About 7 years ago, when I audited David Scholer's "Women, the Bible, and the Church" class at Fuller Theological Seminary, I was actually somewhat surprised to learn that the debate about whether or not women should be ordained in Christian churches wasn't an entirely 20th century phenomenon. I had always assumed that it arose out of women's rights movements such as the suffrage movement that gave women the right to vote in 1920 (in the United States, that is). In fact, the question of whether or not women have the right to be church leaders (especially in ordained positions) has been going on for many centuries.
Indeed, I suppose that I shouldn't have been so surprised. Why would some of the ancient church "fathers" (and, let's face it, the earliest church leaders were primarily men) have engaged in such aggressive attacks against women as church leaders if there weren't in fact women who were arguing for their rights to such positions?
One example that Dr. Scholer mentioned in class was a work by the so-called "mother of Quakerism," Margaret Fell. The work had the full title Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus. (Actually, there's a subtitle, too: And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ's own Command, before he Ascended to the Father, John 20. 17.) Long, fully descriptive titles like this weren't at all uncommon at the time, but it should be no surprise that most people today simply refer to the work as Women's Speaking Justified.
I didn't actually have a chance to read Women's Speaking Justified at the time, but about a year later, it was included as required reading for another professor's course, and since I'm the person that usually assembles course readers, I had access to the material. Since the work was written in 1666, and is thus in the Public Domain, I made an electronic copy for myself, and tried to read it.
I say "tried to read it" because, at the time, I found the 17th century English too difficult to read on a casual basis. It took a later commitment to work through the difficulties of archaic styles and fonts (which use that strange "s" that looks more like an "f" that seems to show up in works of the 17th and 18th century. Anyone who's seen a copy of the original Declaration of Independence will know what I'm talking about), and Fell's tendency to jump right into a scripture quote without informing the reader by using quotation marks (which weren't in consistent use yet in 1666). I eventually decided to take it upon myself to create a "modern language" version, so that others who might be interested in this historically significant document (besides Margaret Fell's own notoriety, the work is significant if only because it proves that people were making biblically-based arguments for women's ordination earlier than the 20th century). Some months later, after I had finished the project, the professor who had been using Women's Speaking Justified asked if he could use my version for his class, rather than the version he had used previously. I agreed, and the project was praised for helping several of the seminary students understand Fell's work much more readily. In fact, because I had gone to the trouble of including the original text in an opposing column alongside my "updated" version for comparison, some of the students were able to help me fix a couple of small typographical errors that remained at the time.
And that was it for a few more years. I recently have decided to try my hand at e-publishing, and this work seemed to be a good place to start, since I believe that it has a natural audience of people interested in issues related to women's ordination, not to mention the work's place in Protestant history, and hopefully my efforts will remove some of the barriers to reading Fell's writing that have historically prevented more people from doing so. The file may be purchased and downloaded at Lulu.com via this link. (UPDATE: If you'd rather have a version you can hold in your hands, and don't mind spending a little more to do so, there is now a paperback version, as well)