Moderator’s note: Today’s post has been paired deliberately with yesterday’s archival post by Mary Sharratt. Both pay homage to Margaret Fell in very different yet complementary ways.
In the conservative evangelical church world—a world I was deeply invested in for most of my twenties—people often spoke of Christian feminism as if it appeared for the first time in our generation, or maybe one generation prior. I’m not totally sure why I accepted this as true—but I did, for a long time. It wasn’t until seminary that I learned otherwise.
It turns out that the dream of full, real, felt equality for women within Christianity is a very, very old dream. The history of women in church is a great deal more complex than I had assumed, or been led to believe. Over the course of two thousand years of Christian history, women have fought for, and sometimes experienced, freedom to lead and minister and be fully human.
Learning about some of the amazing historical women who fought for equality in the Christian tradition was a game changer for me. My view of religious history was expanded; my view of feminist struggle was expanded.
One of the first lightbulb moments came when I read Margaret Fell’s 1666 essay Women Speaking Justified. My mind was blown. Language quirks and style aside, Fell’s essay basically could have been written today.
Many of Fell’s arguments are still active points of conversation and debate in conservative church communities. I couldn’t believe that people have been debating these things since (at least) the 1600s. It went against all of my deeply-ingrained (but deeply problematic) notions of progress. Centuries before modern feminist movements—including the (perhaps misleadingly named) first-wave feminism of the 1800s—women were preaching, and longing to preach, and being called to preach but prevented from it by sexist institutions, and articulating biblical arguments to justify their calling to preach.
Just as many conservative churches today look to the Genesis 1-2 creation stories when discussing gender differences and gender roles, so does Fell. Fell reads Genesis 1 and notes, “Here God joins [man and woman] together in his own Image, and makes no such distinctions and differences as men do.” God creates and blesses both male and female, writes Fell, to be fruitful together. And God gives both of them, together, all of the good gifts of the natural world. For Fell, the creation stories offer visions of mutuality, of lifegiving and equal relationships among humans of both—or, I would say, among humans of all—genders.
Later on in her essay, Fell turns her attention to the New Testament, reflecting on the stories of Jesus recorded there. She writes, “Jesus owned the Love and Grace that appeared in Women…and by what is recorded in the Scriptures, he received as much love, kindness, compassion, and tender dealing towards him from Women, as he did from any others.” Fell argues that Jesus was glad to receive women’s ministry; given this, why shouldn’t we be just as glad? Jesus honored women’s ministry—thus, so should we.
Fell also comments on the male apostles’ slowness to believe the women who were the first witnesses and preachers of Jesus’ resurrection. “Mark this,” she writes, “you that despise and oppose the Message of the Lord God that he sends by Women; what had become of the Redemption of the whole Body of Man-kind, if they had not believed the Message that the Lord Jesus sent by these Women, of and concerning his Resurrection?” What would have become of Christianity, Fell asks, without those early women preachers—without their faithfulness to tell what they saw, even though the male disciples had to see for themselves before believing them?
The male disciples weren’t there at the tomb, but the women were. The women showed up. They were the ones who “sat watching, and waiting, and weeping about the Sepulchre…and so were ready to carry his Message.”
This kind of theological and biblical reflection is still happening today. It is still, unfortunately, much-needed today. Many of Fell’s arguments felt so familiar to me when I read them in 2017. I had no idea a brilliant female preacher spelled them out in the 1600s.
When I began to learn about women like Fell who argued for women’s rights throughout two thousand years of Christian history, it was like slowly finding (some of) the pieces to a puzzle I didn’t even know existed. Christian history is not nearly as simple as it often comes across in male-dominated classrooms. As historian Beth Allison Barr writes, “Women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were.”
So often we only get part of the story. And often we don’t even know enough to know that that’s what we’re getting. How could we?
Realizing these things was infuriating for me—and also deeply encouraging. It helped me stop believing the lie that Christian feminists today are the first or second—or even fifth or sixth—generation of women who find ourselves struggling for equality in the religious world, and sometimes, in some ways, succeeding. We are far from the first women to long to lead and minister freely. Margaret Fell belongs to a breathtakingly brilliant multitude of women who have been pushing back against patriarchal religious institutions since long before the era of modern-day feminism.
As we struggle in our own contexts, we too join this history. We can draw on the strength of such a great cloud of witnesses over two thousand years. We can find our place historically in a tradition whose attitude toward women has been more of a sine wave of cycles than a linear, up-and-to-the-right trajectory of progress.
I want to keep learning about the feminist women of church history—to claim and reclaim their legacy as strength and sustenance for our struggle today.
 This essay is included in Barbara MacHaffie’s book Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, pp. 156-158.
 Ibid, 156.
 Ibid, 157.
 Ibid, 158.
 Barbara MacHaffie, Ibid, 158.
 Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, 84.
BIO Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).
Categories: Christianity, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, General