Allies and Friends: The Women’s March and Alice Curwen’s Quaker Testimonial

On January 19, 2019, the third iteration of the Women’s March took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The now-annual protest defines itself as a woman-led movement dedicated to uniting diverse women in social struggle and dismantling systems of oppression. The first March (held on January 21, 2017–one day after President Trump’s inauguration) emerged as part of the upswing in liberal and Leftist protests against the then-new administration’s policies. Since the election results were announced in November of 2016, an unprecedented number of women have taken to the streets to exercise their right to public demonstration. In a poll conducted by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, an estimated 1 in 5 Americans have protested since the election, and about 19% of these are new protesters, myself included. The Women’s March was the largest of these, drawing over 470,000 people to Washington D.C. and millions more across the world to share in support.

Although the March organizers strived for inclusivity, critics homed in on its tone-deafness to issues of race, class, and even gender in the weeks and months that followed the 2017 protest. An article by Ijeoma Oluo in The Establishment, for instance, was one of many that critiqued the self-congratulatory tone with which the March was lauded for being “non-violent,” “peaceful,” and “respectful.” These self-congratulations appeared to ignore the fact that the overwhelmingly white turnout of the March solicited a very different set of affects and reactions than the Black Lives Matter protests. Mariella Mosthof echoed Oluo’s critiques in an article for Bustle: “White, cisnormative women have the privilege of not courting the same response from police. They are no more to credit for a peaceful, arrest-free march than peaceful black protestors are to blame for militarized police showing up to their events in [riot gear].”

Mosthof also critiqued first-time protesters, particularly white middle-class women who, finding themselves newly threatened by the administration’s policies, marched with gusto and happily took credit for the sheer size of the Women’s March, ignoring or even sidelining activists of color who had been protesting for years and decades. Others criticized the biological essentialism of the March’s primary symbols, including many protesters’ signs that insisted on the autonomy of women’s uteruses (“My uterus, my choice!”) and the ubiquity of all those pink “pussy hats.”

A Sea of Pussy Hats at the Women’s March (courtesy of

Although the hats were intended as a response to Donald Trump’s leaked Access-Hollywood tape, Pensacola sister-march organizer Haley Morrisette argued that the hats upheld the idea that womanhood was inextricably tied to “female genitalia”—and Caucasian female genitalia at that—an idea that is particularly damaging to trans- and non-binary people. Trans activists also experienced micro-aggressions and were only reluctantly included in the march. The case was the same for sex workers. Raquel Willis, who spoke at the Washington protest, tweeted, “Still silencing trans women. Cutting my mic off mid-speech after I just discussed Sylvia [Rivera] and Marsha [P. Johnson]… I see you & so does everyone else.” Janet Mock, who also spoke at the protest, tweeted that she had to work with organizers to include the line, “We stand in solidarity with sex workers,” in the March’s statement of core values. That line had initially been rewritten by organizers to focus solely on the victims of human trafficking.

As the 2019 Women’s March approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the first March and contemplating what it means to be a white cis-gendered ally, especially considering the critiques of white feminism that rightfully emerged from these protests. And as I’ve considered how I might engage my students in discussing this landmark event, especially when the texts I teach are over three-hundred years old, I’ve come across an unlikely pairing.

A Relation of the Labour, Travail and Suffering of that Faithful Servant of Our Lord, Alice Curwen, is a Quaker testimonial (or spiritual autobiography) edited and published by her friend, Anne Martindell, in 1680, the year of Curwen’s death. The book is a composite of different genres. A Relation features short writings by Curwen’s friends, husband, and daughter, praising her life. It also includes a memoir and travelogue of Curwen’s journeys through New England and the Caribbean alongside the letters exchanged by Curwen and her fellow Quakers in the Americas. The memoir portion, penned by Curwen in her final years, begins by describing the directive she received from God to go to Boston, where four members of the Society of Friends (now known as the Boston Martyrs) had been recently executed, following new anti-Quaker legislation. Curwen traveled throughout New England and eventually Barbados. She was arrested and subsequently banished from major settlements for holding Quaker meetings. She stubbornly returned to the settlements from which she was banished.

Curwen had a keen awareness of how taking up space could be a politically-radical act. In fact, her itinerancy might easily be compared to our modern notion of civil protest. Curwen also stands out as a relatively progressive voice for her time. By all accounts, she was a staunch abolitionist. She opposed not only the inhuman practices of the slave trade but also the logic of racial hierarchies altogether. For example, Curwen sharply chastised Martha Tavernor, an English widow and member of the Society of Friends who had barred her slaves from attending meetings: “I tell thee plainly,” Curwen wrote in a pointed letter to Tavernor, “thou hast no right to reign over their conscience in matters of worship of the living God; for thou thyself confessed that they had souls to save as well as we” (italics original). Curwen then urged Tavernor to “let [her slaves] have liberty, lest thou be called to give an account to God for them, as well as for thyself.”

Curwen’s use of the word “reign” here makes her tone especially biting. The anti-authoritarianism of early Quaker doctrine distinguished it from other sects of Christianity. The Society of Friends rejected the spiritual authority of ministers, believing instead that all people had the spiritual authority to proselytize. By accusing Tavernor of reigning over the conscience of her slaves—as if she were a monarch or a minister—Curwen takes the widow to task on the grounds of their shared belief system. Similarly, Curwen’s reminder to Tavernor that her slaves “have souls to save the same as we” draws upon Quaker beliefs that everyone had the “saving light.” Curwen echoes a famous statement made by eminent Quaker writer Robert Barclay in An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676): “There is an evangelical and saving light and grace in everyone, and the love and mercy of God toward mankind [is] universal.”

In drawing upon Quaker anti-authoritarianism and the universality of salvation, Curwen’s rebuke of Tavernor extends beyond a critique of her participation in the slave trade to imply that the racial hierarchies that the slave trade employs are invalid. Curwen’s remarks, printed in 1680, are particularly striking when we consider that the Society of Friends did not claim abolitionism as an official stance until 1761. Before that, anti-slavery sentiments appeared in individuals’ writings and even within a few congregations—the Germantown Meeting outside of Philadelphia, for example, penned a petition against slavery in 1688—but those sentiments did not reflect the predominant views of the Society, though from the beginning most Quakers denounced the cruelty of slave-trading practices. In this context, Curwen emerges as a relatively early abolitionist voice. Importantly, the anti-authoritarianism and universalism Curwen draws upon here is also what licenses her own voice. Though the Society of Friends did not officially recognize women’s equality with men until much later—and, in fact, women and men had separate meetings well into the nineteenth-century—it did recognize women’s equal authority to speak on spiritual matters. Quaker women were encouraged in the late seventeenth century to proselytize, locally and abroad, and to write down and publish their experiences.

It is tempting to rally around Curwen’s text, particularly given the forthrightness of Curwen’s anti-slavery and anti-racism rhetoric. And yet, there is something that remains troubling for me about her testimonial—her brief and unsettling portrayal of Indigenous populations. Curwen mentions American Indians only once in her memoir, and her rhetoric effectively dehumanizes them. Curwen notes that Quaker settlements outside of Dover in present-day New Hampshire had been raided several times by local tribes. New anti-Quaker legislation forced Quakers in New England to the edges of established Puritan settlements, making them particularly vulnerable. Curwen describes how these Quakers fortified their new houses “for fear of those Bloody Indians.”

Though fortification cannot absolutely be taken to mean “armed” here (fortification can mean, simply, “to strengthen”) the Oxford English Dictionary shows that its common connection to armed garrisons in the period likely means that the Quakers were preparing for violent conflict with the local populations. In the sentences before this, Curwen describes “travail[ing] through the woods,” where the “devouring Indians had made great desolation in many places.” Curwen’s language—“bloody” and “devouring”— aligns the Indigenous people with the wild animals of the woods they inhabit, dehumanizing them at a moment when violent force is deemed necessary.

This is perhaps less surprising if we consider that Quakers were (and continue to be) pacifists. Turning to racial rhetoric that renders the Indigenous people “other” than human allows Curwen to circumvent the uncomfortable necessity of her fellow Quakers using force. Her language allows her to navigate feelings of physical vulnerability in the face of attack, and the problem of having to use violence for self-defense. This language also allows her to navigate a much deeper contradiction in her worldview: namely, that her radical acts of taking up space participate in structures of colonial expansion that threatened Indigenous lives. The political potential of Curwen’s space-taking—a radical act against the anti-Quaker stances of Puritan settlers—also means taking up Indigenous populations’ living space. Curwen struggles with the problem of how her own oppositional politics toward Puritan leaders participate in the marginalization of others, and so she resorts to rhetorically making those others count less. By contrast with her forthright condemnation of racism in Barbados, Curwen’s brief and rhetorically layered portrayal of American Indians stands out. Furthermore, while she chastises the Puritan town leaders who have her publicly whipped after being arrested, Curwen does not use such animalistic language to describe them.

Curwen provides a useful point of comparison for contemporary discussion of white feminism and the critiques of post-2016 protests. For instance, we might remember how many Women’s March supporters accused Black activists and organizations of being “divisive.” We might remember, too, how they critiqued the Black Lives Matter movement for causing property damage, refusing self-reflection to instead accuse others of being the aggressors. Curwen’s testimonial registers the difficult emotional cost of having your worldview challenged, especially one you believe to be pacifist and progressive. Her testimonial registers, too, the ugly consequences of refusing to re-examine that worldview.

Meghan E. Hall is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Pennsylvania. She is currently writing a dissertation that considers the intersections of gender, race, and mobility in depictions of traveling women in seventeenth-century English women’s writing.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

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