Women Speaking Justified

Margaret Fell otherwise known as Margaret Fox was one the founders of the Religious Society of Friends and has often been called the mother of Quakerism. Fell married Thomas Fell who was a judge, and in this way she became the owner of Swarthmoor Hall, a mansion in Furness.[1] In 1652 she heard of the preaching of George Fox and began to believe his messages compelling. She was arrested in 1664 for allowing Quaker meetings to meet in her house. It was during this particular imprisonment that she wrote the more famous pamphlets and articles including this one.[2] Thus it was in London and around 1666, that Fell published the pamphlet called “Women Speaking Justified.” The pamphlet is focused on arguing for women right to be speakers on the grounds of the biblical witness.

Fell begins outright by first with the confrontation of the ominous passages of Paul in both 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1st Timothy 2:11-12 which seems to fly in the face of what she was about to communicate. Then she moves to delineate the way in which she sees that God has created male and female by referring to the etiological narratives in the beginning of Genesis. The essential thesis of Fell is that women should speak or else many simply would not be delivered. Her pamphlet is an articulate and bold statement that is mostly logically sound and valid. Throughout this work, Fell will start with biblical exegesis, move to hermeneutic analysis regarding why her view of the particular scripture is correct, and finally she will move to attack those who are opposing women speaking.

She draws on the talk of Seed as a way of drawing out the fact that the “seed” of the woman is to speak otherwise the Serpent’s seed speaks. The idea of “seed” is an important one, since this is one of the major themes in which Quakerism will speak of experiencing God. Again drawing on the feminine imagery in which the church is cast, Fell states that to come against a woman speaking is the same as an assent against the Church’s speech. She will go on to cite several gospel examples of Jesus relating to the women of Palestine. In these she points out that Christ is more transparent with the women than with the men and that these women seem to have been more understanding of the nature of Christ.

The way Jesus interacts with women within the gospels to follow Fell’s logic could be for several reasons. First one could argue that Jesus was more transparent because he wanted to make sure that they understood his claim, the idea that Jesus could be more subtle with the men because they would pick it up but the women would not necessarily. Obviously this is not what Fell is arguing.

More likely Jesus could share more because women would not be considered a credible source for the religious leaders to bring an accusation about Jesus before the appointed time. Especially in Mark, the Messianic secret may have been employed by Jesus because he did not want too much attention being drawn in front of Herod Antipas or Caesar. Therefore, Jesus may have felt more freedom to telling these women who he really was without the code that he at times needed to communicate in. This in my own analysis seems likely. While Fell may not assume this her point is well taken and logically sound. More important to her own argument, Fell draws on some of the first appearances of Jesus and the angels which were to women first, not men. Fell points out that these women were compelled to speak of Christ’s resurrection and that the men listened (though through uncertainty at first.) She rhetorically asks what if these men had not believed the message that Jesus sent by these women concerning the resurrection.

On page eight of her treatise, Fell takes on the Pauline passages in which the biblical objections seem to be present. She of course illustrates the fact that in Corinth there exists a church rocked by chaos in which confusion is being added by women who were ministering through speech as well as not following the orderly nature of the church rules. Therefore she makes clear that what is said here is of an “occasional” nature (although those are not her words).

One can trace the conviction of Fell’s belief in the equality of women to the careful and calculated ability of her exegesis of scripture. One really notices Fell’s belief that under the Law the inequality of women is the norm but within a new created order of Christ there is equality. Next she asks rhetorically what those who oppose woman speaking do with passages such as Acts 2:16-18. These passages, she posits, clearly include women as part and parcel to prayer, prophecy, and speech. Although one can see why Fell might come to this conclusion, her logic is flawed. She believes that under the Law women should not speak: “Here the Apostle clearly manifests his intent, for he speaks of Women that were under the Law and in that Transgression as Eve was.” Fell seems to fail to account for the idea of equality within creation that she seems to suppose for her own argument at other portions of this treatise. A more modern Quaker understanding realizes that it is not the Law that creates inequality but that the affects of sin within creation create a false sense of inequality that Christians must attempt to show society.

At the top of page nine, Fell demonstrates that in 1 Timothy when Paul says “not to permit a woman to teach” that the Apostle means a wife to her Husband. Fell believes this has nothing to do with the venue of a church. This is in retrospect of modern textual and biblical criticism is a little off. (Beyond the fact that many textual critics do not consider 1 Timothy to be a real exchange between Paul and Timothy, most also consider these words in 1 Timothy to be a later hand who added these within the passage.) Nonetheless, the argument of Fell moves the reader (especially one in the 17th century) to understand an alternate interpretation that can stand on its own. The use of a rhetorical question is again employed by Fell, asks why the Apostle speaks of the women with which he labored, if he opposes the speaking of women.

In the 10th page, it seems that Fell takes an excursus to condemn what she considers reprehensible within the Catholic Church. Here she paints a picture of the church with words such as “drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Christ.” This she considers (and with valid reason in this time period) an Apostasy. Next, she appeals to the Galatians 4 passage where Paul contrasts the seed of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate her Quaker view of the “true light” coming into the world. In this mystical manner she views the children of promise to be in part women who are no longer “under the bondage” of suppression, rather they are able to speak freely as children of Jerusalem (of the free woman).[3] With this Fell concludes on the 11th page that God is removing things which do not allow for his messengers to communicate truth.

A later addition of about four pages is included in which Fell discusses why the Apostle is not contradictory in his approach to women speaking in the church. She lists example both within the system of the Law as well as under Christ. At points she makes ad hominem argument against the Priesthood (of the Catholic Church I assume) and its use of the Book of Common Prayer, which most Protestant groups of this time abhorred. She poignantly moves to show that these same priests who use the words of Elizabeth in the gospels in their sermons will not allow a woman to speak in church. Fell will go onto cite more biblical examples as she has done throughout. These include Hannah in the Temple of the Lord (1 Samuel 1), the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and Queen Esther. She points out that if these women had held their piece the Fathers would have been destroyed.

The final page is a direct attack against the Catholic Church and its Pope. Fell contrasts what she calls the busybodies of the Jezebel (Revelation) church with the women of the true church and true faith who she shows are worthy of speaking. She contrasts this church with various images of the Bridegroom of Christ. This church she claims will overcome the false speaker and we can assume she also means what she would call the false church.

[1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Fell.

[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Fell.

[3] I have in part paraphrased Paul’s words from memory for more information see Galatians 4:22-31.