NC Women: The Quakers

Assembly of Quakers

One of the most satisfying parts about studying history is the perspective that it often shades on today’s world. While researching and writing this blog project about North Carolina Women I have come to several realizations, but researching Quakers may have offered the most profound thus far. Without the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) there would have been no Seneca Falls convention, in effect delaying women’s suffrage throughout the United States – possibly for generations. Without Quakers’ actions, Civil Rights and prisoner rights would have been greatly stunted, most likely also for a very long time. The Civil War may even have turned out very differently, but that is a topic for a totally different post – or maybe an alternative history sci-fi novel, but I digress. One thing is for sure: the fabric of our society would be a different shade, a darker shade, without the hard work and influence of Quakers, both male and female.

George Fox
Portrait of George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) From the Library of Congress

The Religious Society of Friends is an offshoot of Protestantism, begun in 17th century England by a man named George Fox. He saw hypocrisy throughout the Church of England and went looking for something different, something more. In his search he founded the principles of the Religious Society of Friends, particularly the doctrine of “internal light,”… “there is ‘that of God in everyone’ leads to a deep conviction that conscience should not be coerced. Freedom of conscience implies freedom of speech, which in turn implies freedom of association and assembly.”{1} Fox’s ministerial work was ground shaking (and people shaking hence the name Quakers) and challenged the Church hierarchy – not a group  you want to make an enemy of – yet his following grew. Many strident supporters would find themselves in prison for their inclusive beliefs, driving Quakers to become – possibly – the first group to work for prisoners’ rights both in England and America. Some of Fox’s most strident converts would be women. “The notion that ‘God in every man’ applies equally to women stems from the earliest days of Quakerism.”{2} The Religious Society of Friends would become the first established religion in modern times to extend self enlightenment and an opportunity to minister, if called, to females.

Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
Quaker Women – From the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Four of the five organizers of the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 were well known and respected Friends women, including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. The 19th amendment is named for Susan B. Anthony. The mothers of feminism started a movement with a convention, a document, and 100 signatures. The Seneca Falls convention and the Declaration of Sentiments did not happen in a vacuum. Through the teachings and social tolerance of the Religious Society of Friends, these women were given the opportunity to have a voice – unheard of in other aspects of 19th century life. They had become accustomed to not only speaking to a crowd but to mixed crowds – those containing both males and females. There was no organized hierarchy or ordained clergy in the Society (Quaker) religion. Instead, traveling ministers would get a calling and head out to organize meetings. These meetings would often consist of silence and meditation, only when someone was moved by finding their inner light would they speak. The Quakers tested societal boundaries by allowing women to participate in ministry equally with men, and in some places this was considered a jailable offense.  

Mary Dyer being led to the gallows in colonial Boston for her belief in Quakerism. She would be one of four women hanged for her ministerial work known as the Boston martyrs.

A central tenet of the Religious Society of Friends was a strict adherence to nonviolence. Unfortunately this righteous cause would often get converts into trouble. Some Quakers refused to pay local military tax, church tax, or remove their hats while in the presence of generals and other high officials – hats, really? These were jailable offences – along with women speaking to mixed crowds – and George Fox as well as many of the early Society converts spent time in jail. They became outspoken prison system reformers, something that Quakers still fight for today. The women’s group, Female Prison Association of Friends, worked to get education and a library in the women’s prison in New York. They also petitioned for a separate juvenile facility, a female to be matron of the jail, and started halfway houses for the females prisoners that were released. These were bold actions of women helping women.{3}

Unfortunately the story of Quakers in North Carolina is not an all out positive one, though it started out well enough for the group. Many members of the Society of Friends left England due to religious persecution and landed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina – colonies that supported religious freedom at the time. They were some of the earliest people to colonize North Carolina in the 1600’s, and originally exercised great political influence in the colony. This influence waned after the Revolutionary War and the influx of new people with differing belief systems. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, Quakers were spreading from their stronghold in Pennsylvania and a second wave of Quaker migration landed in the Piedmont. By the mid 1800’s and the run up to the Civil War, many Quakers began leaving North Carolina for the newly opening lands of Ohio. North Carolina had become a place of persecution for the Society of Friends. Their belief in nonviolence, education for all, and abolitionism made few friends and several enemies in the Van Winkle state. Luckily they left a lasting mark on the state through education.

First faculty at the New Garden Boarding School, to become Guilford College, 1888. Notice the percentage of women to men.

Education is the aspect of North Carolina society that the Quakers had the largest impact on, in the past and through to today. Quakers became one of the first groups to educate girls alongside boys. They would go on to have some of the highest percentages of literate women in their ranks in the 18th and 19th centuries. They even had the audacity to teach free negro children – until a North Carolina state law was passed outlawing teaching African-Americans to read – see the NC Women: Harriet Jacobs and slave women blog from February. A Quaker man, Nathan Hunt, opened the first co-educational boarding school in the south in 1837, New Garden Boarding School in Greensboro NC – a Quaker stronghold at the time. Eventually the New Garden School would become Guilford University.

Mary Mendenhall Hobbs

In the late 1800’s early 1900’s Mary Mendenhall Hobbs – a devout Quaker – would promote educating females through a work tuition program meant to help women pay for school at Guilford University. Most families could not afford to send all of their children to school, and the choice was often made to send the boys of the family but not the girls. With this new program, many more women would be able to enter into higher education in North Carolina than ever could before. Mary Hobbs was an influential North Carolina Quaker women who would dedicate her life to creating opportunity for all girls – Quaker or not – to receive a decent education. She would also lend her hand to other important social justice matters; temperance, the women’s movement, and indigenous rights, among others.   

Quakers have always been a small percentage of the overall population, yet they have been a large percent of those working towards social justice. Through early work for abolition and prisoners rights as well as the right of women to participate in ministry,  women leaders gained confidence and strength to fight for their own rights. I have always found it fascinating that many women worked for abolition and in some cases temperance before they organized for women’s rights. I can’t help but think that the idea of the women’s sphere – the idea that women’s place was in the home and as society’s moral compass – was much more pervasive than I could have ever imagined. The status of women was and in some ways still is institutionalized in our society, which is the glass ceiling that we are still trying to shatter. It is hard for me to put myself into the mentality of these early rights-crusading women. I have always thought, well of course I would have been out on the forefront fighting for women’s rights. But I am not so sure any more. Could I have been brainwashed into submission?

Mothers of Feminism

Mothers of Feminism By Margaret Hope Bacon, this book has been an extremely valuable resource for the writing of this blog, if you are interested at all in the Quaker women that changed the world that we live in I would highly suggest reading it.             


  1. “Freedom of Conscience.” Quakers in the World,
  2. “Rights of Women.” Quakers in the World,
  3. “One Reform and Another.” Mothers of Feminism The Story of Quaker Woman in America, by Margaret Hope Bacon, Harper & Row, 1986, pp. 137–150.