Traveling Ministers—Down Trotting Gender Norms with Each Devoted Step
Quaker women led lives that were very different than those of their contemporaries. These women had the opportunity to act as vigorous participants in their faith, not being driven from the supposed domain of men. George Fox, considered to be the founder of the Society of Friends, saw the ministry as a holy calling instead of a trade—making it naturally open to all. (Trueblood 31). Many women, including Barbara Blaugdone, heeded their call to the Ministry. Some of these women pushed the limits even farther than most, following their call to preach, wherever it led. These traveling ministers pushed even the limits of fellow Friends, often experiencing great oppression and ill regard by those outside of the faith. These women also chose to press other gender boundaries of the time. For this devoted group to be fully understood by the modern reader, they must be seen for what they were, radicals of their time.
The behaviors exhibited by women like Blaugdone could easily have been, and often were, misconstrued. Acts like sleeping in a hog trough, sneaking onto someone’s property, and barging into the office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, all outlined in Blaugdone’s own narrative, were quite out of the ordinary. Often compared with the actions of a vagrant or a prostitute, these dealings were not seen for their religious affiliation but instead for their shocking deviance from the norm. So flustered by great differences between Quakers and others groups of the period, some individuals reacted violently. In one such instance Blaugdone along with Mary Prince were attacked by a knife yielding man, who did, in fact, succeed in sticking Blaugdone in the side (Blaugdone 10). On her mission to Dublin, Blaugdone was blamed for storms affecting their ship and was almost thrown overboard by her shipmates (Blaugdone 21). Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, fellow Quaker travelers, were thrown in prison during their mission to Alexandria, and were tortured psychologically by their captors (Davies 262). True, even stationary Quakers felt many assaults, but traveling women received the worst of it.
Traveling female Quakers tested gender norms even more so than by preaching alone. Their ability to ignore the role of men as protectors, as well as owners, had no context in the minds of their contemporaries. Evans and Chevers greatly distressed their captors when they refused to give their affiliation to fathers or husbands. Women of the day were to be under the thumb of either a father or a husband throughout their lifetime; these two women saw themselves under no authority other than God’s (Davies 259). Blaugdone prided herself on her ability to do her ministry as well as her travel entirely by her own means. This was of such importance to her that it is the fact by which she closes her account. She states:
But in all my Travels, I Travelled still on my own Purse, and was never chargeable to any, but paid for what I had. And much more could I declare of my Sufferings which I passed through, which I forbear to mention, being not willing to be over-tedious. (38)
Women of the day held little to no personal assets, and were forever defined by who their nearest male relative was. In this statement she asserted the fact that she was fully responsible not only for her own person but also her own monies—a radical affirmation.
The early traveling female ministers can only be fully understood when considered in the context in which they were dealing. These women were not only radicals due to their faith but also were the most extreme members of that faith. They took the word of God and moved as it commanded. These women broke gender norms not only pertaining to the act of preaching itself but also because of their lack of a need to identify by their male relationships. These digressions from cultural norms caused them to pay dearly in physical as well as emotional assault, a price they gladly paid for the ability to remain steadfast to the word of God.
Blaugdone, Barbara. An Account of the Travels, Sufferings and Persecutions of Barbara
Blaugdone. London, 1691.
Davies, Stevie. Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660. London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1999.
Trueblood, D. Elton. The People Called Quakers. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.