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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

History

Year Degree Awarded

2015

Month Degree Awarded

May

First Advisor

Barry D. Levy

Second Advisor

Joyce A. Berkman

Third Advisor

Neal Salisbury

Fourth Advisor

Eileen O'Neill

Subject Categories

United States History

Abstract

“NANTUCKET WOMEN”: PUBLIC AUTHORITY AND EDUCATION IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY NANTUCKET QUAKER WOMEN’S MEETING AND THE FOUNDATION FOR FEMALE ACTIVISM

MAY 2015

JEFFREY D. KOVACH, B.A., FRANKLIN AND MARSHALL COLLEGE

M.A., WILLIAM PATERSON UNIVERSITY

Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST

Directed by: Professor Barry J. Levy

The women’s monthly meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, on Nantucket in the eighteenth century regulated the private lives of its members, particularly matters of marriage and sexuality. This regulation inhibited the behavior of female Friends, but it also served to create a culture of education and public authority for the island’s women. The women’s meeting maintained meticulous records of its proceedings and created a structure of oversight and hierarchy that allowed it to take every step possible to ensure the fitness of potential brides. As Quakerism had no mechanism for divorce, ensuring marriage remained holy according to the dictates of the meeting was essential to the preservation of the Quaker family on the island.

The family unit was of utmost importance on Nantucket in part because of the island’s whaling economy. As men engaged in the often gruesome and violent hunt for whales, their absences from home could extend for two to three years. This placed the financial well-being of the family in the hands of wives, who entered into the very public world of business on behalf of the family. For children, the primary role model of their youth was their mother. In later years, as boys apprenticed with family members and other whaler Friends, girls learned Quaker tenets and the essentials of running a family economy and religious community from their mothers at home and in the meetinghouse.

Seeing women in positions of public religious authority and financial independence had an impact on future generations. Nantucket produced several female activists of the nineteenth century with ties to the Quaker meeting on the island. Sisters Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright, abolitionist Anna Gardner, scientist and women’s rights advocate Maria Mitchell, and Unitarian preacher Phebe Hanaford could all trace their roots back to the Nantucket Quaker meeting of the eighteenth century. Both the women’s rights movement, highlighted by the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and the abolitionist movement had strong connections to Nantucket. This was a direct result of the strong public female leadership that emerged on the island in the eighteenth century.

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