Isabel Fell was was born at Swarthmoor Hall, near Ulverston, Lancashire, the third of eight children (seven sisters and one brother) of Thomas Fell and his wife, Margaret Fell in about 1637. Her father was a barrister and In 1641 he became a Justice of the Peace for Lancashire, and in 1645 a member of the House of Commons for Lancaster and a close ally of Oliver Cromwell, although he later became critical of the way he ruled the country. (1)
In late June 1652, George Fox interrupted a service at a church in Ulverston. His words had an impact on Margaret Fell, who was in the congregation. She gave him refuge and by the time he left Swarthmoor Hall he had converted Margaret and her daughters, and most of her household to Quakerism. (2) Margaret's husband was in London at the time. Margaret was unsure of what her absent husband's reaction would be to these happenings, was, as she put it, "stricken with such sadness that I knew not what to do." (3)
It has been pointed out: "Upon his return Judge Fell was troubled by his wife's sudden conversion to this new dissenting sect, but Margaret convinced her husband of her new-found faith and introduced Fox to him. After her conversion to Quakerism she ceased to attend St Mary's, Ulverston, although her husband continued to attend regularly without her, and never converted to the sect. However, his sympathy towards Quakers was important, especially given his judicial position, and he allowed the Friends to hold their meetings at Swarthmoor Hall free from persecution." (4)
Margaret Fell was one of the most important converts to Quakerism. Her name and connections, practical organizational abilities and energies, as well as her husband's influence, were all assets Fell brought to the effort. She wrote to her husband "the truth will stand when all other things shall be as stubble". (5) Margaret was described by informers that she was the "chief maintainer" of the sect in the region. (6)
According to Bonnelyn Young Kunze: "By 1660 Isabel became an intermittently travelling Quaker. She was known to preach throughout her adult life at the meetings she visited across England. Her signature appeared on Quaker women's meeting records from Yorkshire to Somerset between the 1670s and the 1690s, and she corresponded with other Quaker ministers such as William Penn. In the summer of 1664 Isabel Fell married William Yeamans (1639–1674), a Quaker and merchant of Bristol. They had at least four children, three of whom died in childhood." (7)
Thomas Fell died in 1658. This deprived the Quakers of a judicial protector. Margaret Fell was left a widow, aged forty-four, with eight unmarried children. She later wrote of her husband that he had been "a tender loving husband to me, and a tender father to his children", and had "left a good and competent estate for them". (21) Margaret was left Swarthmoor Hall and 50 adjacent acres (she had already inherited the Askew estate at Marsh Grange from her father). Fell's death allowed Margaret to become an active Quaker minister who wrote and travelled and who became a political spokeswoman of the movement. She emerged as in effect a co-leader of early Quakerism with Fox. (8)
Fox often described Margaret as the "nursing mother" of the movement. Her status and experience gave her self-assurance in her dealings with powerful men. This included communicating with Charles II over the persecution of Quakers. It was claimed that within the Society of Friends she "doled out assignments like a Quaker bishop". She was also extremely loyal to Fox and gave him her full support in his conflicts with James Nayler, John Perrot and Isaac Penington. Despite her own strong opinions she always deferred to Fox about issues within the movement. (9)
In May 1669 Fox aged 35 and Margaret aged 45 agreed to marry. In mid-October 1669 the couple duly informed the Bristol meeting of their intentions, first to the men's meeting and then to a joint meeting of men and women. They married on 27 October with Margaret's daughters and their husbands present. Margaret's only son, George Fell, who disapproved of the match, did not attend. Fox signed a contract waiving his rights to Margaret's property, and her daughters, who were to inherit Swarthmoor Hall should she remarry, agreed to allow her to live there. A few days after the wedding Fox continued on his missionary visits while Margaret returned to Swarthmoor. (10)
It has been argued that there "were no passionate feelings on either side" and that Fox expressed "all the excitement of someone completing a business deal". (11) In an explanatory letter addressed to all Quakers Fox said he had been "commanded" to take Margaret as his wife and added that the marriage testified to "the church coming out of the wilderness, and the marriage of the Lamb before the foundation of the world". (12) Fox wanted it to be understood that his was an "honorable marriage and in an undefiled bed" in an effort to undermine the rumours of sexual misconduct between the two by anti-Quaker authors such as John Harwood. (13)
Although she was 55 years old Margaret told friends that she hoped to give birth to another child. The couple spent ten days together before Fox continued his missionary work. In April 1670, Margaret was arrested and detained at Lancaster jail. She claimed that she was pregnant and this news was welcomed by other Quakers. However, no baby was born and it has been suggested that Margaret had convinced herself that she was carrying a child, a condition known as pseudocyesis (imaginary or false pregnancy). (14)
Isabel Yeamans upset men in Bristol by setting up a monthly meetings for women. This was in response to her Margaret Fell's call for women's rights in Quaker meetings in Women's Speaking Justified (1666) where she argued: "Let this Word of the Lord, which was from the beginning, stop the Mouths of all that oppose Women's Speaking in the Power of the Lord; for he hath put Enmity between the Woman and the Serpent; and if the Seed of the Woman speak not, the Seed of the Serpent speaks; for God hath put Enmity between the two Seeds; and it is manifest, that those that speak against the Woman and her Seed's Speaking, speak out of the Envy of the old Serpent's Seed." (15)
William Rogers, a leading Quaker in the city, demanded to know why the women had proceeded on their own. A committee of six, including some of the most powerful Quakers in Bristol, was instructed to attend the next women's meeting to discuss the matter. The women eventually agreed to defer "to the wisdom of God in the Friends of the men's meeting". At a meeting of thirty male Quakers it was agreed that in future women had a "duty to mind only those things that tend to peace." The Bristol women acquiesced to this demand. (16)
George Fox, who had been in America at the time of this dispute, published details of new rights for women in the movement. He instructed that couples seeking to be married must have their proposed union examined twice by both men's and women's meetings. This was confirmed in a letter to his wife in May 1674. (17) In an epistle the following year Fox defended women's meetings in general terms, rebuking those who called them into question, but it neglected to address what many male Quakers considered the demeaning requirement that men seek approval for marriage from women. (18)
At a meeting in May 1675, Quaker leaders in London, including William Penn, Thomas Salthouse. Alexander Parker and George Whitehead, published a document concerning the role of women in the movement. It stated that all marriages be cleared twice by women's and men's meetings, to make sure that "all foolishand unbridled affections" be speedily brought under God's judgment. It also reminded Quakers that women's meetings, just like men's meetings, had been set up with God's counsel and sharply admonished those who sneered at them as "synods" and "Popish impositions". Violators of these instructions - "disorderly walkers" - should have their names recorded. (19)
It has been claimed by one Quaker historian "Separate men's and women's Business Meetings were recommended at all levels of the structure, each with their own areas of responsibility. Fox argued this was necessary for women to have their own voice, although their areas of influence were highly gendered and limited to pastoral duties such as marriage arrangements and poor relief. It seems that whilst the ideal of spiritual equality persisted, political equality did not." (20)
One of the main opponents of women's meetings was Anne Docwra. She argued that St Paul had debarred women from having authority over men; women, however, could prophesy and guide men Friends in the administration of charity funds. (21) In April 1683, Docwra visited Fox in London to discuss these matters. She had heard from a relative that he was as "big as two or three, and spent his time dozing, in a near stupor from liquor and brandies". Instead she found "a big man, true, taller than average, big boned, his face rounded, a bit on the fat side, but not incapacitated." Anne added "he moved stiffly, and his hands and fingers were so puffy he could not write". However, she left impressed with the way he supported women's meetings. (22)
After the death of her husband Isabel Yeamans returned to Swarthmoor and lived there for some time with her two surviving children, William and Rachel. While there she attended the women's monthly meetings. In the summer of 1677 Isabel Yeamans accompanied George Fox, William Penn, George Keith, and Robert Barclay to the Netherlands and then to northern Germany to visit small groups of Quakers living in the region. "Isabel was chosen to accompany her stepfather in part for her reputation as an effective preacher, but she also acted as a support and representative for him in relation to the other influential Quaker travellers of higher social status. By the late 1670s Fox was yielding his primus inter pares leadership role to younger men, some of whom were of higher social rank." (23)
In 1689 Isabel married Abraham Morrice of Lincoln, a well-to-do merchant who was an active Quaker in the city. They both died in 1704.
In the summer of 1664 Isabel Fell married William Yeamans (1639–1674), a Quaker and merchant of Bristol. They had at least four children, three of whom died in childhood. When her mother married George Fox in Bristol in 1669 Isabel was present and signed the marriage certificate. During her married years in Bristol she helped set up the Bristol women's monthly meeting in 1671 in response to George Fox's circular letter sent out to encourage women to form separate women's meetings for business, which pronounced that men and women were "helpmeets" for one another, and also in the wake of her mother's earlier call for women's rights in Quaker meetings in Women's Speaking Justified (1666). The efforts of Isabel Yeamans and the Bristol women challenged the Bristol leadership and they did meet resistance. The (all-male) Bristol two-week meeting admonished the women for exceeding the boundaries of authority in forming their own meeting without their approval. The Bristol women acquiesced.
Emboldened by the First Friend's ideas about women, the women of Bristol converted their existing meeting for worship into a monthly meeting concerned with the things Fox had suggested. One of the women involved was Isabel Fell Yeamans, daughter of Margaret Fox. Without asking leave of their two-week meeting governing body, all male of course, the woman publicized their newly expanded gathering. The men's meeting was shocked by the women's actions and laid practically everything else aside to devote the bulk of its November 27 agenda to the matter. One leading merchant, William Rogers, was especially angered: he demanded to know why the women had proceeded on their own.