Tuesday, September 2, 2008

To Whom May Quaker Women be Compared to?

Phyllis Mack’s book, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England, is a study of female prophets and visionaries in seventeenth century England. The majority of the book focuses on the early Quaker movement in which women, such as Margaret Fell, played highly public roles. Mack was one of the pioneers of the modern study of prophetic figures. She is not concerned with such issues as whether the individuals she deals with were fakers or insane. Her focus is on placing the people she studies within their given social context; how did such people fit into society and how do they shed light on the world that they lived in.

Mack is also not particularly concerned with issues of feminism. Her book is not about whether these women were fighting patriarchy or submitting to it. Mack eschews such rigid bifurcations. She recognizes that these operated within a very specific context and used it for their own purpose. As such there is a give and take here. We are dealing with a traditional patriarchal society, but the discourse of this same patriarchal society could also be used to suit the purposes of women.

Mack compares her Quaker women to Orthodox Jews. “Like the orthodox matron presiding over her Sabbath table, their [the Quakers’] religious expressiveness emanated from a female identity that was both personalized and traditional.” (pg. 238) Just as Orthodox Jewish women are capable of using the context of a patriarchal religion such as Orthodox Judaism to fashion their own unique identity, outside of masculine control, so too did women in the early Quaker movement use the context of Seventeenth Century Christian thought to fashion an identity that was outside of masculine control.

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