“I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. […] I want to be with my friends, my family, and—these women.”
—Josh Lyman in “The West Wing” (Aaron Sorkin, 1999)
The question came up lately: why are we Quaker? What drew us in, and what keeps us here? I should have been ready; I was the one raising it, after all. But I only realized my own answer in the silence that followed asking the question: I’m Quaker because of the women.
To a great extent, this is just as self-serving as it sounds. Through my adolescent years, as others my age started to stop coming to meeting, I kept showing up to worship because of someone else who kept coming, too, named Elisabeth. All the women I’ve been seriously interested in romantically since college have been Quaker. Moreover I find competence immensely attractive, and Quaker women run pretty strong. So while the number of dating prospects are few, their quality is high.
As I began to unwind the thought, however, I realized there was more in it.
Why am I Quaker? Because of my mother, Debbie Townsend, who brought me when I was young, and kept bringing me, despite all resistance I put up, despite the fact that neither my biological father nor my stepfather ever came to meeting. It was my mother who taught me to listen for the still, small voice, the voice that has shaped my life ever since I first heard it. It was my mother who taught me how to cook and how to clerk, how to iron and how to discern. It was my mother who taught me the spiritual nuts and bolts, taught me to do laundry, and taught me the old story about Lucretia Mott.1
Why am I Quaker? Because of Jay Carmona, who didn’t grow up Quaker and has little patience for the Society’s failings, but fights against those failings rather than walk away. Jay taught me a lot of things, many of which I won’t go into now; but it was Jay who taught me about privilege and activism, about Gene Sharp and about queer theory, and it was Jay who made me read Stonewall and Stone Butch Blues. It was Jay who got me from cutting to protesting, and though it might surprise her to hear me say it, it was Jay and the Book of Amos who taught me to be radical (if radical I am).
Why am I Quaker? Because of Ann Stever and Dorsey Green, who have taught me about compassion and hospitality, and who are such a model for what love looks like. When I clerk meetings, I remember the calm, firm cadences of Dorsey’s voice as she presided over plenaries.
Why am I Quaker? Because of Rachel Stacy, who in her ten months in Seattle taught me ten times more about the Religious Society, life, and the world than she might imagine. Rachel always inspires me to do even more, no matter how much I’ve been doing.
Why am I Quaker? Because dozens of other Quaker women who have shaped me, stirred me, loved me, and changed me, both from my life and from the history books: Mildred, Maia, Phoebe, Faith, Margaret and Agnes, Alice and Emma, Sarah and Susan and Sue…
Why am I Quaker? Because there’s no other branch of Christianity that I can stomach, and indeed, no other religion in the whole of the world that I can abide, because each and every one of them has so much misery and oppression of women in its past. And we Friends… well, we’re not perfect either. But Quaker women have been preaching and clerking and rebelling and teaching since Day One of the Religious Society, and that’s more than most can say.
There are those who say it’s unnatural, women having such say and sway; there are those who would call me emasculated and weak for having women shape me so. And I say: if this is unnatural, let’s burn nature to the ground. I’ve seen such strength and pride and glory in the women in my life, and why would I ever want that gone? I’ve lived my life in a world these women made, and why would I want it changed?
Why am I Quaker?
Because women can be awesome, in the original sense. Because their portion of creation is no less than the portion that I was born into. Because I want to be able look these women in the eye, and living any other way would give me greater cause for shame. Because I’ve seen what women can do—and because I am not a fool.
I am Quaker because I love these women, and because I know that the Spirit loves them too.