Women’s Religious Radicalism – Confronting Gender Rules and Social Order in 17th Century England

England from around the mid 17th century had its share of dramatic changes. After civil conflicts, King Charles I was beheaded and in place of his rule arose a republican government. The Interregnum period where England had no monarch led to a society of various social, cultural and political shifts. For women, their place within society was traditionally dictated by Protestant religious understandings, and this period of ‘revolution’ allowed space for them to move against this. Religious radicalism can be seen as one example of how women confronted these gendered societal norms and constructs. We have many examples of women using religion as a source of agency, and because of the rise of pamphlet culture during this period, we have various writing examples from these religious radicals. Some of these women are described by historian Maria Margo (2004) as the “Bad Girls of the English Revolution.”

So, just what was so “bad” about them and their texts?

Katherine Chidley’s pamphlet ‘The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ” (1641) is an example of how women were able to use a growing interest in pamphlet culture to spread ideas through print. We can consider this pamphlet of hers to be an act of religious radicalism because of its content and purpose. Chidley is writing more than random thoughts on religion. Rather, this pamphlet is part of a debate and intellectual attack against a Presbyterian minister named Thomas Edwards, who publicly wrote out against religious toleration across the sexes and varying religious groups. Chidley takes direct opposition to Edwards’ views, believing in what he does not— a ‘spiritual equality’ for all. Going against gendered and socio-cultural constructs of this time period, Chidley supports her claims with direct quotations from religious texts. Interestingly, and paradoxically, Chidley also frames this argument with contextual ideas about male superiority. For example, she says that men are the “superior power,” which she reasons with Biblical reference. But, she then says that “he hath authority over her [his wife] in bodily and civil respects, but not be a Lord over her conscience,” which she also supports with religious texts. Chidley is thus promoting the empowerment of women’s religious rights, of ‘spiritual equality’, by countering culturally accepted reasonings behind the ‘dominance’ of men.

If masculine ‘authority’ in 17th century England was underpinned by religious backing, then according to Chidley, why can’t female religious power be found in the same way?


‘Womens Speaking Justified’ from the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.

The writings of Margaret Fell are a similar case in that we can see gendered constructs being confronted via religion once more. In her pamphlet ‘Womens Speaking Justified,’ (1666) Fell directly challenges social understandings surrounding women’s rights to participate in religion. Specifically she is focusing on women’s public participation, such as speaking in church and preaching publicly, where there’s a cultural expectation of female ‘silence’ and of “being under obedience.” (Anonymous, 1646) Importantly, in this pamphlet she is presenting a defence of why women should have identical religious rights as men do and does this exactly how Chidley supported her argument— through direct reference to religious texts. This method of Biblicism is shown no better than in the final paragraph of the pamphlet: “You that deny women speaking, answer: Doth it [the bible] consist of Women, as well as Men?” She gives her argument contextual importance by highlighting that it is not just her opinion alone that women should have equal religious rights. For Fell, her points are clearly evident within the dominant religious texts of this period that underpin 17th century English society.

anna trapnel

Anna Trapnell – Depicted as a ‘pretend prophetess’

The case of Anna Trapnell is one that differs greatly to the other women already mentioned in this blog post. Publications produced by Trapnell are biographical and more controversial. Her ‘The Cry of a Stone’ (1654) for example is a retelling and evaluation of a prophecy she gave while being in a ‘trance’ for almost two weeks. Trapnell was thus a self proclaimed prophetess. Prophetesses who believed they could see religious visions and foretold all sorts of doom and gloom had an odd position in 17th century English society. Historian Marcus Nevitt (1999) argues that prophetesses were both feared and encouraged. They could be seen as “an ideal spiritual model” for women but could also be considered dangerous radicals to society and order, as was the case with Trapnell. In ‘The Cry of a Stone’, she speaks out against the ‘Lord Protector’ Oliver Cromwell by foretelling his death and undermining him by comparing him to fallen religious figures and beasts. This was not met with positive reception as you could probably guess, and she was eventually imprisoned for things like witchcraft and “whoredom.” (Freeman, 2011) For Trapnell then, she was using religious means (i.e. prophecy) to further a radical political view.

Although women were often restricted within certain aspects of religion due to established norms within 17th century English society, it’s clear that some were able to find a voice. Whether using pamphlets to spread ideas or using prophecy to undermine political figures and government regimes, religion could be used by women as a positive tool of empowerment and agency in a context of shifting politics, society, and culture.

Primary Sources:
Anonymous, A spirit moving in the women-preachers: or, Certaine quaeres, ventures and put forth unto this affronted, brazen-faced, strange, new feminine brood, 1646. Accessed from EEBO: http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:113448

Chidley, Katherine. “The Justification of the Independent Churches of Christ.” In A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England. Edited by Curtis W. Freeman. Waco, Baylor University Press. 2011. pp. 48-145.

Fell, Margaret. Womens Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures. 1666. Available from Quaker Heritage Press Online Texts: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/fell.html.

Trapnell, Anna. “The Cry of a Stone.” In A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England. Edited by Curtis W. Freeman. Waco, Baylor University Press. 2011. pp. 373-452.

Margo, Maria. “Spiritual Autobiography and Radical Sectarian Women’s Discourse: Anna Trapnel and the Bad Girls of the English Revolution.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34.2 (2004): pp. 405-437.

Freeman, Curtis W. “Anna Trapnel.” in A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England. Edited by Curtis W. Freeman. Waco, Baylor University Press, 2011. pp. 369-371.

Nevitt, Marcus. “‘Blessed, Self-Denying, Lambe-like’? The Fifth Monarchist Women.” Critical Survey 11.1 (1999): pp. 83-97.

Further Reading:
Hughes, Ann. Gender and the English Revolution. Oxon, Routledge, 2012.

Nevitt, Marcus. Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640-1660. Surrey, Ashgate Publishing, 2006.

Thomas, Keith V. “Women and the Civil War Sects.” Past & Present 13 (1958): pp. 42-62.


2 comments on “Women’s Religious Radicalism – Confronting Gender Rules and Social Order in 17th Century England

  1. Hi Kayla,

    I really loved your blog post, it is such an interesting topic and because my primary historical focus in usually the twentieth century I found it even more intriguing. I never knew that pamphlet writing was so common during this period and I think the fact that you focused on women’s agency through this medium is what makes your blog post a very different and engaging one. What I really love about this topic is that I think it demonstrates so well that no matter their circumstances some women are still able to find a voice and become agents for change no matter what time period they are living in!

    All the best, Allie 🙂

  2. lillybender says:

    Hi Kayla, this is such an interesting topic of research! I think you’ve done a really great job of showing how the use of pamphlets by women was reflective of a huge range of social, political and cultural factors. I think it’s really interesting to see how women used religion to find their agency and speak out quite directly at times, it seems, against male dominance. I was also wondering if in any of your research you uncovered what sort of reactions people had to the pamphlets? I imagine it would have been quite controversial! Great job, I really enjoyed reading your blog post 🙂

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