Wednesday, 16 January 2008

From ancient Egypt to modern Thibet, the idea that "by means of regulated labour and the strict discipline of the senses and appetites, it was in the power of man to perfect his moral nature" has motivated the creation of communities of monks. In 1748 I had moral perfection very much on my mind, having returned from my first visit to China, still disguised as a man. It is hard to explain to modern reader how in that age we so completely accepted the belief that man was physically and intellectually equipped for perfection, but woman, with her "inverted" sex and passive nature, was flawed. I had travelled to the ends of the earth and back again and found all peoples in agreement on this point. On the contrary I deeply felt myself the equal to any man, and resolved to discover the truth among the deepest thinkers I could find. So without shedding my disguise I applied as a novice to XX.
I was not the only woman to have done so. Saint Margarita of Antoich held marriage in such horror that she fled the nuptial chamber and took refuge in a monastery under the name of Pelagius, eventually becoming prior of a convent. Her disguise was so complete that when the portress of the convent became pregnant and Pelagius accused of being the father, she was expelled and continued her devotions as a hermit nearby. Her true sex was revealed only upon her death. Saint Hildegund entered the Cistercian order as a lay brother until her death, and of course the life of Joan of Arc is well known. I felt there was no other way for my arguments to be taken seriously unless my listeners felt they were the opinions of a man.

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