The Power of Preaching: Female Identity, Legitimacy, and Leadership in American Quakerism, 1700-1776
Type of Degreedissertation
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Although 18th-century Quakerism allowed Quaker women ministers to preach as “enlightened” women, in many ways, they still had to transcend the colonial social conventions that inhibited their leadership. Because their willingness to challenge social norms was intricately tied to their willingness to “follow God,” they utilized their spiritual journals to deal with the internal tensions that were a central part of their gendered spiritual identities. Through their journals, they demonstrate the methods they used to negotiate authority and to circumvent challenges to their leadership as women and as preachers (or Public Friends). Because their claims to authority were shaped by their gendered conceptions of spiritual identity and the specific challenges they faced as female Public Friends, the content, language, and structures of their journals elucidate how the interaction of Anglo-American cultural values and Quaker beliefs affected their personal struggles and spiritual triumphs. A textual analysis of the internal workings of their religious beliefs in their personal lives suggests the limits and extent of their authority as leaders, and provides a point of departure for assessing both the “exceptionality,” and the congruence of Quaker women’s lives with those of other colonial religious women. As public ministers and participants in a larger controversy over individual authority and the meaning of spirituality during the revival period, the lives of the female ministers discussed here exemplify the potential for female leadership within the Society of Friends and within the broader 18th-century American religious culture. As promoters of charity, role-models for female piety, and overseers of their families and religious community, they also represented the potential for expanded female roles within the new Republic. As the forebears of 19th-century Quaker female reformers, who were instrumental in reforms such as suffrage, temperance, women’s rights, abolition, and prison reform, the experiences of these 18th-century Quaker female preachers suggest the roots of female empowerment in a controversial religious group.