Expression and Reception: Gendering the Publick Universal Friend

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Williams, Rachel
Lively, Emma
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Scholarship Sewanee 2024 , University of the South , Universal Friend , Gender Theory , Queer Theory , Jemima Wilkinson , Quaker , Alternative Religion
Our research focuses on the Publick Universal Friend, a religious leader from Rhode Island in the late eighteenth century, and the intersection between gender, gender expression, power, and religious freedom. The Publick Universal Friend claimed to be a genderless spirit sent from God inhabiting the body of the deceased Jemima Wilkinson. During the Friend’s time as a religious leader and in modern scholarship, the Friend has been referred to by several names, including the PUF and Jemima Wilkinson. The gendered pronouns used to refer to the Friend also vary, referencing the Friend as they/them, she/her, and even he/him in some cases. Scholars have begun to assess the gender identity of the Publick Universal Friend through their historical writings and biographies, but looking into discrepancies among scholars like Larson and Brekus, there is no real consensus over how the Friend’s gender identity affects the structures of gender and power. Embracing the blurry lines between the possible gender identities of the Friend, we seek to analyze the stakes of these differing arguments. The Friend’s work as a prophetess can be read as empowering, one of the earliest powerful female religious figures in the US. Alternatively, does calling the Friend Jemima and using exclusively she/her pronouns deny the theology behind the death of Jemima and the resurrection of a “genderless spirit?” Then again, what does it mean to apply gender and transgender* theory to the late eighteenth century? Perhaps the masculinity of the Friend denies the power of women to hold religious leadership and actually mimetically reinforces gender stereotypes. There is no consensus, but rather than create one, we hope to analyze what is to be gained and lost in arguing that the Friend fits into a limiting category of gender.