. Sometimes Quaker arguments were based on negating gender, according to Phyllis Mack. They’d argue that it’s disembodied spirit speaking through bodies that happen to be gendered. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, they just flipped it. Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole told a male minister who tried to shut them up:

Indeed, you your selves are the women, that are forbidden to speak in the Church, that are become women.

They were spiritualizing everything, as we so very often do. So, they were saying that “woman” is Paul’s shorthand for spiritual weakness. Remember, we said they weren’t feminists? They were playing off “the weaker sex” as a phrase. And then saying that since they were spiritually strong, not weak, they get to speak.

Then they’d declare the men who opposed them to be spiritual women.

Well, they had chutzpah.

Feminism comes later

We know Quaker women were at the forefront of the women’s movement when it finally came around. But that’s like 200 years later. These early Quakers really weren’t feminists. They weren’t arguing women and men are naturally equal. They were arguing that God can use whoever God wants to speak God’s message. And they were arguing for spiritual equality, not natural equality.

Adam and Eve don’t have gender roles in the Bible before the fall. Patriarchy is thus a consequence of sin, not actually God’s original plan.  George Fox described turning to the Light as “coming into the state Adam was in before the fall.” The New Testament says there’s neither male nor female in Christ. So, once someone turns to the Light, all the patriarchal stuff falls away, including any ban on women teaching.

It took a while to go that far with it, though. First, a whole lot of men were very concerned that Quakers were going to turn society upside down. What if Quakers treat women as equals in non-spiritual matters as well? Quakers were quick to backpedal from any such thing. Took a while to find that backbone again. Still not perfect.

Micah says backpedaling from radicalism mirrors the early Church as well. He says women’s issues tend to be the first thing under the bus when the need to conform arises.

And then we wander around Bible verses about submission, mutual submission, head covering, and Junia.


  • Print Culture and the Early Quakers
  • 1 Cor 11
  • Eph 3:28
  • Joel 2:28–29 and Acts 2:17–18
  • “The state Adam was in before he fell” is a common phrase in George Fox’s Journal, chapter 2


Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith and Podcast where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and the variety of Quaker beliefs found today.
Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast, we’re hosts Mackenzie and Micah, and today we are looking at section 5B in the book, “Traditional Quaker Christianity” which is about women ministers.Micah: I think we agreed that I will basically just not have to talk this whole episode, because Mackenzie’s gonna preach.Mackenzie: I don’t know if it’s exactly preaching so much as I’m a history nerd. I’m a big history nerd. I’m like … I’m one of those people that dresses up in the old-timey clothes. My normal clothes are not old-timey clothes, just so we’re clear, but I do have 400, and 800, and 1200 years ago clothes sitting in my closet.Micah: The religious society for creative anachronism.Mackenzie: No. So, in this chapter, it talks about how, from the very beginning, Quakers recognized God’s public call of women to a ministry equal to that of men. That exegesis is part of the New Covenant, the book makes sure to point out that the idea of women preaching was not part of a social or political movement, it was not … I mean this was, like, 300 years before feminism, it was not a matter of needing to have equal rights to speak or anything like that. It was based in the parts of the bible where they talk about the … “I will pour out my spirit on all people, your sons and daughters will prophecy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit in those days, and they will prophecy.” The speaking that happens when we’re meeting for worship, as Micah said, a few episodes ago, tends to be seen as oracular, meaning, “like an oracle”, so you’re speaking for God.
Prophecy is that, as well. The speaking in a meeting was seen as a fulfillment of that prophecy that women would prophecy. The book also points out that women were often the first ones to go … the first Quakers to go to new places and, we were discussing beforehand, Mike pointed out that it’s really common for women to be missionaries in a lot of denominations. The apostle to the apostles in the Bible is Mary Magdalene, she’s the one who sees the tomb empty and goes and tells the apostles, “Um, he’s back from the dead.” The apostles are like, “Yeah, right.” “No, no, really, I saw him.” ‘Cause they don’t believe her at first until finally Jesus turns up as like, “Hello?” They’re like, “Whoa, hey, you’re back.” “She told you that.” I mean, it doesn’t actually say that he pointed out that she told them, but, you gotta figure he’d give some props, right?

Micah: Yeah, maybe at some point we’ll have to have an episode on mansplaining in the Bible.

Mackenzie: Oh, that would be interesting.

Micah: And a lot.

Mackenzie: Hadn’t thought about that.
In the book they mentioned the West Indies, Barbados and early American colonies as places where Quaker women went first, and I imagine for all the American colonies, we would think of Mary [Dyer 00:03:21], who got hanged because she just kept going back to Boston. Even after they banished her multiple times for being a Quaker.

Micah: Yeah, she kinda had a death-wish.

Mackenzie: She knew they were gonna kill her and she went back.

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: There’s also, I’ve mentioned before, a book that I read that was, “Print Culture and the Early Quakers.” That one talked about the first Quakers in Cambridge. Those were Elizabeth Williams and Mary Fisher, Mary Fisher also being the one who eventually went and visited the Sultan in Turkey, they showed up, and they started preaching Quaker stuff. These were two unaccompanied women, and England, if you’re not familiar, has a lot of regional accents. The U.S has plenty of regional accents, too, but for such a small space they’ve got a lot of regional accents. They could tell these were out of-town women, from the north of England, they’d heard about these Quaker ministers that were going around and they did not want them in their town.
So, the Mayor tries to bring them up on vagrancy, so that he can throw them in prison or kick them out of town and the question he asks them is, “What are your names?” And they gave what was a typical Quaker response at the time of, “Our names are written in the Book of Life.”

Micah: Wow.

Mackenzie: Then he’s frustrated, and he asks, “Who are your husbands or fathers?” What he wants to know is, “Who is in charge of you, that I need to go have a chat with because he’s not keeping you controlled properly?” And they answer, “We have no husband but Christ Jesus.” He didn’t like that answer, either.
Eventually, the two of them, they get pilloried, they’re tied to a pole, stripped to the waist and whipped because … I guess for insolence? Eventually, after they’re in jail for a while, a couple of Quaker guys show up and basically just end up joining them in jail. Until finally the Mayor is like, “Can I just release you from jail if you promise to leave?”

Micah: Did they leave?

Mackenzie: No, the Quakers argued, “But if you just release us, doesn’t that mean that you had locked us up for no actual reason? ‘Cause doesn’t that imply we were innocent and this has been an illegal arrest?”

Micah: God, they were smarty-pants.

Mackenzie: Oh, they were. They were. Smarty-pants isn’t the word I would use, but yeah. We try not to do any swearing on the podcast because we know some people listen to this with their kids. Yeah, keep in mind the early Quakers tended to be in the age-range of 17 to 25.

Micah: Oh, yeah.

Mackenzie: So, smart alecks, there we go, smart alecks. Here in the book, it points out that Margaret Fell did not argue on the basis of culture against the couple of bits in the bible where it says for women not to teach men or that women shouldn’t preach. She actually turns them around, she goes a different exegesis of this, and we can post a link to her “Women’s Speaking Justified” essay, which is in 17th century English, so it’s not the easiest thing to read. She argues that Paul didn’t have anything against holy women preaching, she … okay, I’m just gonna cut in here real quick and say I’m sorry, I’ve double checked my book and I got a little confused in the next part.
It’s Priscilla Cotton who is the historic Quaker who makes the next argument.
Margaret Fell spiritualizes those passages, which, if you’re familiar with basically any Quaker argument that they had with non-Quakers in the 17th century or, frankly, a lot of the ones we have now, we spiritualize things a lot. One of the things Margaret Fell says, essentially, is that when women are banned from speaking, allegorically, they’re using women and men as parallels to weak and strong, and then when you spiritualize this, you get the spiritually weak should not preach at all. Who can argue against that? Oh, by the way, dude-who’s-telling-me-not-to-preach, you’re spiritually weak, shut up.

Micah: You’re a spiritual woman.

Mackenzie: Yes. She would call the men who were telling her not to preach “spiritual women”, and tell them that that meant they needed to shut up.

Micah: Something that’s interesting about the early Quakers and justification of women preaching was that, I think Mackenzie’s already alluded to this, here but, the justification point in preaching was not that women were naturally, natural is the key word, it was not that women were naturally equal to men, it was that God does whatever he wants. If God wants to use a woman, God will use a woman. In Christ, men and women … there’s no distinction between men and women as a race. Place where they went for this … Quakers did not disagree that men and women were unequal in the fall, theologically, where they went with this, was that, yes, men are superior over women in this fallen world, because of sin. This state of being, this broken state of being where men dominate women, is a result of the fall of the Garden of Eden.
You see this if you go back to, I think it’s Genesis two and three. When Adam and Eve sin and fall from grace, both the man, Adam, and the woman, Eve, are cursed, and they’re cursed in different ways. In a nutshell, the man’s curse is to have to work the land and raise food, and have the land fight back against him with thorns and weeds and all sorts of things, it’s gonna be hard for him to make a living. The woman is cursed with, in a nutshell, having to bear children in a way that is very painful. Childbirth is going to be painful, and her desire will be for her husband and he will rule over you. When you see the inception of patriarchy, is the fall from grace.
The Quaker argument for the equality of men and women was not that men and women are equal in this fallen world, but that in Christ, sin is defeated and the fall is reversed and that we’ve come back-

Mackenzie: And the patriarchy is part of sin, basically, patriarchy is caused by sin.

Micah: Patriarchy is caused by sin, it is a result of the fall, and in Christ it is resolved and patriarchy is eliminated in Christ.

Mackenzie: That’s pretty much what the next paragraph in the book says, so, fewer words, but, yeah.
Something Micah did not say that it does say in the book, is that it points out that according to Fell, for women who were still in a fallen state then, who had not been spiritually renewed, had not come to Christ or that whole set of ideas, then yes, they shouldn’t speak, that the ban applies to them, but once you’ve come into the New Covenant by being converted, convinced, convicted, etc. that then it became possible. It became admissible for a woman to speak and as it says, “To stop their mouths was to stop Christ himself from speaking.”

Micah: It’s an interesting thing, because, as far as I know, the early Quakers didn’t claim special … did not claim equal rights for women in the sense of like, they weren’t fighting for the woman’s right to vote, they weren’t fighting for judicial equality for women or anything like that, but it is sort of internally coherent in that … as I said the equality comes from being in Christ. The equality comes from being free from sin. The equality comes from speaking the truth. This applies to both men and women. No man should be preaching or leading without being free from sin and in the truth, in the same way no woman should, either.
Although, in theory and perhaps in practice, the patriarchy was not eliminated from the Quaker movement-

Mackenzie: It definitely … it still hasn’t been.

Micah: No, of course not. But I do have to say that in the early Quaker movement, the early Quaker movement was a much more radical situation than what we have in modern-day Quakerism.

Mackenzie: Although, you do have some things that were written back in the early days, which were probably in significant part to quell the fears of the surrounding culture. Talking about that women do still have to submit to their husbands, because once you had a she-preaching going on, which is to say women preaching, that was what they called it-

Micah: That’s Mackenzie’s favorite word.

Mackenzie: It is, it’s a hilarious word, “she-preaching”. Once you had she-preaching going on then you had the slippery slope arguments. Oh, well what’s next, huh? What are the women gonna do next?

Micah: Next you’ll be she-preaching to the sheeple.

Mackenzie: Oh, jeez. It’s like, “Next, women are gonna be single instead of getting married, or I don’t know, what if they wear pants?”

Micah: What would happen, in that case? I’m not sure.

Mackenzie: Well, the 1970’s answered it.

Micah: Terrible, terrible, things.

Mackenzie: Terrible, terrible, things like disco?

Micah: Yeah. Did women’s pants cause disco?

Mackenzie: Who knows? I don’t actually hate disco, I was just trying to think of terrible things from the 70’s.

Micah: Yeah, disco’s pretty good, actually. I think it’s interesting that Quakerism, at its inception, again, a lot of the stuff we’re talking about here doesn’t necessarily apply in exactly the same way to later theories of Quakerism … Yeah, ’cause as we’ve talked about many times on this podcast, as the [inaudible 00:14:35] cooled and congealed things got much more friendly with the surrounding culture, as you saw happen with the early Christian church, as well. In fact, the writings in which you see Paul say some things that seem pretty misogynist, I think a fair reading of those texts is at least in part seeing Paul wrestling with … Paul or his successors, ’cause it’s not clear at all if the letters are written by Paul, you see Paul or his successors wrestling with what compromises need to be made with the surrounding culture in order to preserve the Christian community. You know, you can’t win every battle.
Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, women get thrown under the bus. When the community realized you can’t fight every battle, so we probably shouldn’t fight for women’s battles, when we have other, more important things to work on.

Mackenzie: Right, and those writings [inaudible 00:15:32] being, “Well, no, no, no, no, we’re not talking about full equality, we’re just talking about preaching, here.” That’s a lot of covering your back end.

Micah: I think and important thing to realize here is humility and submission, especially as the Quaker movement grew, and matured, humility and submission became very important values both for men and for women. This idea of mutual submission, I think, came pretty naturally. I feel like it sort of provided a way for women, strangely enough, for women to have equality through submission, because men needed to submit, too. With a general expectation of humility of both sexes, it’s almost like women weren’t liberated, men were just submitted. Mackenzie’s disagreeing with me.

Mackenzie: I’m just making a confused face. I think, gosh, we could probably do an entire thing on mutual submission and the way people forget the word “mutual”.

Micah: Yeah, no, I think it’s an important subject, it’s based in scripture, too.

Mackenzie: Yeah, but it … generally all the arguments against women’s equality, women’s spiritual equality, etc. when they come from a religious perspective tend to be like, well, remember, women submit to men. Wives submit to your husbands. It’s like, “You realize the next line says, ‘and husbands submit to your wives.'” Right? If you’re trying to uphold patriarchy, you like to ignore that.

Micah: For full transparency, some places in the bible it definitely says, “You should submit to one another.” Husband and wife should submit to one another, but there is at least one place where Paul writes that wives submit to your husbands, husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church. I mean, there are definitely points like … and there’s been a lot of scholarship done about this and these passages are difficult for us to understand today because of our lack of cultural context, but there definitely are places where Paul seems to be establishing a great chain of being hierarchy. From Christ, to husband, to wife.

Mackenzie: Christ is the head of every man and man is the head of the woman?

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: I’ve seen analysis of that that’s pointing out if you think of “head” as being like “source” then … getting into, like, really the [inaudible 00:18:18] sort of. In the Nicene Creed it says, “Through him all things were made” about Jesus, so if everyone’s made through Jesus, then the source of man is Jesus and then, if women came from the man’s rib … anyway, the thing that I’ve heard about that little, “head of” thing is that it’s talking about linear order of Christ happened, then Adam, then Eve. As opposed to it being so much about authority. I know I’ve certainly encountered conservative Mennonites who ask me about my, quote unquote, “headship covering” which is not at all how I refer to my head covering.

Micah: That’s because of the angels.

Mackenzie: There’s that confusion, too. Which, okay, the angels thing I have heard people say that it’s to keep the angels from coming after women and ending up with more Nephilim. I have no idea what’s going on with the angels line at all. That is a weird, weird line.

Micah: It is super weird.

Mackenzie: It’s the same little section of the Bible, 1st Corinthians 11, as far as I am concerned, 1st Corinthians 11:4 says women must cover their head when praying and prophesying. Well, hang on a second, that just said that women get to pray and prophecy in public.

Micah: Sure does.

Mackenzie: So what about that whole women-not-being-allowed-to-speak thing? Oh, wait. As far as I’m concerned, my head-covering says that I get to talk.

Micah: Absolutely. This is really the problem with, frankly, a misogynistic reading of the bible, and of the New Testament in particular. You cannot honestly read male domination into the New Testament, unless you cherry-pick the scripture. Paul, explicitly, at many different points, talks about women ministers, talks about the activities of women in ministry and preaching, and praying, and doing all sorts of stuff.

Mackenzie: What’s the name of the one who was … Junia, who was foremost among the apostles.

Micah: Right, and of course, in the ESV, which I actually really like the translation for the most part, but it’s translation is supported by the neo-reformed movement, and it really works to make sure that nobody gets any ideas that being gay is okay or that being a woman is okay. Different translations try to translate it in different ways, in fact, in really old translations they even intentionally change “Junia” to “Junius”.

Mackenzie: Oh, right, well that’s, from what I understand that was a medieval … somebody thought they found a typo and they didn’t. So some monk back when, before printing presses, back when you had to hand copy the whole thing, some monk was looking at it going, “Ha, the monk before me accidentally wrote ‘Junia’, that’s a lady name, he must have meant Junius.” Then that’s what got copied for several hundred years, until somebody looks back at an even older one and goes, “No, wait, that older one said … the original said ‘Junia’ not Junius. Oh, whoa, it was a woman.”
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