Friday, September 12, 2008

those who meddle in the making of marriages

Lately I've been reading -- or at least skimming -- lots of math texts from the 17th-century and occasionally something interesting catches my eye. The books and the culture of technical education in which they nest were both monotonously masculine. There were advocates for teaching math to women but the objective of authors and students alike was mostly the preparation of young men for jobs in merchants' offices and trademen's shops.

This morning I was looking at one of the most popular of all these books, William Mather's Young Man's Companion, a comprehensive work of instruction and reference that went through 24 editions between 1681 and 1775. What caught my eye was a reference to a pamphlet he wrote about the invidious meddling of women in the affairs of men. It's called A Novelty: Or, A Government Of Women Distinct From Men, Erected Amoungst Some Of The People, Call'd Quakers. Published in 1694, it complains about the power held by Quaker women in Bedfordshire at the time.
{The image shows a Quaker woman preaching ca. 1675.}

The worst offense, in Mather's view, was that these women would interview young couples who wished to marry. In the words of one who defended the practice, the women would "enquire and see that things be clear on all parts on so weighty a concern as marriage." Susan Dinan explains the purpose of these interviews in a recent monograph.

Mather devotes a couple dozen pages to his reasons why it was improper for a woman to "meddle in the making of marriages unless of her own children and servants." Likening the meeting to an official court of inquiry, he says "the greatest wonder of all is, that such a government should be practised amonst a people that profess that every individual man and woman should have no other guide besides Christ's inward and spiritual grace," and he says he is proud to have earned the rebuke of George Fox himself: "But if you now say to me, as G.F. [i.e., George Fox] said to me ... in a discourse with him, till near mid-night, about the said arbitrary government, 'you do not deserve to have wives,' (saith he) 'you speak too much against women.' to say the truth, this was the best argument he could give us, for his unscriptual female government."

Mather had become a Quaker nearly 35 years before writing this and was to return to the Church of England the next year. George Fox was of course the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. As bold as he was peaceful, his writings make for very interesting reading. Answering Mather and other critics, he strongly defended the right of women to participate in decision-making via Monthly and Quarterly Meetings and to interview couples who wished to marry.
{The image shows Fox in an engraving taken from a contemporary painting.}

Here is the text of a letter -- which Mather quotes -- which summarizes the immediate object of his displeasure:
Friends in Bedford-shire,

Here came Stephen Scarborrow, to acquaint Friends of his Intention of Marriage with Marry Samm, Daughter of Nathaniel Stamm of Litlington, in Bedford-shire; as also he did to our Quarterly Meeting about a Month ago, and Friends did tenderly advise him to acquaint our Women Friends therewith, who attend Meetings to serve Truth in their Day Age, and Generation, and to enquire and see that things be clear on all parts on so weighty a Concern as Marriage; but he refusing to follow Friend's Advice herein, I know not what the Women-Friends may have to say in this Matter: Now I being one that have had some Exercise and Concern in these our Meetings, I do testifie, That that Spirit that doth oppose the good Order in publishing Marriage in Men and Women's Meetings, is not of God, and am sorry for the Young Man, and desire he may live to see his Weakness, and amend; so with Love to all Friends of Truth, rest a Friend to the same Truth. -- Tobias Hardmeat.

Here is the title page of the pamphlet:

Here is the catalog entry for it:

Mather, W., fl. 1695.

A novelty: or, a government of vvomen distinct from men, erected amoungst some of the people, call'd Quakers. Detected in an epistle, occasionally written to a man-judge, upon a young man's refusing (for good conscience sake) to submit to their authority in marriage, seeing that relations and friends were already satisfied. To which is added, a lamentation for the fall of so many of that people. Published for no other end, but to deter all honest hearts of the said people, from erecting the like unscriptural government. Tho' this may not so far prevail with such women as has a secret command of their husbands purses; together with those preachers that reap profit by such a female government, as to consent to the disanulling the same. Written by William Mather, a dear lover of the said people, who has for several years been much troubled, that some of them should fall from there primitive institution, as to set up women's and men's meetings, as guides in government, ... . , London : printed for Sarah Howkins, in George-yard, Lumbard-street, [1694?]
Date: 1694
Bib name / number: Wing (2nd ed.) / M1284C
Bib name / number: Smith, J. Catalogue of Friends' Books / II, p. 162
No. pages: 23, [1] p.
Copy from: Friends' Library, London, England

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