Why you should care
Because if the debate over gender identification seems recent, it has actually been around for centuries.
The pews of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were teeming, and the Marquis de Chastellux found it impossible to get inside. The French traveler wrote in 1782 how this was a “very uncommon” occurrence in America. The congregation was eager to hear the “Public Universal Friend” — Rhode Island-born Jemima Wilkinson — in her first appearance in the city. As the Friend addressed the standing-room-only crowd, she knew the audience had been attracted not by abiding faith but by her oddity.
It is said that Wilkinson lived from 1752 to 1819, but that’s only partly true. In her version, she lived from 1752 to 1776, when she died, was possessed by a spirit and then came back to life. Her “death” in 1776 was attributed to typhoid, after which Wilkinson claimed to have been resurrected to preach the good word. Tucking a written account of her outlandish story — describing how “the Spirit took full possession” of her body — into her Bible, she embarked on a new life as “the Friend.”
Whether Wilkinson’s greatest impact was as a religious reformer, women’s rights activist or gender nonconformist, she would only ask that you not refer to her as “she.”
Claims of resurrection aside, the Friend drew considerable attention for rejecting gender and insisting she was neither male nor female. “Back then, gender roles were so completely set. To denounce the very notion of gender, I think, is very queer,” Harvard professor Michael Bronski says. While other female religious exhorters like Bathsheba Kingsley “minimized” their femininity, according to Harvard professor Catherine Brekus, Wilkinson flat-out asserted that she had no gender.
By blurring gender distinctions in such a public fashion, Wilkinson was “the Caitlyn Jenner of her time,” Bronski says. Unwilling to live by gender confines, Wilkinson chose to become an itinerant evangelist. As part of the traveling-preacher movement of the 1790s, Wilkinson sermonized from biblical texts from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.
Wherever Wilkinson went, her appearance made waves that would’ve sunk Noah’s ark. One disenchanted follower named Abner Brownell wrote that her “outward appearance seemed [sic] to be something singular and extraordinary,” remarking that Wilkinson’s hair was noticeably shorter than most women’s. Responding to her critics, Wilkinson declared there was “nothing indecent” about how she dressed, noting, “I am not accountable to mortals, I am that I am.” By rejecting the gender binary, Wilkinson took a radical stance for the era, but still, Brekus says, it was “sad” that Wilkinson’s notion of being genderless was to dress in a masculine fashion.
When the Friend began preaching in 1776, she was not the only woman who dressed as a man. Hannah Snell was a secret female Marine in 18th-century Britain, and Deborah Sampson famously forsook her dress for a military uniform to fight in the American Revolution. But both later admitted to being female; Wilkinson’s approach, by contrast, was wholly novel.
Reaching out to people in an entirely new way, she based her religion on a few key arguments: the importance of repentance, the belief that the Second Coming was imminent and the idea that human beings could be perfect in this life. Unlike Ann Lee’s Shakers, Wilkinson’s followers were quite affluent, says Brekus. They included William Potter, a judge, and Thomas Hathaway, a wealthy shipbuilder. Nor was Wilkinson cut from the same cloth as religious upstart Anne Hutchinson, who had been banished from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony a century earlier for challenging the ministers’ authority but made no attempt to found her own religion like Wilkinson or Lee.
In the 1790s, Wilkinson’s followers — no more than a few hundred — moved with her to Jerusalem, New York, to set up a community in the wilderness. The congregation thrived for a few years but lost its footing due to poor organization and infrastructure, as well as blasphemy charges against Wilkinson and non-followers’ economic interest in the land that the religious community was using. After her death in 1819, Wilkinson was buried as the “Public Universal Friend” in a plot whose location was known only to a select few. Her congregation fell apart shortly thereafter, no longer held together by her charisma and lacking a clear successor.
While many have cast doubt on Wilkinson’s “resurrection,” there is little question that the Friend created a second life by redefining her identity and rejecting the limitations of gender. And if you wish to debate whether Wilkinson’s greatest impact was as a religious reformer, women’s rights activist or gender nonconformist, she would only ask that you not refer to her as “she.”