Among the large collection of records of Central England Quakers are the minutes of the Warwickshire North Women’s Monthly Meeting beginning in 1729. They provide a fascinating insight into the mental and emotional worlds of Quaker women in Birmingham over several generations, and illustrate the concerns that were foremost in their minds.
The nature of the Women’s meetings and the records that relate to them changed in the late nineteenth century. In May 1889, a proposal from the men’s monthly meeting was put to the women, suggesting that they should hold joint monthly meetings in advance of their separate meetings. Women Friends agreed to trial this for twelve months. In October 1890, as most business was now done in the joint meeting they decided to hold women’s meetings four times a year, rather than monthly, and the role of the meeting changed. From 1897 three women’s Monthly Meeting ‘Conferences’ were held each year – in the spring to prepare for Yearly Meeting, in the summer to review and read papers from Yearly Meeting, and in November ‘to consider some General subject of interest to women’. In this piece I will be concentrating on this last conference in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s.
The subjects deemed to be of interest by the women ranged widely, from theological questions, women’s ministry and Quaker history, to the social and political issues of the day. Women Friends presented papers followed by a discussion, and external speakers were occasionally invited to present on particular subjects. The Conferences were well attended, and could attract anything from 50 to 150 women depending on the popularity of the theme. Many of the subjects, particularly in the early years, are those that we might consider to be traditional women’s subjects and we see the Conference functioning as a space of formal and informal education in very practical knowledge that was relevant to middle class wives and mothers.
There is a considerable interest, for example, in motherhood and the upbringing of children and in particular how children and young people should be nurtured in Quaker ways and beliefs. On 12 February 1895 when 70 women were present, the session focused on ‘Woman’s influence over Children and Young People in the Home’. Catharine Wilson spoke of the influence of Christian nurses and governesses working with the mother for the good of the children, a reflection of the class and socio-economic circumstances of many of the more prominent women in the meeting. Caroline Gibbins read ‘a valuable paper’ on the ‘Discipline of Younger Children’ which emphasised ‘moral suasion’ rather than ‘physical force’ and the wise mother’s role in avoiding conflict.