Quaker Women: Personal Life, Memory and Radicalism in the Lives of Women Friends, 1780-1930

Quaker Women: Personal Life, Memory and Radicalism in the Lives of Women Friends, 1780-1930

Quaker Women: Personal Life, Memory and Radicalism in the Lives of Women Friends, 1780-1930

Quaker Women: Personal Life, Memory and Radicalism in the Lives of Women Friends, 1780-1930


One nineteenth-century commentator noted the public character of Quaker women as signalling a new era in female history. This study examines such claims through the story of middle-class women Friends from among the kinship circle created by the marriage in 1839 of Elizabeth Priestman and the future radical Quaker statesman, John Bright.

The lives discussed here cover a period from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, and include several women Friends active in radical politics and the women s movement, in the service of which they were able to mobilise extensive national and international networks. They also created and preserved a substantial archive of private papers, comprising letters and diaries full of humour and darkness, the spiritual and the mundane, family confidences and public debate, the daily round and affairs of state.

The discovery of such a collection makes it possible to examine the relationship between the personal and public lives of these women Friends, explored through a number of topics including the nature of Quaker domestic and church cultures; the significance of kinship and church membership for the building of extensive Quaker networks; the relationship between Quaker religious values and women s participation in civil society and radical politics and the women s rights movement. There are also fresh perspectives on the political career of John Bright, provided by his fond but frank women kin.

This new study is a must read for all those interested in the history of women, religion and politics."


‘Thou art most terribly dear, to leave thee is agony, but I know God can make hard things easy.’ So Elizabeth Bright wrote to her husband of less than two years, John Bright, as she lay dying from consumption in 1841. She was at their lodgings in Leamington Spa where they had gone to consult an eminent physician. John Bright was making one of his brief returns to their home in Rochdale, to complete the stocktaking in his family firm, and to participate in an election there. The doctor believed there had been some improvement in her condition but she continued, nonetheless, to prepare herself for death: ‘perhaps a brighter day may come, sometimes I believe it will but I try and wish to look the other way.’ John Bright returned to help nurse his wife as often as business and electioneering allowed, and her sister, Margaret Priestman, provided day-to-day care. Hopes for Elizabeth Bright’s recovery proved unfounded and increasingly she looked for some spiritual intimation that her soul was saved. Though she felt that even in a short and seemingly blameless life she had done much wrong, she also believed ‘there is mercy and I have prayed for it’. For, the Priestman and Bright families were members of the Religious Society of Friends (often called ‘Quakers’), a church in which the influence of evangelical religion, especially its emphasis on personal salvation, had grown in previous decades.

As she lay dying, Elizabeth Bright asked that her bible and watch be kept for her infant daughter, Helen, and that her text book and a brooch containing some of her hair be given to her husband. As death approached she called her sister to her, and asked her to be kind to John Bright: ‘He has been a good husband.’ She requested all present to kiss her, saying her farewells ‘with the calm of one whose most cherished ties to earth had been gently loosened’. Those present watched anxiously for evidence of her salvation, and recorded her last words: ‘God has forgiven me’ and ‘Poor Mamma.’ They took comfort also in observing no fear or struggle in her passing: ‘her head drooped a little, a sweet smile lighted up the face of death and without a groan … her purified Spirit ascended to the God who gave it and to the Saviour who had redeemed it.’ Elizabeth Bright had made a good death, and she remained a symbol of feminine goodness and piety in family memory thereafter.

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