Visionary Women
A review by Rhoda Gilman

Not long ago I read a book called Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-century England  by Phyllis Mack. It was published by the University of California Press in 1992. More than two-thirds of the "visionary women" it discusses were Quakers, and the fact that Mack examines their story from the point of view of modern religious and feminist scholarship gives it a fresh perspective. This review is adapted from one I wrote for the newsletter of Women Historians of the Midwest.

The decades of social, political, and religious upheaval between 1640 and 1660 in England produced a fertile ideological and spiritual seedbed not unlike that of the 1960s and '70s in the United States. Popular cults blossomed everywhere in the wreckage of long-established belief systems and in the temporary freedom produced by political turmoil. There were Familists, Behmenists, Baptists, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians, Ranters, and the "Children of Light" who were promptly dubbed "Quakers" because of their trembling ecstasies of inner vision. Women played prominent roles in many of these movements, but nowhere more than among the Quakers, where their entranced preaching and prophesying carried them from marketplace to pulpit and palace -- and often on to prison. Most of these women have dropped into historical obscurity, except for a few, like Elizabeth Hooton and Mary Dyer, who paid the price of public whipping or hanging.

The easy course for modern scholars, who must by ironclad convention view all things from the perspective of scientific skepticism, is to talk of hysteria and madness or to construct some hidden or unconscious motivation drawn from today's social and psychological context. As a historian of religion, Phyllis Mack avoids this. She argues that Freudian, Marxist, or feminist theories are all inadequate in discussing people who "Having penetrated behind the false solidity of titles, personalities, mentalities, even their own biology, felt themselves to be gazing on reality, while the modern scholar sees only a void." Although she employs poststructuralist analysis (with care and a merciful absence of jargon), Mack acknowledges that even this approach is problematic, for the visionaries' "prayer and inner discipline . . . were attempts to do nothing less than to deconstruct the self."

Instead, she makes a meticulous effort to understand these women on their own terms and to probe their extravagant behavior and language for the meanings that they and their own contemporaries found there. In doing so, she takes readers on a long tour of 17th-century religious metaphor and attitudes toward female spirituality. This was, after all, a century of wholesale witch-burning. But if the public feared that women could be possessed by supreme evil, they also saw in women the potential for direct contact with the sublime and holy.

The decades of conflict drew to a close in 1660 with the restoration of the English monarchy. Weary and disappointed, most religious enthusiasts retired to private worship or drifted back to established churches. Those who did not faced either prison or mob violence. The only surviving movement was that of the Quakers, who made a tortured but successful transition from being "Children of Light" to a "Society of Friends."

Mack devotes the last third of her book to the role of women in this transformation and how it affected their status within the movement. Here she traces the evolution of separate women's meetings, which held significant power over family and spiritual matters, as contrasted with the men's meetings, which controlled public and organizational affairs. At this stage the influence of individuals becomes more important, especially that of George Fox and Margaret Fell, both of whom stood firmly for the separate but (not quite) equal authority of women. As Mack makes clear, Margaret Fell was almost a prototype of the transition made by Quaker women from being inspired channels of the Divine Spirit to "Mothers in Israel" and forces for stability and survival.

It is not Mack's purpose to follow the legacy of female influence further, but others have linked it to the 19th-century movements for abolition of slavery and women's rights. Less widely recognized is the parallel between these early visionaries and the mediums and trance speakers of the American spiritualist movement, nearly all of whom were women. As historian Ann Braude has shown in her book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-century America  (1989), many of them had ties to Quakers, and Spiritualism itself drew most of its initial support from splinter groups of Hicksite Friends. Braude argues that these people sought a renewal of the visionary experience their own tradition had taught them to expect but had somehow lost.

Rhoda Gilman is a member of Twin Cities Friends Meeting (Minnesota) and a founder and past president of Women Historians of the Midwest (WHOM). She has served as editor of Universalist Friends, the journal of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF), as QUF's pamphlet editor, as as a member of QUF's Steering Committee.

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