Quaker Women I Have Known

"The women in my family do things," said John Foster, the Quaker man I had just met in India. Much later, I learned he had written his parents about meeting me, saying, "the only thing that worries me is that she just wants to get married." My letter of the same period to my parents said, "and he also likes me because I have a brain."

I learned what a Quaker woman must be like by being spoken to in frank, plain, and understated language by a young Quaker male who came from seven generations of Quakers and was raised by a feminist mother.

After John Foster came to visit me while doing work at the Friends Centre in Calcutta, I went to the Centre’s library and borrowed Just Among Friends by William Wistar Comfort (the simplest and most complete book I have ever read about Friends). On reading the chapter on "marriage among Friends," I felt that this was the way a man and woman should marry, on equal terms.

It was 1952 and I was a 24-year-old Methodist nun of sorts, finishing a three-year service with the Women’s Division of Foreign Service of the Methodist Board of Missions, working with feisty "senior memsahibs" who had already spent decades in India building schools and colleges and medical schools for women. They had their own division in the Board of Missions but were not allowed to be ordained in the Church until 1953. I was part of a group of 50 young Methodists, a prototype for the Peace Corps, unofficially vowed to three years of service in India while remaining unmarried.

Fast forward two years, when after hundreds of letters between Iowa and Friends Rural Centre in Rasulia, India, John Foster and I were face to face, and agreed, after two days, that we would ask to marry under the care of Providence (R.I.) Meeting. John was the first male for seven generations in his family to marry out of meeting and not be disowned, so I knew the wedding must be perfectly Quaker. I had my first experience with a Quaker woman,

Thyra Jane Meyers Foster, my future mother-in-law, who made arrangements for the wedding, for the wedding certificate to be hand engraved on parchment, etc. In arranging the reception by letter, she was plain spoken and firm, but with a delicacy about what different customs my family and I might want in my wedding. She coped with a terrible hurricane that ravaged the city days before the wedding. We married in exactly the way I had read about in W.W. Comfort’s book. I owe my knowledge and grounding in Quakerism to my marriage into this Quaker family.

Thyra Jane Foster was born in Springville, Iowa, where her father helped start Scattergood School. He then moved the family to Barnesville, Ohio, where Thyra attended Olney School. She continued to Westtown, her father’s school, and then on to Mount Holyoke Women’s College in Massachusetts. During vacations she visited the nearest Wilburite Quakers, the Fosters in Rhode Island, and met a suitable spouse, Henry Cope Foster.

The Fosters, fiercely loyal to Wilburite beliefs, had followed John Wilbur when he was ejected from New England Yearly Meeting in 1845 and formed the Wilburite Yearly Meeting. When they moved to Warwick, R.I., and were not near any Wilburite meeting (of which there were only four), the extended family met for worship on First Days in the parlor of the three-generation house at the Fosters’ farm for 60 years.

Thyra Jane and her sister-in-law, Millicent Steere Foster, who was also from Ohio and accustomed to being part of large meetings, felt the Fosters were too isolated. When the oldest generation, the last to wear plain dress, died, they encouraged their husbands to find a larger worship group. They helped to form an independent unprogrammed meeting for worship with a First-day school at the Lincoln School in Providence, R.I., in the 1930s. They were following the pattern of the era of founding meetings in college towns with Friends from many yearly meetings who had come to teach at colleges.

The two sisters-in-law also began working for the unity of the two yearly meetings in New England, and when this occurred in 1945, Millicent took part in leading the exercise of uniting. Also taking part was Millicent’s daughter, Mary Foster Cadbury, who would later become the clerk of New York Yearly Meeting.

That was my introduction to "the women in the family who do things." Thyra Jane Foster would start a second career as a public school teacher after sending her children off to Westtown. Her first career was as a farm wife and matron of a 17-room home housing three generations. Her third career was to become a self-taught archivist, collecting the papers that recorded 300 years of meetings in New England, and founding the New England Yearly Meeting archives. She joined the League of Women Voters and felt strongly about women using the new right to vote. She sewed for the American Friends Service Committee’s material aid program. She said her family was Quaker for 11 generations in five branches, and she used that foundation to discern new revelations about what Quakers should do in the 20th century. She educated her family over dinner with stories of their Quaker ancestors, and she was my mother in the spirit. Millicent Steere Foster would later work for Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island and become a Republican member of the State Senate. Her daughters have helped found new Quaker meetings, and her daughter Thera and son-in-law Robert Hindmarsh were two of the founders of The Meeting School, in New Hampshire.

We moved to Ithaca, N.Y., for Cornell graduate school for John, and I became a member of Ithaca Meeting. Of the many women leaders there, Marta Teele stood out for her stubborn refusal to meet in the Chapel of the Williard Straight Hall because it had been built as a war memorial. She founded a peace center downtown. With eight young couples who attended meeting, we formed a group who worshipped and socialized. The women were getting their PhT (Putting Hubby Through), some raising children. One woman had been the first African American to integrate Westttown School but had been pushed out of Earlham College for interracial dating; she and her fiancé had to be married in Ithaca Meeting, where their marriage was legal. Six of the couples, who kept in contact with each other, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries. The women became artist, dancers, college professors, school principals, and art historians, all during or after having their children.

When Anna and Howard Brinton visited Ithaca Meeting, we hosted them. Although at that time I knew little of Anna’s life, I was most impressed by her story of participating in a nude women’s choir while visiting a Dukubor religious community in Canada.

After graduate school, we moved to Amherst, Mass., and the University of Massachusetts, where we discovered Middle Connecticut Valley Monthly Meeting, an independent meeting founded in 1939 by Elinid Kotschnig, a British Friend, and Jungian analyst. While living in Geneva, Switzerland, with her Austrian husband, Elinid had realized that a war was coming and warned Friends in the United States that they should be ready to live the Peace Testimony. She investigated, found the newly forming Friends Fellowship Council in Philadelphia, and became a leader in its development. Later she helped start the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology.

Smith College students who joined the new meeting included Teresa Rowell, who met her husband, Joe Havens, in the Movement for a New Society in Philadelphia and was a Buddhist scholar and teacher by the time she returned to the meeting area 20 years later with her husband. In retirement, she and Joe started Temenos, a forest meditation center near Amherst, Mass.

The most formidable Quaker woman in Middle Connecticut Valley Monthly Meeting (now called Mount Toby Meeting) was Helen Griffith, chair of the English department at Mount Holyoke College. She was a convinced Friend who had come to the area while our meeting was being founded. She worked with the Connecticut Valley Friends Fellowship and with the other two independent meetings in New England, Cambridge and Providence, to urge the two New England Yearly Meetings— Wilburite and Guerneyite—to unite. She studied how the practices that the independent meetings had used, from several Faith and Practice volumes, could be retained if they joined a united yearly meeting. She tirelessly promoted inter-visitation of the five worship groups that now existed in the area, and which were to become Middle Connecticut Valley Meeting when all the independent meetings became a third group, joining together to form the united New England Yearly Meeting in 1945.

Helen Griffith led work supporting men in Civilian Public Service camps (CPS), where conscientious objectors were interned, helped get Japanese women out of the internment camps and into Smith College, used her sabbatical leave pay to bring a professor from the African American women’s college in Tougaloo, Mississippi, to Mount Holyoke for a year’s leave, and then wrote a book, Dauntless in Mississippi, about Sarah Dickey, the white founder of that college. She initiated the practice of alternating the clerkships of Mount Toby Meeting between a man and woman Friend each term. She wrote a history about Mount Toby Meeting, which included the history of the uniting of New England Yearly Meeting. Her pithy observations about controversial issues in Mount Toby Meeting are remembered and still quoted 40 years later.

Helen moved to Kendal at Longwood, a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pa., in the late ’60s, but flew back in a small private plane to be at the planting of a burr oak tree in her honor at the meetinghouse—an "appropriate tree," she observed.

Another Quaker woman who gave Friends in the northern part of our area a building of their own was Mary Champney. The building was her artist’s studio, a rustic outbuilding in Greenfield, which she envisioned as being part of a communal group of houses. She loaned it to Friends in the 1940s when she was working for several dangerous years for American Friends Service Committee in Holland during World War II. Through her, the meeting learned firsthand what was going on in Europe and what they could do. When she died of cancer in 1950, she willed the building, known as the Sherwood Friends Center, to Greenfield Friends. It was a precious home base for the monthly meeting, whose other worship groups met in homes or college buildings. Later it was torn down to build an interstate highway.

Another important woman in the building of the new meetinghouse for what would then become Mount Toby Meeting was Ethel DuBois, who owned land that had once been a farm in Leverett, Mass., and on which she had started a pioneering nature center in the 1950s, when she retired from school counseling. She brought children from a nearby city to experience the out of doors. She gave the meeting a plot of frontage land to build on, and she continued her summer program in the barns and in wooded trails up the side of Mount Toby. When she retired to Kendal at Longwood in Pennsylvania, the meeting bought the rest of the center’s land—120 acres—and has tried to keep stewardship as she would have. Ethel’s porch full of nature samples was well known at Longwood.

Two women who were clerks of New England Yearly Meeting were members of Mount Toby. The widowed Ruth Osborne came to our meeting sometime after her clerkship to marry widower Dr. Philip Woodbridge. I believe she was the first woman clerk of the yearly meeting, following the death of her husband, Winslow, who had been clerk. She then was the director of Beacon Hill Friends Center in Boston. She served wonderful meals and refreshments at committee meetings at her house. She organized, outfitted, and directed the pageant for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of New England Yearly Meeting.

Another energetic older woman Friend in our meeting was Mary Taylor, who came from a Friends church in Ohio, which she claimed had a station on the Underground Railroad. She came with her husband when he came to teach at Amherst College in the 1920s and tried to start a meeting for worship in the home of Paul Douglas (later a United States Senator). She was known for her practice of coming only to half of the unprogrammed worship, as an hour of silence was too long for her. She attended the Unitarian Church when the gas rationing of World War II kept her from driving to the nearest Friends meeting. She was a charter founder of the Amherst League of Women Voters in 1939 and helped found the interchurch clothing collections for AFSC.

Much quieter, but very faithful, was Mary Kentfield, a rare Wilburite Friend from Rhode Island, who knew John’s family there. Crippled from polio, she had gone to Olney School in Barnesville, Ohio. In the 1940s, she had occasional meetings for worship at her family farmhouse in Amherst. Her ministry and the poetry she wrote were both sweet and strong; she was one of the few birthright Friends that any of us knew.

A woman in Mount Toby Meeting who made a significant witness was Alison Kaufhold. She had to resign from her teaching position in the 1950s because she would not sign a loyalty oath. Her husband, Fritz, had fled Nazi Germany, and as a German alien, had great difficulty in the United States in being a conscientious objector in World War II; he and Alison married while he was in Civilian Public Service camps.

As I have indicated, these women came from many different yearly meetings, and this variety represents one of the strengths of the independent meetings formed in the 20th century: the cross-fertilization of Friends practices. It was not always easy to live together with the various ideas of what was proper practice. But, as far as women were concerned, it appears to have brought about the conditions for new revelations about women’s leadership.

When I attended the Gathering of Friends General Conference in Ithaca, New York in 1971, I encountered a revolutionary movement of Quaker women who were raising consciousness about the domination of men in Friends organizations. I was puzzled about where these sisters were coming from because my experiences, as I have described, did not fit this picture. But even as I went back to New England Yearly Meeting sessions, I soon found women Friends organizing separate groups for women. I sat in on their sessions, but then, putting a foot in both groups, I also went to the New England Society of Friends Women, the organization of Five Years (now Friends United) Meeting. A decade later, Mt. Toby Meeting minuted they would take same sex marriages under their care, while continuing to work for the legalization of these marriages in Massachusetts. In the 20th century, Quaker women have continued to find new revelations of the testimony published by founder Margaret Fell, in 1661, that "womens’ speaking is justified by the Scriptures."

Georgana Foster

Georgana (Falb) Foster has been a member of Mt. Toby Friends Meeting in Leverett, Mass., for half a century. She has presented workshops on early New England Quaker women at the Friends General Conference Gathering and New England Yearly Meeting, and has written a number of local histories. She is an independent scholar of South Asian studies, collecting folk and pop art about goddesses of India.