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The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann

Christian Textual Tradition

14. The Role of Judith in Margaret Fell’s Womens Speaking Justified

Janet Bartholomew

Texte intégral

  • 1 Condoning women’s preaching was unusual in early modern England, so protofeminist groups like the (...)
  • 2 Quakerism was not the only Christian religion in early modern England seeking to distinguish itsel (...)
  • 3 Isabel Ross, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949), p. 201.

1Seventeenth-century England produced a rich body of literature that debated the inherent spiritual, moral, and intellectual worth of men and women. The early Quakers, as a new and controversial religious sect, were one of many groups who utilized this popular form of public discourse in order to justify their unique religious views. This prolific sect produced hundreds of publications by 1700 that defended their religious beliefs in a predominantly Protestant environment that was openly hostile toward Quakers and other protofeminist religious groups. As one of the few groups to claim spiritual equality between the sexes, some of the Quaker tracts were focused specifically on the advocacy of women’s preaching. The spiritual egalitarian message of the Quakers, in which men and women were both equally called to speak on behalf of the Light of Christ, needed an extraordinary amount of defending during this era.1 Therefore, biblical women were sometimes used in Quaker tracts as examples of God’s condoning of women’s preaching, teaching, and prophesying in public. Although Judith was not as popular a choice in Quaker protofeminist and apologist tracts as other biblical women, possibly because of the Catholic embrace of deuterocanonical texts and the Quaker desire to separate themselves from their Papist counterparts, Judith still appears in an important tract written by the ”Mother of Quakerism,” Margaret Fell.2 In her 1666 pamphlet Womens Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the Scriptures, Fell uses Judith in a way that was unique for her time. Fell’s tract was the first to be written by a woman since the Reformation to plead for the recognition of the spiritual equality of men and women.3 While other pamphlets used Judith as an example of the vices of women, the virtues of women, or the dichotomous nature of women, Fell’s Judith is an authoritative figure who exemplifies the Quaker belief that all women are potentially called to speak on God’s behalf.

  • 4 Margaret was born in 1614 and married Thomas Fell when she was eighteen, remaining his wife until (...)
  • 5 Quaker women wrote and published 171 documents between 1641 and 1700, and thirteen percent of thes (...)
  • 6 For a further discussion of early modern views on gender, see Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender i (...)

2Margaret Fell, a gentlewoman born to the prominent Askew family, converted to Quakerism soon after hearing the charismatic founder, George Fox, preach in 1652. Enthusiastically embracing the new religion, Fell soon became a key leader of the Quaker movement, using her powerful position as both a gentlewoman and the wife of a renowned judge, Thomas Fell, to assist the Quakers in legal and political affairs.4 Fell, like many of the Quaker women, was literate and used this to spread the message of the Quakers and defend the spiritually egalitarian message in print.5 Fell’s tract, Womens Speaking Justified, not only defended her religious sect in print from anti-Quaker sentiments, but it also defended her sex in a time when misogyny was a part of the cultural norm.6 Like other protofeminists, Fell uses a variety of biblical women in her tract as evidence of God’s approval of her sex. Her biblical exegesis, however, had a specific aim: to justify the Quaker belief in a woman’s ability to preach, teach, and prophesy in public. In a society that openly persecuted women who preached in public, Fell attempts to convince her predominantly Protestant audience that biblical women have a history of preaching and prophesying in public, and that these women were rightfully praised for their efforts.

  • 7 Womens Speaking Justified was first printed in 1666 but was reprinted in 1667, this time with an a (...)

3In Fell’s tract, Womens Speaking Justified, Judith appears alongside several other women of the bible, such as Esther, Martha, and the woman with the alabaster jar.7 As a Quaker, Fell uses Judith as an example of God’s condoning of women’s speaking to justify the spiritual egalitarian message of founder George Fox. For Fell, Judith is a mouthpiece for the Lord because she is chosen not only to deliver the Jews from Holofernes, but to also spread the word of her act and praise of God. Therefore, Fell focuses on the end of Judith’s tale, when Judith returns victorious and preaches to the people about God. Because of her forward portrayal of Judith, Margaret Fell thus becomes a unique figure in the seventeenth-century gender war in print. By portraying Judith as a virtuous woman who preached to the Jews, Fell redeems Judith from the popular misogynist interpretation of her story and the stories of other biblical women.

”The Gate of Death”: Judith and Misogyny

  • 8 Joseph Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615), p. 21, Early E (...)
  • 9 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 10 Ibid., pp. 23–24.

4The misogyny that Fell opposed was found throughout the literature of the period, and in some cases men used Judith as an example in their tracts of the qualities they despised in women. Even though Judith is found in many women apologist texts, she also appears in several texts that enforce the seventeenth-century belief that women not only are lustful and deceitful creatures, but they also use their beauty and wanton behavior to ensnare and destroy men. Joseph Swetnam, in his popular 1615 misogynist tract The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, tells his audience that in his pamphlet his readers will ”see the power of women, how it hath beene so great, and more preuailed in bewitching mens wits, and in ouercomming their sences, then all other things whatsoeuer.”8 He then lists several women who caused the ruin or the death of important historical and biblical men, such as Herod, Hercules, Samson, and Adam. Amongst these victims he mentions ”That great Captain Holofernes, whose sight made many thousands to quake, yet he lost his life, and was slaine by a woman.”9 He advises men that when it comes to women, it is better ”to auoid the sight, [which] many times is the best rasor, to cut off the occasion of the euill which commeth by women; for had not Holofernes seen the beauty of Iudeth, and marked the fineness of her foote, he had not lost his head by her.”10 To Swetnam, Judith is an example of how dangerous women can be to men, and she is proof that a woman’s wiles can be deadly.

  • 11 Thomas Beard, The Theatre of Gods Judgments Wherein is Represented the Admirable Justice of God Ag (...)
  • 12 Ibid., p. 285.

5Judith as an instrument of death is a reoccurring theme in early modern English tracts, and several times she is used to portray the ultimate fate for men who drink or lust excessively. Women, as the bane of mankind, could be tools used by God to smite sinful men. Thomas Beard, in his pamphlet The Theatre of Gods Judgements (1642), explains why a sinful man’s death by God at the hands of a woman is a fitting punishment. When Holofernes boasts that ”there is no God [but] Nabuchadnezzar,” God is displeased and ”for this blasphemy the Lord cut him short, and prevented his cruell purpose by sudden death, and that by the hand of a woman, to his further shame.”11 According to Beard, Judith was sent to smite Holofernes not just for his blasphemy, but also for his hedonism. In a later section dedicated to opposing drinking to excess, he recalls, ”Whilest Holofernes besotted his sences with excesse of wind and good cheare, Iudith found meanes to cut off his head.”12 For a great military leader, having his career cut short by the hands of an inferior woman would have been a dishonorable and embarrassing death. Thus Judith becomes a warning to all men, that God may bring them to shame by sending a woman as punishment for their sins.

  • 13 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy What It Is. With All the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Progn (...)
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 This particular view of Judith is one of the key elements of the seventeenth-century debate in Eng (...)

6How Judith defeated Holofernes is embodied in the kind of sexist stereotype that Margaret Fell combated in her protofeminist works: the image of the deceitful harlot. Beauty was dangerous, and in many sermons and publications, men were warned against women who used this to their advantage. Women, as daughters of Eve, were thought to be naturally destructive, and men were advised in books and sermons to take care not to be beguiled by a woman’s beauty. For men, lust was a catalyst for destruction and death, and historical and biblical texts contained several examples of men who met their downfall by lusting after a woman. The women in these stories, however, were not always innocent in these destructive relationships; the dichotomy of woman as both a virgin and a whore gave men the opportunity to blame women for purposefully invoking lust in men. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), asks his audience, ”For what’s an whore […] but a pillar of youth, ruine of men, and a death, a deuourer of patrimonies, a downefall of honour, fodder for the diuell, the gate of death, and supplement of hell.”13 He then provides examples of men who have fallen because of the wanton nature of women, for he tells his male audience, ”Let him see the euent and successe of others, Sampson, Hercules, Holofernes, &c. those infinite mischiefes attend it.”14 Judith, like Delilah and Deianira, was blamed for the downfall of a mighty hero because of her wanton nature and renowned beauty.15

7For Margaret Fell, this popular view of woman as femme fatale created a polemical obstacle that could only be overcome through protofeminist biblical exegesis. Margaret Fell, in Womens Speaking Justified, reinterprets scriptures used in the misogynist arguments and portrays them in a more gender-balanced manner. She also uses various passages to verify the authority women have to preach on the behalf of God. Although reinterpreting the writings of Paul that prohibited women’s preaching was critical in her tract, in addition to using the scriptures to establish women’s authority to preach, one of the greatest strengths of Fell’s pamphlet is in her use of biblical women who preached and prophesied as evidence of a long-standing tradition of God using the ”weaker sex” to speak on his behalf. In this section of her tract, Judith becomes more than just another example of a woman preaching: Judith becomes a weapon with which Fell polemically smites her misogynist enemies.

”Thou Art an Holy Woman”: Judith and Women’s Preaching

  • 16 Elsa Glines writes that currently ”no biographical information is available about John Ravell [how (...)

8For many protofeminist women, the misogynist interpretation of the scriptures was particularly frustrating. In the letters of Margaret Fell, it is evident that she too felt anger and frustration toward men who used scriptures to inhibit women, particularly priests and ministers who preached their misogyny to their congregations. In a letter written to John Ravell in 1654, Margaret Fell openly berates him for misusing the scriptures:16

  • 17 Quoted in Glines, Undaunted Zeal, p. 69.

[T]hou had written downe many scripteurs in thy paper, but thou art soe blind & Ignorant, that thou hast not wreten them as they weare spoken, but sume thou hast corrupted, to sum thou hast added, to sume diminished[,] in sume thou hast set other words then they stand in the Scripteurs, as thou can doe noe other whoe art of another Spirit & of another Nateur then spoke them forth…17

  • 18 Ibid., p. 70.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 69.

9For Fell, a man who misuses or misquotes the Bible ”brings the scripteurs but as the devil did, when he temted Christ” for ”the divell knows the scripturs” and can use them to his own advantage.18 As a forward protofeminist, Fell was unafraid of telling her critics exactly what she thought of them. In the midst of Fell’s polemicist tirade, she tells Ravell, ”thou confesseth [the scriptures] were given forth by Inspiration of the holy gost, which thou never knew but art an enemy to […] soe lett thy mouth be stopped,” thus reciprocating the commandment to be silent from one sex to the other.19

10In Womens Speaking Justified, Margaret Fell uses Judith as both an example of a woman preacher but also as a means of challenging her male opponents. First Fell provides a counterpoint to the argument that women are liars and use their speech to deceive men. By producing Judith as evidence of a woman speaking truth, she establishes that Jewish heroines were publicly honored for bringing truth to the people. For Fell’s purpose, the focal point of Judith’s story happens after she returns to the Jews with the head of Holofernes and tells her people of her deed while openly praising God in public. Fell, however, takes this scene a step further and focuses on what Judith tells the elders specifically. After discussing Esther, she tells her audience:

  • 20 Fell, Womens Speaking Justified, p. 15.

Likewise you may read how Judith spoke, and what noble acts she did, and how she spoke to the Elders of Israel, and said, Dear Brethren, seeing ye are the honorable & Elders of the People of God, call to remembrance how our Fathers in time past were tempted, that they might be proved if they would worship God aright; they ought also to remember how our Father Abraham, being tried through manifold tribulations, was found a friend of God; so was Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and all they pleased God, and were stedfast in Faith through manifold troubles.20

11In this section, Fell is using Judith as a woman of authority, for she not only preaches to the Elders of Israel, but she also instructs them in the scriptures. Judith is exhibiting her authority as an instrument of the Lord, thus giving her the ability to preach to the male authority figures of the Jews. Not only does Judith preach to the Jews without being challenged by the church elders, but she also instructs from the scriptures.

12Judith, in Fell’s tract, is preaching not only to the Elders of Israel but also to her misogynist audience. Just as Judith becomes the mouthpiece of God, Judith also becomes the mouthpiece for Fell, thus lending her authority as a woman preacher to Fell’s message. Judith reminds the men about how the ”Fathers in time past were tempted, that they might be proved if they would worship God aright,” just as the Quakers were currently being tested by society in their faith to their spiritually egalitarian message. Several laws had been passed that were targeted at limiting the rights of radical religious sects, including the Quaker Act of 1662, which ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of several Quakers for meeting in public. Margaret Fell herself was arrested and imprisoned in 1664 at Lancaster Castle; it was during this imprisonment that Fell wrote Womens Speaking Justified in 1666. Just like Fell, Abraham was ”tried through manifold tribulations” and ”was found a friend of God” in the end. If Abraham could prove his faith in God through his own trials, then perhaps Margaret Fell and the early Quakers could prove to their opponents that they too were ”friend[s] of God.”

13For Margaret Fell, a spiritual justification of her own imprisonment and the harsh treatment of the Quakers may have helped her cope with her desperate situation. Fell uses Judith’s words to indirectly offer hope to other Quakers who were also suffering for their faith. Biblical patriarchs such as Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all suffered and found their faith tested by God directly, so perhaps God is testing the early Quakers in the same way. By enduring their suffering, Fell tells us that these patriarchs ”pleased God,” so perhaps the suffering of the Quakers is also finding them favor in the Lord. By aligning the Quakers with these patriarchs, Fell is also lending further credibility to her protofeminist claims. If historically holy men were tested by God and endured public persecution to prove their loyalty to God, what does that say of women who are tried and arrested for preaching and yet still maintain their belief in God’s approval of their preaching? Just as these biblical patriarchs were ”stedfast in Faith through manifold troubles,” so were the Quaker women preachers.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 12.

14Acknowledging how the Elders of Israel responded to Judith’s preaching is critical in Fell’s tract because this would establish whether or not the holy forefathers condoned the act of women’s preaching. In her tract, Fell challenges her audience to read ”how the Elders commended [Judith], and said, All that thou speakest is true, and no man can reprove thy words, pray therefore us, for thou art an holy woman.”21 Here not only has Judith followed the will of God by assassinating Holofernes but is praised by the male authority figures of the Jews for preaching to the people. God openly condones her public speaking, and the men of the tribe recognize her authority as a ”holy woman” and handmaid of the Lord. Judith is not only recognized by the elders as a conveyer of truth, an important counterpoint considering the misogynist belief that all women were liars, but also ”no man can reprove [her] words,” which is a challenge to the men who are reading Fell’s tract. If a man were to condemn the words of Judith or any other woman who is speaking on God’s behalf, he would be guilty of heresy, a powerful accusation that Fell uses to further discredit her male adversaries.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 16.

15In Womens Speaking Justified, Judith becomes more than just an example of another biblical woman preacher; she becomes the means through which Fell openly chastises the men who inhibit women preaching in public. For Fell, Judith’s story is proof that God condones the practice of women’s preaching, for not only what Judith says is true and inspiring, but the Elders of the tribe condoned her preaching as well. If Fell’s male audience would not accept her observation that God condoned women’s preaching, then perhaps they would consider listening to the authority of the men in the story who directly praised Judith for preaching to the tribe. Fell concludes that ”these elders of Israel did not forbid [Judith’s] speaking, as you blind Priests do,” thus accusing misogynist priests of going directly against the elders of the religion whenever they oppose women’s preaching.22 These men, to Fell, are blind to the authority of women preachers, just as they are blind to their own hypocrisy.

  • 23 Ibid.

16Fell continues to degrade the credibility of her opponents when she directly chastises them for their hypocrisy after her account of Judith’s role as a preacher. When men fail to accept early modern Quaker women preachers, Fell implies that these men are also failing to accept women preachers of the Bible and pseudo-biblical texts. Essentially, she is accusing men who reject women’s preaching of heresy, reciprocating the charge of heresy men had placed on women preachers. Despite the evidence that God condones women’s preaching through the Elders of Israel in Judith’s story, Fell’s audience may still not be deterred from rejecting women preachers. Fell responds to these men who openly condemn women’s speaking: ”yet you will make a Trade of Womens words to get money by, and take Texts, and Preach Sermons upon Womens words; and still cry out, Women must not speak, Women must be silent.”23 Here Fell establishes the hypocrisy of men in the print business or ministers who benefit from women’s words, and she comments on the print culture of the seventeenth century that produced several tracts written by women in the open debate on gender and sold them for profit. For instance, in response to the before-mentioned misogynist tract The Arraignment of Women (1615), protofeminist Rachel Speght wrote the response A Mouzell for Melastomus (1615), Esther Sowerman wrote Esther Hath Hanged Haman (1617), and Constantia Munda wrote The Worming of a Mad Dog (1617). Although Sowerman and Munda were clearly pseudonyms that kept the true name and gender of the author anonymous, these tracts were sold with Speght’s as women’s responses to a misogynist tract. The gender war in print was a lucrative business. As Fell indicated in her tract, there was money being made with the words of women. Women’s writing, although not as prevalent as men’s, was a commodity to be bought and sold in print shops all over England for profit.

17According to Fell, if men saw women’s words to be fit enough to publish and thus profit from, and yet they did not embrace the worth of women’s preaching, then these men were guilty of hypocrisy. When Fell observes that men ”take Texts [and] preach sermons upon Womens words,” she is making an even greater accusation of men’s hypocrisy. Men were openly preaching the words of women over the pulpit, lending them authority and credibility through the act of using them in a public religious setting, and yet, when a woman attempts to preach her own words under her own authority, men deny her credibility as a preacher. Men’s bifurcated treatment of women’s words frustrated Margaret Fell, so she uses Judith to condemn men for this practice.

  • 24 Ibid.

18When men both use women’s words for profit and preach women’s words publicly and yet reject women’s ability to act as God’s mouth-piece, Fell reproves them by stating that they ”are so far from the minds of the Elders of Israel, who praised God for a Womans speaking.”24 Here Fell is challenging men’s claim to authority. If men claim their authority over women from the men in the Bible, then by rejecting the authority of the Elders of Israel they are essentially destroying their own patriarchal authority. Fell snares her misogynist opponents in a polemical trap: by rejecting the ancient patriarchy from which the early modern patriarchy draws its authority, the current patriarchy loses its authority; thus, the only way to maintain the authority of the current patriarchy, early modern men had to accept the authority of the ancient theological patriarchs, which meant that they also had to accept the authenticity of women preachers like Judith because they were accepted by these elders. Fell uses Judith’s story to effectively challenge the patriarchal authority exerted over women in early modern England.


19In the seventeenth century, Judith played a key role in the debate over gender, theology, and politics found in the print culture of England. Margaret Fell, as a protofeminist woman advocating women’s preaching, utilized Judith as an example of women’s preaching and as a catalyst through which she could criticize the misogynist use of the scriptures and apocrypha. Judith’s role in the greater pamphlet war was complex, serving as a dichotomous symbol through which men and women could convey their views on theology and the sexes. Even though Judith was used in other tracts that defended women by emphasizing her ”womanly” virtues and dismissing her ”unwomanly” attributes, Margaret Fell not only established Judith as a virtuous woman but also a woman who effectively preached in her own right. Judith, as a mouth-piece of God, was further proof that God condoned women’s preaching and that early modern women were continuing the tradition.

20Although currently there are no known misogynist tracts that challenge Margaret Fell’s Womens Speaking Justified specifically, several pamphlets debating women’s preaching and other Quaker spiritually egalitarian beliefs were published after 1666. Fell’s contribution to the debate on women’s speaking was a key protofeminist publication that embodied the changing views on a woman’s spiritual worth. The main points and counterpoints in Fell’s biblical exegesis illustrate the tools that would become standard in the debate over women’s preaching and teaching in public. Fell’s use of biblical (and apocryphal) women as examples of virtuous women who preached on God’s behalf embodied one of the main methods used by protofeminists to lend authority to their spiritually egalitarian message.

  • 25 The texts used for this project were found at the Newberry Library, the Tennessee State University (...)

21Even though women were still years away from a more holistic feminist movement, Margaret Fell and other protofeminist writers helped balance the canon with biblical exegesis that persisted in explaining the spiritual equality that existed between men and women. The Quakers, as one of the more vocal and prolific spiritually egalitarian groups, continued to spread their protofeminist message in their missionary work. Fell herself witnessed many women in her lifetime who embarked on missions abroad, and watched how several of these women were persecuted and imprisoned for their preaching. Nevertheless, Quaker women continued to spread the message of the Light of Christ long after the death of Margaret Fell. How Fell’s tract specifically was used in these missions has yet to be researched, as well as the full extent of how Judith was used in the gender war in print, but the fact remains that Margaret Fell defended her sex in a time when women were hated simply because they were women, and to do so she borrows Judith’s sword and voice.25


1 Condoning women’s preaching was unusual in early modern England, so protofeminist groups like the Quakers needed to defend the practice in print. For an early Quaker, the polemical discourse of the early modern era presented some doctrinal challenges because their view scripture differed from their Protestant counterparts. A core tenant of the Quaker religion is a non-gendered ‘inner light’ possessed by every individual that granted him or her access to God. Rebecca Larson explains in her book Daughters of the Light that ”the basis of legitimate spiritual authority for Quakers was inward (the Light of Christ within each person)”; Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700–1775 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 29.

2 Quakerism was not the only Christian religion in early modern England seeking to distinguish itself from the Catholic Church. In a time and country where Catholicism was unpopular, polemicists of the dominant Protestant faith also sought to differentiate themselves from their Papist counterparts, and one way of doing this was to reject some of the deuterocanonical works embraced by the Papists. Since the English schism with the Roman Catholic Church, several different versions of the Bible in English had appeared throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With the several differing Bible translations and religious views in England at the time, inevitably there was a debate in print over whether or not apocryphal texts such as the Book of Judith should be accepted as scripture; examples of this theological debate can be found in George Abbot’s The Reasons which Doctour Hill hath Brought, for Upholding of Papistry (1604), Richard Baxter’s The English Nonconformity as under King Charles II and King James (1689), Henry Ainsworth’s A Defence of the Holy Scriptures (1609), and John Vicars’s Unholsome Henbane Between Two Fragrant Roses (1645) (Early English Books Online,, accessed March 2, 2008; March 2, 2008; March 5, 2008; and February 22, 2008).

Aside from rejecting the apocryphal texts, another technique used to differentiate Protestant biblical exegesis on Judith from that of the Papists was for the Protestant polemicists to embrace Judith as a symbol of their own religious cause. Although some Protestant authors did so with the acknowledgment of her dubious position as a possible non-canonical character, several seventeenth-century tracts nevertheless used Judith as a credible counterpoint in public biblical exegesis. Judith thus embodied both the English dread of the Catholic Church while also exhibiting favorable traits to the Protestant movement. Judith embodied the meekness associated with both being a woman and being an ideal Christian, in addition to systematically saving her people by decapitating the tyrant Holofernes, thus symbolizing cutting off the head of the Papal church (Margarita Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior. Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 62–64). Margaret Fell may have chosen to include Judith in her tract because she wanted to appeal to the Protestant audience that embraced Judith as a symbol of victory over the Catholic Church; at the very least, Fell considered Judith to be a figure credible enough to use in her polemics on women’s preaching. For further reading on the early Quakers and apocrypha, see Henry Cadbury’s essay, ”Early Quakerism and Uncanonical Lore” (The Harvard Theological Review, 40.3 (1947), pp. 177–205).

3 Isabel Ross, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949), p. 201.

4 Margaret was born in 1614 and married Thomas Fell when she was eighteen, remaining his wife until his death in 1658. Even as Thomas Fell’s widow, Margaret maintained several political ties with figures such as Oliver Cromwell, and later King Charles II and the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria. In 1669, Fell married Quaker founder George Fox. After his death in 1691, Margaret did not remarry; she continued working for the Quaker cause until her death in 1702. For further reading on the life of Margaret Fell, see Isabel Ross, Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949); Bonnelyn Kunze, Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); Elsa Glines, Undaunted Zeal: The Letters of Margaret Fell (Richmond, VA: Friends United Press, 2003).

5 Quaker women wrote and published 171 documents between 1641 and 1700, and thirteen percent of these were written by Margaret Fell (Kunze, Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism, p. 131).

6 For a further discussion of early modern views on gender, see Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Gerda Lerner, The Creation of the Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Cristina Malcolmson and Mihoko Sukuki (eds.), Debating Gender in Early Modern England, 1500–1700 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). For examples of anti-Quaker pamphlets that spoke directly against women’s preaching, see the anonymous The Devil Turned Quaker (1656), A Friendly Dialogue Between Two Countrymen (1699), Richard Baxter’s One Sheet Against the Quakers (1657), and John Bewick’s An Answer to a Quakers Seventeen Heads of Queries (1660) (Early English Books Online, accessed December 2, 2006; March 2, 2008; and December 2, 2006).

7 Womens Speaking Justified was first printed in 1666 but was reprinted in 1667, this time with an addendum that included biblical women such as Hulda, Miriam, and Hanna (Margaret Fell, Womens Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the Scriptures [1666, 1667], Early English Books Online, accessed January 2, 2007). The pamphlet was then translated into Dutch and reprinted in 1688 to use in Quaker proselytizing abroad, which was highly unusual for a protofeminist tract of this era. For more information, see Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism by Isabel Ross, pp. 191–210. The tract is available at

8 Joseph Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615), p. 21, Early English Books Online. (accessed November 22, 2006).

9 Ibid., p. 23.

10 Ibid., pp. 23–24.

11 Thomas Beard, The Theatre of Gods Judgments Wherein is Represented the Admirable Justice of God Against All Notorious Sinners (1642), p. 132. Early English Books Online (accessed 5/3/08).

12 Ibid., p. 285.

13 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy What It Is. With All the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Seuerall Cures of It (1621), p. 369. Early English Books Online (accessed March 5, 2008).

14 Ibid.

15 This particular view of Judith is one of the key elements of the seventeenth-century debate in England over whether or not the apocrypha should be considered part of the Protestant canon. George Abbot, in his 1604 tract The reasons which Doctour Hill hath brought, for the vpholding of papistry, explains one of the reasons why the Book of Judith should be excluded from the canon:

They are not matters to bee commended by the penne of the holy Ghost, that Iudith should dress and tricke her selfe more than became a matrone, that so she might allure Holofernes to wantonnesse; that shee should make shew as not to deny to lie with him: that shee should tell such evident vntruthes to his servants at her first taking, and to himselfe afterward. (318)

16 Elsa Glines writes that currently ”no biographical information is available about John Ravell [however] internal evidence indicates that he may have been a minister; that he wrote controversial papers, like Margaret Fell; and that he had criticized her writings, accusing her of not knowing the scriptures” (pp. 68–69). In Fell’s impressive body of work, there is evidence that Fell was in fact well versed in the scriptures, for not only does she quote them amply in her publications, but in her letters alone she quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to over one thousand different lines of scripture, ranging from Genesis to Revelations (Glines, Undaunted Zeal, pp. 495–500).

17 Quoted in Glines, Undaunted Zeal, p. 69.

18 Ibid., p. 70.

19 Ibid., p. 69.

20 Fell, Womens Speaking Justified, p. 15.

21 Ibid., p. 12.

22 Ibid., p. 16.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 The texts used for this project were found at the Newberry Library, the Tennessee State University Library, and the Vanderbilt University Library, as well as at Early English Books Online.


Janet Bartholomew received her M.A. in English from Tennessee State University where she studied protofeminist biblical exegesis in the writings of Early Modern women. She currently teaches at Albion College as a part-time visiting faculty member and is an adjunct professor at Jackson Community College. She has also held faculty positions at Tennessee State University and Nashville State Community College. Her most recentconference papers include ”Created for Labor: Rachel Speght’s Intertwined Gender Labor System in A Mouzel for Melastomus” and ”Defending ’Heuah’s Sex’: Biblical Exegesis in Two Early Modern Protofeminist Tracts.”


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