Think challenging social conventions surrounding sex and gender is the province of twentieth and twenty-first-century people? Allow me to introduce you to Jemima Wilkinson/the Publick Universal Friend.
In 1752 Wilkinson was born in the colony of Rhode Island, the traditional land of the Narragansett, Niantic and Wampanoag peoples* (listed alphabetically), into a family of strict Quakers (the colloquial name for the Society of Friends). In 1776, Wilkinson took ill and apparently succumbed to some mystery sickness. While Jemima Wilkinson was no more, her body remained alive, but it was become host to a new spirit sent by God. The Publick Universal Friend emerged from her sick/death bed.**
Despite occupying Wilkinson’s body, the Friend did not affiliate with any sex or gender. To enforce this, the Friend eschewed the use of gendered pronouns and wore voluminous, black, gender-neutralising clothing, garments which also suited the Friend’s vocation as a preacher. Indeed, the Friend had not entered Wilkinson’s vacated body simply to upset conventions around sex and gender. The Friend’s mission was a religious one: to preach adherence to a very strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments, apocalypticism, perfect friendship among all human beings and complete sexual abstinence. This last message challenged the traditional Protestant view that marriage and procreation were highly important, since celibacy was the precursor to sins of the flesh wrought by repression of human carnality.
It is worthwhile here to note that the Friend enjoyed a position of relative privilege when it came to self-comportment and to spreading God’s message. In essence, the Friend used Jemima’s body and her social standing among New England’s more radical Christians (i.e., colonisers) to espouse a religious message that was not indigenous to the continent’s original peoples. Indeed, the Friend effectively preached equality to audiences whose very presence in New England came at the expense of the territory’s indigenous peoples. This is not to suggest that The Friend’s message was disingenuous, nor that it was wholeheartedly welcomed.
Predictably, the notion of a “woman” preaching and directing the religious lives of others ruffled the feathers of many contemporaries. However, the Publick Universal Friend did not become persona non grata; the Friend remained in the embrace of Wilkinson’s family (despite regarding them no more as relations than any other human beings) and quickly developed a considerable following. Many attended The Friend’s public sermons and sought out the Friend for religious direction. Pamphlets that contained print-versions of the Friend’s sermons were also very popular, though, it should be noted, these pamphlets also highlighted the Friend’s unconventional genderlessness. The Friend, rich in followers, ultimately founded a religious settlement in the state of New York (originally home to the Abenaki, Cayuga, Erie, Laurentian, Mohawk, Mohican, Mohegan, Munsee Delaware, Oneida, Onondaga, Poospatuck/Unkechaug and Seneca peoples*).
The Publick Universal Friend openly flouted—indeed, transcended—late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conceptions of gender. For this, and for preaching ceaselessly the message of perfect friendship among all human beings, the Publick Universal Friend definitely qualifies as a historical hottie.
*According to native-languages.org
**There is controversy around Wilkinson’s illness and death (spiritual and physically), but this piece adheres to the Friend’s version of events.
Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.
Wisbey Jr., Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965.