Illustrated by Paheli (She/Her)
**Author’s Note: For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the Public Universal Friend and Jemima Wilkinson as separate entities, in line with the Friend’s own account. I will use feminine pronouns when discussing Wilkinson and will not use pronouns in reference to the Public Universal Friend.**
1776 was a chaotic year: so hectic that barely anyone noticed that a young woman named Jemima Wilkinson lay dying. Wracked with fever, she huddled in bed one austere October night, bound to her burning body like a witch bound to a stake. It was then that the sky split open, bright light slicing through the darkness as two figures in flowing robes descended from the heavens. They proclaimed there was “Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of eternal glory for Thee and for everyone.” And with that, Jemima Wilkinson’s soul was taken up into heaven. The person who awoke the next morning bore a different name and a different purpose: The Public Universal Friend was born.
The Public Universal Friend (PUF or the Friend for short) was a Quaker minister, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate who lived from 1752 to 1819. Assigned female at birth, the PUF was an early example of someone who identified as neither female nor male, being self-described as a genderless spirit. Known as a charismatic and forceful preacher, the Friend embarked on a ministry across the Northern colonies and gained a significant following, forming a religious sect known as the Society of Universal Friends.
The Friend’s unique story of transformation has been previously examined in the spheres of religious history and women’s history, but it is only in recent years that more attention has been brought to the Friend’s gender (or lack thereof) and how the Friend should be discussed in light of our ever-evolving understanding of gender variance.
That leads us to ask: how do we understand the Friend’s identity, what does it tell us about the state of gender in colonial America, and how is the Friend’s story connected to the experiences of modern queer people?
Starting with the Friend’s own account, the story of Jemima Wilkinson’s death and transformation claims that Jemima Wilkinson had died of a fever, gone to heaven, and her vacant body had been inhabited by a messenger: the Friend. From then on, the Friend refused to answer to the name Jemima Wilkinson and ceased the use of gendered pronouns almost entirely.
The Friend is recorded as having presented quite androgynously, wearing a mix of men and women’s clothing, including vests, skirts, ministerial robes, and caps. Descriptions of the Friend’s voice also differ significantly between accounts, being called “grum” and like a “croak,” as well as high and “harmonious,” indicating that the Friend may have spoken in such a way to present as neither male nor female.
However, the PUF very rarely addressed the issue of gender, at least not directly. When confronted with questions of gender identity, the Friend tended to answer with a number of Bible verses, including Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) and Jeremiah 32:11b (“For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man.”). The Friend is most famously recorded as having quoted God’s words to Moses in the book of Exodus: “I am that I am.”
Many of these facts about the Friend’s life are recounted in historian Paul Moyer’s book “The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America” and historian Herbert A. Wisbey Jr.’s “Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend.” However, even in these titles, the contention surrounding the PUF’s identity is evident.
Analyzing the PUF as a queer historical figure is a relatively recent phenomenon. Academics often overlooked the nuanced nature of the Friend’s identity, either masculinizing the PUF (taking the idea of “a woman encircl[ing] a man” literally) or treating “the Public Universal Friend” as a mere moniker for Jemima Wilkinson.
Likewise, in the 18th century, the Friend’s followers struggled to conceptualize the PUF’s identity. Members of the Society of Universal Friends often referred to the Friend in the masculine, using he/him pronouns in their letters. Despite the Friend never explicitly self-identifying as male, many simply concluded that the Friend must be a man by process of elimination.
Labeling the PUF as masculine by default reveals much more about the evolution of American conceptions of gender than it does about the PUF’s identity.
In colonial America, the gender binary was even more all-consuming than it is now. Androgyny was often reduced to little more than a form of masculine eccentricity, with people labeled either men or women with no space outside or in between these extremes.
This mentality shapes academic discussion of the Friend to this day. However, reading the Friend’s words carefully, it is evident that the PUF was not unambiguously a man or a woman. Based on a more modern understanding of gender, there are probably three interrelated ways we could describe the Friend.
The first is gender nonconforming, as the Friend refused to adhere to gendered norms of presentation and behavior. Second, within the broad label of gender nonconformity, the PUF could also be considered transgender, not identifying with the gender the Friend was assigned at birth. Third, under the trans umbrella, the Friend could be thought of as nonbinary, identifying as neither wholly male nor female.
That being said, the story of the Friend is highly unusual by modern standards; most genderqueer people’s coming-out stories don’t involve angels or heavenly visions (or dying). Still, the PUF’s experience reflects many patterns and struggles seen in the lives of gender nonconforming people today.
For instance, a number of the Friend’s contemporaries (and many scholars afterward) sought to invalidate the Friend’s identity by attacking the Friend’s character.
The Friend often faced accusations of fraud and mental instability, with many of the PUF’s contemporaries claiming that the Friend was basically a female cult leader, manipulating others out of vanity or delusion. This closely mirrors modern conservative refrains that trans people — especially trans youth — are “doing it for attention,” or because they’re “confused” or “acting out.”
It’s common for gender nonconforming people to be stereotyped as histrionic or unstable in the media, and the same was true for the Friend. The news often sensationalized the PUF, alleging everything from sexual indiscretion (despite the Friend’s celibacy) to attempted murder (even though the PUF was a devoted pacifist).
Another common misrepresentation, especially among academics, is that the Friend was simply a woman running from responsibility. Prior to the 21st century, the Friend was, at best, portrayed as a Joan of Arc-esque character: a young woman constricted by the day’s social order who defied feminine norms and went undercover in the masculine world to fulfill some divine calling.
Less generous accounts depict the Friend as purely self-motivated, trying to escape the societal duty of marriage and motherhood. This interpretation is especially relevant to the experiences of trans youth, who often face accusations of immaturity, or trying to avoid the so-called realities of “manhood” or “womanhood.”
However, I maintain that the most important part of the Public Universal Friend’s legacy is the Friend’s existence itself.
In conservative media, gender nonconformity and gender variance are often targeted as symptoms of America’s moral decline. “Gender confusion,” as many have taken to calling it, is framed as everything from a self-destructive fad to a novel social contagion threatening Western civilization itself.
But the existence of the Public Universal Friend disputes that theory. Born the same year as the United States, the PUF proves that transcending the gender binary is not a new phenomenon and that genderqueer people are not a threat to society but an enduring part of it.
One fact not often talked about is that when preaching, the Friend did not travel alone. Devoted members of the Society of Universal Friends frequently accompanied the PUF, some of whom had adopted the Friend’s androgynous style of dress. While their specific identities have been lost to history, it is clear that the Friend’s mere existence inspired and empowered many others, and though the Friend passed away in 1819, the Society of Universal Friends lasted until the Civil War.
The ultimate legacy of the Friend isn’t rooted in the Friend’s detractors nor the scholars but in how the Friend validates the existence of gender nonconforming and genderqueer people in the past and present. The Friend is proof that there have always been people building spaces outside the gender binary and that there will always be people who find refuge in those spaces, even if society at large does not acknowledge them.
Treating nonbinary identification or gender nonconformity as a trendy novelty feeds on this ignorance, treating markers of identity as nothing more than new cosmetics (see also, “blue hair and pronouns”). What the Public Universal Friend shows is that these shifts in how we conceptualize gender aren’t arbitrary or new; we are simply recognizing people who have always existed.
Author: Colson Kishimoto (He/They)
Artist: Paheli (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Min Kim (They/Them), Bella (She/They)