Quaker women: resources for women’s history in the Library of the Society of Friends

For Women’s History Month this March, we offer a broad overview of some of the great women’s history resources the Library has to offer. Whether you’re interested in the lives and thought of particular Quaker women, in the history of the Society of Friends and Quakerism, or in women’s history more generally, we hope this blogpost will give some pointers to fruitful sources for research and reading.

Archives of women’s meetings

Quaker women gathered together regularly in London from the late seventeenth century, though an official Yearly Meeting of Women Friends was only formally established in 1784 (having first been proposed in 1753). It was finally laid down in 1907. The records of the Women’s Yearly Meeting include minute books from 1759 to 1907, and epistles 1753-1906.

Womens YM minutes 1772

Yearly Meeting of Women Friends. Minute book 1759-1785

Meetings around the country also had their own separate women’s meetings. London and Middlesex women’s meetings records are here in the Library, including those of the Women’s Two Weeks Meeting and Box Meeting. Surviving records of other local women’s meetings are deposited locally along with other monthly meeting archives. For more information about specific local women’s meeting records and their whereabouts, contact us.

Womens Two Weeks Meeting Minute book 1779-1783

Womens Two Weeks Meeting. Minute book 1779-1783

 

Women’s published writings

17th century Quaker publishing was remarkable both for its abundance and for the unusual number of women authors, at a time when women’s public writing was as uncommon (and as deprecated) as women’s preaching. It’s not surprising that many researchers have found the Library a rich resource for early modern women’s writing and publishing.

Womens tracts

Some key reference works and anthologies for research into 17th and 18th century Quaker women’s published writing include:

Quaker women have of course gone on writing on a wide range of topics and in a variety of forms ever since. Not only does the Library aim to collect all Quaker publications, but it also holds a representative range of books by Quakers on unrelated topics, including works by women authors who wrote for a living, such as botanical books for children by Priscilla Wakefield (1751-1832), or the poems and fiction of the novelist Amelia Opie (1769-1853).

So if you’re looking for the writings of a particular Quaker woman, or a particular title, your first stop should be the Library’s online catalogue. We’ve produced some catalogue search tips, to help focus your search – for instance by genre and date – and make good use of the results.

Women’s diaries, letters and other personal papers

Women’s stories have often gone untold through lack of documentation. Any surviving personal papers – diaries, correspondence, note books – can be invaluable sources for learning more about women’s public and private lives. You will find many examples of these, from the 17th to the 20th century, in the Library’s collections, including travel journals and spiritual diaries, which, by their nature, are more likely to have been preserved for posterity.

The most iconic are probably the diaries of Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), prison reformer, whose presence in recent years on the five pound note gives an indication of her continuing fame. The recently conserved diaries (MS Vol S 255-271) give a fascinating insight into the inner life of a Quaker minister and social reformer, documenting her private moral and spiritual struggles as well as her philanthropic activities.

Here is a selection of some other women’s diaries to whet your interest (click on the links for full catalogue descriptions of these manuscripts, or contact us for a longer list).

Eighteenth century

Nineteenth century

Twentieth century

Secondary sources

Besides published biographies of individual women or families, the Library holds historical studies of Quaker women of different periods, written from various standpoints. Mabel Brailsford’s Quaker women 1650-1690 published over a century ago was the first substantial study in the field, taking the biographical narrative approach which continued to be favoured in popular works on the subject, often for a mainly Quaker audience. More recent historical writing has been influenced by the increasing academic professionalisation of history, but also by the growth of social and economic history, women’s history and gender studies, and the study of material culture (particularly in the domestic sphere). These developments, along with the impetus to tell untold stories and publish anthologies of source material on less well documented areas, have led to a proliferation of valuable secondary sources for anyone interested in studying Quaker women. Here’s a short selection of some of these important and useful works.

General

Seventeenth century

Eighteenth century

Nineteenth century

Twentieth century

 And much more…

This short blog post has merely scratched the surface of what’s available for the study of women’s history in the Library. We have omitted general biographical sources, such as the Dictionary of Quaker biography. And we haven’t even mentioned images and artefacts (photographs, cartes de visite, art works by and about women Friends, costume, museum objects), despite their importance for the study of women’s everyday lives. It’s clearly impossible to produce a single conspectus of all relevant Library sources, given the wide compass of possible topics relating to women’s history, and the range of potential users of the collections. Thankfully, the online catalogue will take you much further – and of course we are always ready to welcome new readers and answer enquiries about the collections.

Above all, we hope you will all join us in celebrating Quaker women’s lives and history, whether you’re a seasoned researcher or just dipping your toe in for the first time.

Quaker meeting attributed to Heemskerk F070

The Quaker Meeting, oil painting attributed to Egbert van Heemskerk, late 17th century (Library reference: F070)

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