3.1. ANN LEE, SHAKERISM AND THE APOCALYPSE OF SEX
In the 18th century European society was unquestionably masculine, dominated in all aspects by men. Religiously speaking, suggesting at the time that women were spiritually equal to men was a sort of blasphemy, the main argument being Eve’s weakness. According to the English journalist Samuel Johnson, the activity of women preachers was more a circus than a sermon in the real sense of the word: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”997 Yet, one of the boldest and most original dissident groups of the period was led by a woman.
Ann Lee was a victim of the environment in which she lived. The second in a family of eight brothers, she was born in 1736 in a poor district of Manchester, England. Her father was a blacksmith whose modest income hardly fed the family. At the age of eight she was employed in a textile mill, and a couple of years later she served as a cook at the public infirmary and at the madhouse. Manchester was an overpopulated and unhealthy city, with streets full of filth and poverty. The poor workers – including her father – were suppressing their frustrations and despair in alcohol, while rape, prostitution, child abuse, wife beating and infant death were common. This degrading environment triggered in the young Lee a strong aversion to sexual intercourse: “so great was the sense of its impurity, that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father’s ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her.”998