Born in Manchester, England, Ann Lee became the spiritual leader of the radical Christian sect, the Shakers, and created a landmark American utopian society that both preached and lived the gospel of complete spiritual and social equality between women and men.
Ann Lee is an unusual choice for our Hall of Fame because she devoted much of her life to advocating two things that we harpies generally disdain: celibacy and evangelical Christianity. And yet, her extraordinary life’s work deserves to be honored, even by today’s secular, sex positive feminists.
Consider: Ann Lee was born the second of eight children in an industrial city of legendary poverty and squalor. Sent to work in the textile mills as a child, she never attended school and was illiterate her entire life. In an environment where rape, child abuse, wife-beating and death in childbirth were commonplace, it’s no wonder that Lee developed a strong sense of revulsion towards marriage and sex. Coerced into marriage with a family friend, Abraham Standley, she was forced to live out her worst fears: she became pregnant eight times in ten years, giving birth to four stillborn babies and four more who died in early childhood.
After the death of her last child, Ann Lee laid down the law: she would remain celibate at all costs. A long-time Quaker, she would now devote her life entirely to God. Her husband, needless to say, was not thrilled. A contemporary chauvinist pig biographer wrote: “A simple and good man, hardly compatible with his complex and headstrong mate, Standley did not easily accept Lee’s resolve to remain celibate. But neither argumentation nor priestly intervention enabled him to thwart his wife’s intention.”
As a member of the radical Quaker sect that eventually became known as the Shakers, Ann Lee adopted a charismatic form of Christianity that violated every social norm. She was frequently imprisoned for blaspheming, for advocating celibacy and the abolition of marriage, and for violating the Sabbath by dancing and shouting. Her followers came to believe that, like Christ, she embodied all the perfections of God in female form. Until that time, absolutely no Christian leader had ever dared to suggest that women were entirely spiritually equal to men.
To her contemporaries, Lee often was characterized as a “virago” because her ideal of gender equality was so extremist. Ann Lee recognized the revolution she created when she said, “We [the Shakers] are the people who turned the world upside down.”
In 1774, Ann Lee and a group of her followers emigrated to New York, and founded the first Shaker community in the upstate town of Watervliet. The Shakers in America would eventually number 6,000, spread over ten communities in seven states. Shaker religion set men and women on equal footing in religious leadership, as Ann Lee taught that God was equal parts male and female. Women served as supreme heads of the Shaker society—both in communal and religious life—throughout its existence.
Ann Lee’s contemporaries wrote of her: “Her love and charity seemed boundless; always ready to succor the afflicted, and minister to the wants of the needy. When any of the Believers expressed their love to her, she would often reply, “It is not me that you should love, but the God in me.” When some kneeled down to her, she often used to say, “Don’t kneel to me; but kneel to God; I am but your fellow-servant.” She frequently kneeled, when any one kneeled to her. Her countenance was mild and lovely, yet graceful and solemn. In reproof she was terrible; in admonition she was quick, sharp, and powerful as lightning.”
Ann Lee died in 1784, well before the Shaker community reached its zenith. Despite their comparatively small numbers, the society she founded was of great significance in American culture. Their style of architecture, design, crafts and folk art are some of the most admired and copied in the world, even today. The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” was the basis–not coincidentally–for the classical piece “Air and Simple Gifts” composed in honor of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Ann Lee was, first and foremost, a pioneer for social and economic justice, religious tolerance, and women’s rights. She suffered greatly in order to see her vision realized, but she lived boldy, devoting herself to bettering the lot of all humankind, and to elevating the status of women both in Christianity and secular society. For this, we nominate Mother Ann Lee to the Harpy Hall of Fame.