Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012)

Jacqueline Broad
Monash University
On the strength of her 1666 pamphlet, Womens Speaking Justified, the Quaker writer Margaret Fell has been hailed as a feminist pioneer. In this short tract, Fell puts forward several arguments in favour of women's preaching. She asserts the spiritual equality of the sexes, she appeals to female exempla in the Bible, and she reinterprets key scriptural passages that appear to endorse women's subordination to men. Some scholars, however, have questioned Fell's status as a feminist thinker. They point to the fact that, according to Fell and her fellow Quakers, women are permitted to speak in church—but only in so far as they are vessels or mouthpieces for Christ. In every other respect, it is argued, the early Quakers continue to either ignore, denigrate, or efface the female sex. Other critics point out that the Quakers' gender egalitarian principles operate in a rather limited sphere of activity—that of religious worship alone—and do not extend to the socio-political domain. Notwithstanding such criticisms, Fell's defence of women's preaching was undoubtedly influential in her time and may have inspired women writers beyond her religious circle. Foxton (1994) claims that Quaker women's writings more generally set an important precedent for women's publishing activities in the seventeenth century, on both religious and non-religious topics. This entry covers Fell's life and works, and considers her ideas and arguments in the context of Quaker thought and practice, Quaker feminist thought, criticisms of Quaker defences of women, and Fell's place in the history of feminism.
Keywords Margaret Fell  Quakerism  feminist history  seventeenth century
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