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Domestic dissidents conference report

This one day interdisciplinary conference was intended to facilitate discussion between scholars whose research touches upon the less well-known aspects of dissident women’s lives and experiences. Its inception came from the relative absence of research which compared the experiences of radical women across different religious denominations. Traditional studies of sectarian and non-conformist religious movements have recognised the prominent role that women had in the spread of religious sectarianism. However, very little had been discussed about the non-religious elements of these women’s lives and experiences and how their religious affiliation affected their everyday position as wives, mothers and daughters, and as members of communities. I believe that it was testament to this gap in the historiographical literature that I was able to put together a high-quality, diverse and informative programme, which reflected a broad range of scholarly interest over a long period of early modern history.

After an initial welcoming address from Naomi Wood (the conference organiser), the first morning session chaired by Dr Catie Gill (Loughborough University) was on the theme of dissident women’s writings. The three speakers Dr Carme Font Paz (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain), Dr Rachel Adcock (Loughborough University) and Alice Ferron (PhD candidate, University College London), offered some fascinating insights into the representation and role of censorship in the construction of writings, whether as post-humus accounts, as was the case of individuals like Anne Askew, Elizabeth Barton, Mary Champian or Agnes Beaumont or self-writings, as Elizabeth Poole’s A Vision neatly encapsulated. The second panel focussed upon the more ‘ordinary’ aspects of these women’s lives and explored the position that individual women held within the family in more depth. Dr Tanis Lovercheck-Saunders (Casper College, Wyoming) reconstructed the life of Mary Dyer, whose husband and children seemingly defended her decisions to leave the family home and travel on her religious missions. Martha McGill (University of Edinburgh) explored the spiritual writings of Scottish Covenanting women and the various ways in which their religion affected their relations with their husbands. Professor Bernard Capp’s paper (University of Warwick), continued discussion of the dramatic story of the non-conformist Agnes Beaumont from the first panel, offering an interesting exploration of a woman forced to choose between the authority of God and that of her father.

The lunch break offered delegates a crucial opportunity to network with scholars and to continue discussion from the morning panels. The afternoon commenced with a panel on dissident women’s networks and alliances. Jaap Geraerts (University College London) discussed the role of Catholic noblewomen in their contribution to the religious life and culture of the Dutch Republic. Dr Susan M. Cogan (Utah State University) looked at women’s role in the creation of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ networks of English Gentlewomen, highlighting the importance of the family in their creation and maintenance. Professor Amanda Herbert (Christopher Newport University) closed the panel with an interesting paper on the unlikely friendship of the nonconformists Sarah Savage and Jane Hunt, a female alliance which continued to be enacted on the page after the death of one of its participants.

Following a short break, the day closed with the Keynote presentation from Professor Karin Wulf from William & Mary, Virginia. Professor Wulf was selected for her broad research interests which span women, the family and gender in the Early Modern Atlantic world and whose research touches upon women from a broad range of religious denominations in Early America. Drawing upon her current research project into the relationship between genealogical practices and political culture, her paper explored various ways in which to interrogate the notion of domestic dissent and how genealogical expression can be used as a tool to examine the experience of early modern women in the Anglo-Atlantic World. This more methodological focus provided a nice finale to the programme, highlighting one way in which researchers could attempt to answer some of the questions raised from the panel discussions.

In reflection, I believe that the range of researchers who both attended and presented at the conference is testament to the increasing interest that this re-examination of the everyday lives of radical religious women is beginning to receive across the globe. There were thirty-six participants in total, with a large number of individuals attending from overseas (five of the ten speakers), as well as a range of institutions across the UK. The feedback that I received from the delegates both during and after the event suggested its value, both in terms of the opportunities that it had provided for the delegates to reflect on their own research, as well as offering a forum in which to draw themes from the experience of radical religious women across a range of denominations and over a broad period of time. It also provided outstanding networking opportunities for scholars working in the fields of gender, religion and literary representation.

Discussions that came in the question-section of the panels and over the various breaks indicated that there are actually more similarities than we might expect between the experience of religious separatism and domestic dissent for women across a range of religious backgrounds. The standard of the papers was very high and there has since been much anecdotal comment praising the programme and its high quality. This, however, would not have been possible without the kind support of the Humanities Research Centre, the Early Modern Forum at Warwick and the Warwick History Department who generously funded this event. Dr David Beck has also been essential in ensuring the smooth running of the event and in providing support during the planning-stages. The success of the event has encouraged me to think about publishing conference proceedings and organising a similar event in the future.

Naomi Wood

University of Warwick