Catie Gill. Women in the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Community: A Literary Study of Political Identities, 1650-1700. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. xii+243pp. ISBN 0 754 6398 51.

Alison Searle
Queen Mary, University of London

Searle, Alison. "Review of Catie Gill. Women in the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Community: A Literary Study of Political Identities, 1650-1700." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 9.1-5<URL:>.

  1. In this study Catie Gill analyses the ways in which Quaker women shaped their religious and political identities in print. She focuses primarily on the turbulent 1650s, when Quakerism began to emerge as a new religious movement, and the first chapter sketches the historical background to this decade. Gill states that her 'book's rationale is to explore paradigmatic relationships between the individual and the Quaker movement, largely through the analysis of multiply-authored printed texts' (3). The following chapters are organised around three central roles adopted by or enforced upon Quaker women in the 1650s - as prisoners, petitioners and prophets. Each of these found expression in different literary genres including narratives of suffering, petitions (particularly the anti-tithe petition signed by over seven thousand Quaker women in 1659) and prophecies. In the final chapter, Gill extends the historical range of her analysis into the post-Restoration period through an examination of death-bed testimonies.

  2. Gill's concentration on multi-authored texts enables her to explore the manner in which Quaker women expressed selfhood and community. She argues that the development of Quakerism in the 1650s resists a single interpretation of female identity as either 'positive' or domesticating. Close study of the texts shows 'that the Religious Society of Friends produced varied, and sometimes contradictory roles for women' (7). However, the chronological structure of the book and the recognition of a shift in the primary choice of genre for women writers (from prophecy to death-bed testimony), does indicate a movement within Quakerism 'from political radicalism to the relative quietism of the Restoration period' (8).

  3. Gender is central to Gill's approach; she contends that attitudes to gender issues were crucial to 'the movement's development.' Examining the way in which boundaries were established between egalitarianism and restriction reveals 'the contradictions about gender' that helped to shape the identity of Quakerism (8). The four literary genres of 'prophecy, sufferings narratives, petitions, and deathbed testimonies' form the raw material through which these gender contradictions and their implications for individual and communal identities are explored. Gill deploys aspects of narrative theory including discourse and voice, heteroglossia and multi-vocality. These allow her to analyse writings by women embedded in sufferings narratives that were probably edited, collated or introduced by men. She recognises the subtle implications that different mediations of women's speech or writing, and the way their bodily suffering is represented, have upon interpretation. She suggests that 'a case-by-case approach' is consequently the most appropriate and her own study demonstrates the validity of this advice (57).

  4. The chapter on Quaker women as petitioners is perhaps the most interesting. This is partly because Gill is breaking more new ground in her consideration of the tithe-protest than she is with the genres of sufferings narratives or prophecy. However, her combination of gender and genre analysis is particularly suited to exploring the complexities of identity formation as thousands of Quaker women from across Britain actively engaged in the political process. The anti-tithe debate was one that affected all levels of society in intimate and powerful ways; it occurred at a central historical moment, when the insecurity of the Commonwealth re-awakened revolutionary possibilities. When this is juxtaposed alongside the 'communal energy and solidarity' of the Quaker petitioners 'mobilised up and down the nation,' it forms an ideal case-study for considering how gender helped to configure religious and political identities (87). Gill is careful to note that these women based their action upon 'stereotypical ways of figuring women's auxiliary status.' However, she shows that this was combined with an 'individualised subject-position' and 'more collective' identities enabling Quaker women to create 'a position from which to defend their action as public figures, thereby integrating the domestic and the spiritual into the masculinised notions of public citizenship' (110-11).

  5. Gill states her intention not only to read the past, but also to incorporate 'present (feminist) concerns' in her study (1). Occasionally this can produce judgements that fault or praise her subjects in the light of contemporary mores. For example, the decision of the Quaker censors to allow Joan Whitrow's narrative to be published is 'heartening' evidence 'that the female perspective finally triumphed' (180). Similarly, having noted the way collective representations of Quaker suffering continued to incorporate gendered elements, Gill attributes a sense of achievement to a group of Quaker women who suffered together on the grounds that: 'If they didn't fully have unity with the fractured, gendered community of sufferers, they at least could find it between themselves' (76). This may not have been as important to the Quaker women as it is to Gill, but the two imperatives of her study can elide such distinctions. Though the syntax is awkward at times, this book offers an engaging introduction to the ways in which women wrote as Quakers and their unique contribution to 'writing the community' (187).

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).