Queer History: The Gender-Free Revolutionary of 1776

The story of a young visionary who cast off gender and started a successful American movement for freedom, tolerance, and love.
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Even at the very beginning of the United States, people understood that gender was not fixed.

Illustration by Malte Mueller/Getty Images

At age 18, Jemima Wilkinson dedicated herself to religion. Born in 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, she attended Quaker meetings with her family and also went to the more mainline Protestant New Light Baptist church. Through dedicated studying, she became well-versed in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospels.

In 1776, the warship Columbus docked in Providence, bringing with it the often-deadly disease typhus, which Wilkinson caught. Like many infected people, she developed a high fever and became ill. As frequently happens with a high fever, Wilkinson had visions. Her visions were religious in nature. She saw “archangels, descending from the East, with golden crowns upon their heads [proclaiming] room, room, room in the many mansions of eternal glory for thee!”

We do not know whether Wilkinson’s vision was truly mystical or the result of a fevered hallucination. But when she recovered from typhus, Wilkinson had changed. She told her friends and family that Jemima Wilkinson had died and that she was a new person, neither male nor female. She took the name “Publick Universal Friend.” From that day onward, Friend refused to use the self-describing words “she” or “he.”

Instead of women’s clothing, Publick Universal Friend chose to wear long robes like a priest or monk. The robes hid the body underneath, and in them, Friend looked like neither a man nor a woman. Newspaper accounts of the time show that most people thought Friend was a man.

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Publick Universal Friend began to preach a message of universal friendship, speaking out against slavery and alcohol and urging everyone, even married couples, to refrain from sex. A tall impressive figure with a strong voice, Friend had absolute faith in these beliefs. Friend’s sermons were reported on and published in newspapers, leading to fame and inspiring a following of well-educated men and women. Writers at the time still wondered if Friend was male or female, although the many people who listened to and followed Friend did not seem to care.

Perhaps Friend’s refusal to be seen as male or female was what attracted followers from throughout Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Many people loved Publick Universal Friend, whom they saw as a messenger from God. However, others found Friend’s message and gender-free appearance disturbing, and on at least one occasion, they confronted Friend in the street.

After a decade of preaching, Publick Universal Friend decided to start a colony, named Jerusalem, in central New York state—a place where “no Intruding foot could set.” So, in 1788, Friend and followers set out for land west of the Genesee River in New York. At that time, most of northern New York was home to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (sometimes called the Iroquois). Friend had no worries about relations with Native Americans and befriended them. Preaching universal love and tolerance, Friend and Friend’s followers supported many of the Native people’s basic rights and stood with them against other colonists by insisting that signed treaties be honored. The Native Americans called Friend the “Great Woman Preacher.” 

Ironically, Publick Universal Friend’s success became a problem. The colony did so well at building and farming that more and more unbelievers came to share the wealth. Because of the prohibition on sexual activity, the colony had no new children. Slowly, the religious colony dwindled as Publick Universal Friend’s followers died. Friend died in 1819.

Publick Universal Friend appeared at a pivotal moment in American history, right in the middle of the American Revolution and the start of a new country. The United States was evolving and growing in exciting ways, and gender roles were also changing. For many men, this meant highlighting aspects of traditional, heterosexual masculinity. The image of the frontier woodsman or the revolutionary fighter was an important identity to separate American men from what they saw as the “sissified” British man. Daniel Boone, a former Revolutionary War soldier whose exploits as a hunter, trapper, and explorer became folklore, exemplified the rugged “new” American man.

For women, changing gender roles often meant exploring new, more independent ways of behaving. Abigail Adams, the wife of founding father John Adams, for example, ran the family farm, invested their money, conducted the family business (and raised the children) when he was at the Continental Congress, the group of delegates from each colony that governed the newly formed United States during the Revolution. Women were free to enter political debates and sign petitions.

Publick Universal Friend viewed gender in a totally different way, by breaking out of the traditional expectations. Being “neither male nor female,” Friend felt free to behave without meeting the gender expectations of the time. Publick Universal Friend preached and practiced sexual abstinence, so the words “homosexual,” “gay,” or even “queer” do not apply. All we know of Friend is through the preaching and writing. It would be inaccurate to use any modern terms here in a description.

For women, changing gender roles often meant exploring new, more independent ways of behaving.

How can we think about Friend’s gender? What words do we use? Words are important. In the case of Friend, the lack of language is also important. Words not only express what we want to communicate but also influence how we think and how we see and construct the world around us. We all feel we know what the word “red” means: we can see the color in our minds. On the other hand, it is not as simple as that. There are many words for different shades of red—“crimson,” “carmine,” “scarlet,” “rose,” “ruby,” “vermillion,” “cardinal,” “claret”—all of which are similar yet distinctly different. The same is true for how we think about people and gender. It might be useful to think of Friend’s gender as a shade of gender and—as Friend’s followers did—not worry too much about it.

We don’t know if any of Friend’s followers followed Friend’s gender-free example. We can guess, based on diaries and letters, that large numbers of people were intrigued with the idea that gender was not fixed. Maybe they understood that the traditional ideas about gender were limiting. Or maybe they were fascinated by the idea that someone could be as bold to break from firmly established conventions. Perhaps in this new country, where so much seemed possible, the traditional limits of gender were also up for reinvention.

Publick Universal Friend’s life and ministry spanned the years at the very beginning of the United States. For many colonists, political freedom meant freedom from the British Crown. It meant not paying taxes to the king, and it meant being able to make your own laws. For some people, though, like Friend, it meant the freedom to break out of the usual roles in which society placed you.

Excerpted from A Queer History of the United States for Young People by Michael Bronski, adapted by Richie Chevat, (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.

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