Quakers: Leading a title free life!

There were several reasons why the theme of Quakers has been of growing interest to the GoTitleFree team.

For nearly four years, I’ve been campaigning for businesses to enable a title-free world, and searching for pockets of society in the world where titles don’t exist, so that I can prove it can be done, and that we can live in this way. 

We know that prefixes denoting marital status as well as gender is very much a thing of the English-speaking world, and that many languages and countries manage without. But where else does this happen? Who else can help us to demonstrate that life can be a little simpler, and that the title-free world is here for us if we want it?

It was during one of my many conversations about titles with a local friend, when a suggestion was offered, You need to interview a Quaker!

The GoTitleFree base in Rickmansworth is on very Quaker friendly territory, having been home to one of the most famous Quakers, William Penn*, founder of the U.S. State of Pennsylvania. 

Quakerism is more of a way of life than a religion, and is very often misunderstood. On visiting nearby Jordan’s Village, and speaking with the amiable manager running the meeting house near Beaconsfield, I was surprised to hear that Quakers are often mistaken as being radical, cultish, and similar to Amish communities. 

On the contrary, Quaker practice is free from religious ceremony, and hierarchies, and are extremely forward thinking given that the Religious Society of Friends (the official name for the Quakers) has been around for over 350 years. 

One of the first Quakers, Edward Burrough, wrote in 1659 that titles should not be used:

‘We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of government. Nor are we for this party, nor against eachother… but we are for justice, and mercy, and peace, and true freedom, that these might be exalted in our nation.”

Their rejection of titles is a small part of a wider belief that all people are created equal, and should be enabled to live equally alongside eachother. 

Quakers were the first to recognise same sex marriages in 1988, suggesting that they be celebrated, stating, “It is the nature and the quality of the relationship that matters. The same criteria seems to us to apply whether a relationship is heterosexual or homosexual”.

The focus on egalitarianism was again obvious when I was shown to William Penn’s grave. It made complete sense that the headstone was small and simple – exactly the same size as that of his wives and his children adjacent. – Because why in death should a rich or well-known person’s gravestone be taller, and adorned with angels, and a lowly peasant or a small child’s be a smaller memorial to a life? 

Interviewing Rose Tolley, clerk of Chorleywood Quaker meeting:

“I’ve never felt comfortable with my prescribed title since my divorce. Seasoned Quakers do not use titles and would never want to. It would go against their way of life of simplicity and equality.”

We discussed how there was still so much misunderstanding around the title ‘Ms’, and that a previous interview with reader in Feminist history Amy L. Erickson suggested that more women, especially in the U.S., are in fact choosing ‘Mrs’ instead of ‘Ms’. 

“It’s upsetting to think that we might be moving backwards”. Rose said.  

But we agreed that the problem is that organisations now often don’t let you opt out. You need to select a title when you’re not given a choice to leave the field blank, and the list is limited.

Rose told me not only about Quaker life, and those early very forward thinkers, but also of how Mary Penington, William Penn’s mother-in-law, apparently spoke of her relief at rejecting titles, because they did not align with the Quaker ethos.

With a smile, I suggested to Rose that maybe the Quakers rejection of titles which denote marital status is because they pre-date them. ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, and ‘Miss’ came along about 100 years after the Quakers began, with the earliest uses being recorded as business titles in the 1700’s. 

Far from being the only Quaker happy to voice her opinions on titles, Rose’s views were echoed by a previous client of mine, Gita Banerji, HR Equalities Lead at Suffolk County Council:

“As an HR Equalities Lead, and co-chair of our LGBT+ staff network, I’ve had people ask me several times, “What is the inclusive alternative way to say ‘Dear Sir or Madam'” in a letter?”  – This gives me pause and makes me smile, because the answer to me seems so obvious: why not just use a person’s name?! (And, if you don’t know it, and want to be formal, use ‘To Whom It May Concern’.) 

Coming from a Quaker background, I always called adults by their first name growing up. My mum was a teacher, and would have preferred the option for her pupils to call her by her first name, but this wasn’t allowed, so she had ‘Mrs’ foisted upon her. 

As a feminist, I don’t understand why my marital status has any relevance to my name or way I should be addressed. Quakers historically eschewed titles because they were used to make social differentiations between people. I have sat on police diversity boards before, where addressing people as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ was commonplace. 

It never sat easily with me, it is just not something I am comfortable doing. It doesn’t fit well with a principle of equality, or with modern HR ideas about non-hierarchical workplaces and flat management structures. It feels very old-fashioned and outdated. It sets up barriers between people. 

Titles don’t recognise people’s humanity in the way a name does. The options also aren’t always inclusive of various gender diverse identities. 

Historically, many Black people did not have equal access to being recognised by titles: another way they have been used to make unhelpful and uninclusive social distinctions. Let’s ditch them!”

I’m so grateful to that local friend who told me to interview a Quaker. Firstly because it led to wonderful conversations with some marvellous people, but also because it led me to learn about some like-minded people in my local area. 

Jordan’s Village was a beautiful place to take my children on a sunny day off school, and I know we’ll be returning soon.  

I also know now that my group of title-free allies is thankfully much larger than I realised, which can only help when striving for faster and more meaningful change.

Stella Sutcliffe 

Further Information: 

Find out you can support the GoTitleFree campaign here.

*William Penn’s legacy is currently less celebrated as there was recently evidence of slaves working within his and other Quakers’ houses, (a discovery which has led to Friends House arranging for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade). 

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