Feminism and Quakers: Female Ministers

  • March 8, 2024
  • Posted By: Pennsbury Manor

By Caleigh Love

Life for women in the 18th century was restricted in many ways. For most women, their lives were ruled over by their father, husband, or other male figure in their life. Quaker women, by comparison, had a greater sense of freedom. A prime belief among Quakers was that all human beings were equal in the eyes of God. Regardless of gender, all Quakers were encouraged to look to their “inner light” or conscience to guide them in their religious journeys. This belief was key to their progressive views and unprecedented rights for women at the time. Feminism today is based in the belief that women are equal to men socially, politically, and economically.  While this modern notion of feminism would be foreign to 18th century Quakers, Quakers of that period show early gestures towards equality by allowing women to speak out in church and become highly respected ministers.  

Jane Fenn was born  in Chester, Pennsylvania and was raised Anglican. She began her journey into Quakerism after becoming an indentured servant. She had previously criticized women for preaching because as an Anglican she did not believe women could be ministers. She found herself conflicted when she felt the call to preach. Jane was seen as one with a spiritual gift and the local Quaker community formally recognized her as a minister. A visiting English preacher, John Danson, recommended that David Lloyd, a Pennsylvania justice and prominent Quaker, assist Jane in developing her ministerial gift under the condition that she worked for him as a servant. However, she dined with the household and was often noticed by visiting Quakers for her oratory gifts.

While Fenn became a Quaker later in life, Catharine Payton came from a long line of English Quakers. She was educated at home due to her family’s financial hardship and her father’s paralytic disease. She was intelligent and showed a great love for reading plays, romances, poetry, history, and philosophy books, which Quakers deemed dangerous due to their secular subject matter. Her oldest brother had strayed from Quaker teachings, and his rejection of the faith caused Catharine to question the Quaker principles. However, at 16, she was sent to a London boarding school and had a spiritual awakening months after returning home. Her reading materials turned to religious matters rather than personal interests. At 22, she began to preach at local meetings and started to travel the year after. Her travels would take her to England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the American colonies. During her travels, she published pamphlets on a variety of topics, earning her some criticism from men for straying from “normal” behavior for a woman.  

Abigail Craven also came from a Quaker family, but from the opposite side of the financial world. Her family was wealthy and there is evidence that she was educated. In 1712, she served as companion to fellow Irish minister Elizabeth Jacobs. Abigail made her first appearance as a minister at a Quaker Meeting at age 28. She struggled to rely solely on inspiration and found that she was unable to inspire others using her educational background. However, these struggles are what make her story and sermons that much more effective. She travelled to the American colonies in 1725, where she met Jane Fenn. Abigail became very influential and created a wide-reaching network of friends. 

 All three of these women came from different circumstances that made their preaching more effective, whether it was their background, their location, or their personal struggles. Despite these differences there are striking similarities in their stories as well: all three held prominent authority in their Quaker communities, they had an inward assurance about their beliefs, and they focused on preaching as a central pillar in their lives.  

Skip to content