The Public Universal Friend (with Kit Heyam)

This season on Vulgar History, we’re investigating How Do You Solve A Problem Like Marie Antoinette? To do so, we’re looking at the lives of people who lived during the revolutionary era of the 18th century.

In honour of Pride Month, we’re talking this week about the trans historical figure The Public Universal Friend. The Friend, aka PUF, grew up as a Quaker in late 18th-century Pennsylvania. Were they also a cult leader? Listen and find out!

We’re joined this week by three-time returning guest Kit Heyam to talk about this fascinating historical figure.

Organizations to Support:

Kit recommends supporting TransActual (UK)

Ann recommends supporting:

Point of Pride (US)

Trans Care+ (Canada)

The Trevor Project (US)


Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender by Kit Heyam

Public Universal Friend essay by Amanda Carson Banks from Women in World History

Vulgar Pride podcast playlist on Spotify

Get 15% off all the gorgeous jewellery and accessories at or go to and use code VULGAR at checkout

Get Vulgar History merch at (best for US shipping) and (better for international shipping)

Support Vulgar History on Patreon 

Vulgar History is an affiliate of, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit






Total Score:



Vulgar History Podcast

The Public Universal Friend (with Kit Heyam)

June 12, 2024

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster and it’s Pride Month! It’s June, this is the time when we celebrate the history and the current status of and the future of all of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

So, with that in mind, we’re having another queer history episode, another trans history episode. Today, for a third time, our special guest is Kit Heyam who has been on the show. Initially, Kit’s first episode was talking about their book, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender which is such a good book and actually, that was one of the references I used for today’s episode because one of the people profiled in Kit’s book is the person we’re talking about today, the Public Universal Friend. Kit also returned when we did an episode about Elagabalus, the horny teenage trans, Roman emperor who, side note, in that episode I forgot to ask Kit with helping score Elagabalus on the Scandiliciousness Scale, so we did record that as well and so that episode is being re-released. If you want to scroll back, you can hear how we scored Elagabalus on the Scandaliciousness Scale or also the scoring is its own special episode on Patreon as well.

Anyway, a third time and I was thinking, in the episode I said, it’s a record-breaking third time, and I think it is. So, in terms of guests on this show, Miss Hepburn is here, she’s the most frequent guest star on the podcast, that is my cat who you may hear purring directly next to the microphone right now. But also, friend of the podcast Gina Berry has been on twice although we have recorded a third episode, you just haven’t heard it yet. So, Kit is the first three-time returning guest. Now, some of the other people who have been on the podcast before, Allison Epstein and Lana Wood Johnson, I consider honorary co-hosts rather than guests of the podcast. Anyway, Kit, I just… Every time I encounter something in trans history I’m just like, “I wonder if Kit’s written about this. I wonder if Kit can come on the podcast,” because I just love talking with them, that’s why I keep having them back on the show.

Public Universal Friend I think is such a fascinating person and I’m so glad that Kit joined us to talk us through this story of American history. Kit is a British person, me as a Canadian person, we’re both kind of objective outsiders to the world of American history but Public Universal Friend, quite a saga as we get into it. Some similarities to the story of Elagabalus, just in terms of an audacious person from trans history whose spirituality is a very important part of their life.

Anyway, I do want to mention that other than Kit’s book, Before We Were Trans, the other major reference that I was looking at for this episode was an essay from the Encyclopedia, Women of World History which was written by Amanda Carson Banks in 2002. Anyway, Happy Pride! Let’s talk about the Public Universal Friend.


Ann: So, I’m joined by Kit Heyam. Welcome, Kit.

Kit: Hi, thank you for having me.

Ann: This is a record-breaking third appearance on this podcast because I can’t not have you on.

Kit: It’s a total delight to be here. Is that genuinely a record? Am I like, a recurring guest-type record?

Ann: You’re now officially a recurring guest, there’s only a few people who have been on three times, I think.

Kit: That’s an honour.

Ann: Two people and you’re the second. [laughs] But yeah, I want to let the listeners know as well, and you, I guess, too. So, I’ve been doing this podcast now for four years and people have heard me do episodes about queer history and about trans history and I’ve been learning both of those things, more about them, on air, with guests like you as people listen to me. So, just so people know when I encounter a story where I’m like, oh, wait a minute, I think this is a bit of trans history, I’m always like, “Kit, what do you think of this person? Have you studied this person?” I messaged you when I did the Hatshepsut episode recently just to clarify, like, how do I talk about this? So, I appreciate you being behind the scenes kind of my go-to expert.

Kit: Oh no, anytime. It’s really great to be able to talk about, as we were saying off air, the complicated figures from trans history, the people who aren’t just like our inspiring ancestors but are actually bonkers in various ways.

Ann: Exactly. So, for people who perhaps haven’t heard your previous episodes with me where we’ve talked about this, but I do just want to clarify it again, can you explain the way you do in your book and that you have in other episodes, trans history in general? It’s not just the history of people who make one transition and stick with it, it’s very expansive.

Kit: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s really important that we distinguish between trans people in history, which is basically people who’ve said that they were trans, using that terminology because obviously terminology and the way we think about gender changes so much between times and cultures. So, distinguishing between trans people in history and trans history which is the history that shows us that gender has never been something that’s tied to the body, has never been something that’s fixed or stable. When we look at it that way, we find that there is so much history that shows us the messiness and the complexness of gender and I think that this story that we’re talking about today is a really, really good example of that. It might not be a trans person in history but it’s absolutely trans history in the way that it shows us that gender has always been something we can mess with.

Ann: This is such a fascinating one too. I’m not going to keep teasing everybody, we’re going to get into the story but first, how do you suggest– And I mean, a hundred people could suggest a hundred different ways to approach this story. I’m assuming they/them pronouns because they specifically did that in their life after a certain point.

Kit: Yeah, I’m going to use they/them pronouns to talk about this person. It might be that it would probably be also appropriate to use she/her for the point before they transformed and I use the word transformed really advisedly because the narrative, the way this person understands themselves is having been a woman who then died and was reborn as a genderless spirit in a human body. So, maybe we go from she/her to they/them but they/them would also be an appropriate way to capture all of that massive complexity.

Ann: That’s also where I was thinking about, you know, because there’s the whole thing about, do you use dead names and stuff? And I’m like, well, this person was this person and then became a new person very consciously, so it’s not like they said, “I was never Jemima.” No. “I was and then I stopped it.” So, already it’s complicated.

Kit: Yeah, and arguably, dead name is a really appropriate term to use for this because we’re talking about somebody who literally identifies as dying and then coming back to life as a different gender.

Ann: Okay, so we’re going to talk about the situation. So, that’s what I’ll do. So, Jemima Wilkinson was born November 29, 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island. So, this is exactly the time period all the episodes are so far in this series, we’re talking about people who were born in the 18th century pre-American Revolution, pre-all the revolutions, but already the world is just from the slave trade and other trade, there’s so much international stuff going on, people are moving from country to country. So, it’s already a world that’s kind of in flux, is what she is born into. Another ongoing recurring thing in this series is massive families. So, Jemima is the eighth of 12 children of Amy Whipple and Jeremiah Wilkinson, and they were actually the fourth generation of the family to live in America which is interesting because I think America is still a pretty new country but four generations in, so they’ve been there a while.

So, just some notable connections. So, their great-grandfather had been in the army of Charles I, emigrating around 1650 and then their father was a cousin of Stephen Hopkins, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, which doesn’t necessarily mean this is like, “Wow, look at these connections.” It just means it was a small world and a lot of people signed the Declaration of Independence. So, the mom died when Jemima was around 12 years old, giving birth to the twelfth child, another recurring motif in this series is just people, these women having so many children and then inevitably dying giving birth to one of them.

Kit: Yeah, imagine being for that much of your life, and then dying in childbirth. Having been pregnant once, I plan to never do that again no matter, never mind 12 times, that’s ridiculous.

Ann: It’s women who spent their entire adult married life just being pregnant and breastfeeding and being pregnant and breastfeeding. So, this is a Quaker family. You know about Quakerism. Is that an expected thing in Quakerism or do you know, historically, was it? Like, “Be fruitful and multiply,” have lots of kids, was that a thing?

Kit: It’s probably just more of a settler-colonial thing at this time than it is primarily a Quaker thing. So yeah, I grew up in a loosely Quaker family, was raised a Quaker until my family left our local meeting house for not particularly religious reasons, just interpersonal ones. But it’s not a religion that’s big on, “Be fruitful and multiply,” it’s much more about… It’s kind of, I like to think of it as one of the overall most humane branches of mainstream Christianity in that there’s a big emphasis on God’s light being in everybody and in the validity of other religions, they say, “The lamps are different, but the lights are the same,” which is really nice, and on pacifism, which I know is something we’re going to come onto. So, I think what’s really going on with those 12 kids is the settler-colonial context in North America and the desire to really populate that land and outcompete the Native Americans. I think that’s what Amy is being pressured toward from that angle.

Ann: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s certainly something that we see a lot in most colonial-settler societies, “We need to have as many white children as possible just to have more population.” So, the Society of Friends, is that AKA Quaker? Are those interchangeable? Or do you know?

Kit: Exactly. They call themselves the Society of Friends, other people call them Quakers. They kind of reclaim that label later on but initially, yeah, they’re the Society of Friends to themselves.

Ann: And so, the Quaker, I didn’t warn you I was going to be diving into Quakerism with you, but I was like, “Oh, I’ll bring this up,” because I saw in your book that you were raised Quaker. So, were they religiously persecuted in England, is that part of why they came to America?

Kit: Yes, absolutely. So, there was a big exodus of nonconformist religion to America from England. There was… I mean, yes, essentially nonconformist religion was really cracked down on, particularly following the restoration of Charles II. I can read you some facts that I’ve just looked up and you can edit out me umm-ing and ahh-ing about it. [chuckles]

Ann: Yeah. We’ll take out everything. I can be like, “Tell me about this,” and you can just say some facts, yeah.

Kit: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, the Quaker Act 1662 was an act explicitly aimed at persecuting the Quakers and there was very little tolerance of what was called nonconformist religion in England in that period so there was an exodus of anyone who wasn’t a mainstream Protestant during the mid-to-late 17th century, which I know is when the Wilkinson family come over.

Ann: So, that’s sort of, I’ve been learning– I’ve never read up on the American Revolution before I started doing this series but now, I understand that the northern colonies were founded by religious refugees and the southern American colonies were kind of like plantation business… people.

Kit: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really important cultural distinction, partly in the way that they understand themselves and partly in the way they understand the point of the USA, the point of the colonies that they’re establishing. Are they primarily to work the land, exploit the enslaved people and make as much money and productivity as possible or are they to found a society that’s more religiously pure and more religiously exemplary than the England that they left behind was? So, the northern colonies have that idea of, “We need to be the religious exemplars that we want to see in the world and that we want everyone else to follow.” That’s where a lot of that conflict comes from really, is those different concepts and understandings of what they think that country is even for.

Ann: Yeah, and that was something I didn’t realize until I started reading about this was that whole North and South thing that I hear about more in the context of the American Civil War, started early. It was just kind of like, it was already the North and the South were settled completely differently.

So, mid-1770s. Jemima Wilkinson is in her early twenties and switched, there’s a lot of leaving of the group by various people. So, Jemima left the Society of Friends, AKA the Quakers, to attend meetings with the New Light Baptists which is another group. And so, the Society of Friends disowned them because of this… Which, I mean, fair. You left the group so…

Kit: You kind of disowned them first. Yeah.

Ann: Yeah. [laughs] “You can’t fire me, I quit.” So, at around the same time, Jemima’s sister Patience was dismissed from the Society of Friends as well for having an illegitimate child and two of the– because remember there are 12 siblings so at this point, four of the siblings have been dismissed; two of the brothers were dismissed because they went off to train for military service, and this is around the time that the American Revolution was kicking off and lots of people were signing up for military service.

So, I would presume, for a family where religion was so important that the roots of the family had fled persecution to come here, to found this colony, to have four children disowned from the Society of Friends is probably very traumatic, very stressful for everybody.

Kit: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. And I mean, thinking about the chronology, it seems actually like the original emigrants from the Wilkinson family were not necessarily Quakers because they emigrated before Quakerism was founded so they’ll have converted on American soil which will have made them actually probably even more steeped in that community because that’s the only community they’ve got, they haven’t got anyone else, they’ve only got the people around them. So, I think that yeah, that instability from having four of your children disowned from what is your main community in this new country is going to be really real, I think.

Ann: Yeah. I would imagine it was probably a very serious decision when Jemima decided to switch from the Society of Friends to the New Light Baptists and probably a lot was going on. And then, typhus, there are so many diseases that were around. Jemima was stricken with typhus during an epidemic, was bedridden and near death, asterisk, potentially actually died. So, her fever broke after a few days and the way that this… This is where Jemima… Can you talk us through Jemima’s transformation?

Kit: So, this is where Jemima dies, in 1776. This is the narrative that we have from Jemima and well, should I say actually, from the person that they became or the spirit that they became and their followers. So, Jemima dies from typhus and their body arises from its deathbed, no longer Jemima but instead, the spirit of God in what they call a tabernacle of flesh, and they choose the name, not Jemima, but the Public Universal Friend, which is a name they take from the sect, no, from the tradition of travelling Quaker preachers who were known as Public Friends. The Public Universal Friend is a Public Friend who is universal, who can speak to everybody and who very crucially is genderless. This is the point at which Jemima, she/her pronouns, dies; the Public Universal Friend, genderless, they/them pronouns, arises from the deathbed. They say it’s a new name which “The mouth of the Lord hath named.” So, this is where we get the gender transformation, this is where it becomes trans history in a really, really interesting way.

Ann: Yeah. I like this, at one point, someone asked– “The Friend” is how you refer to them in your book, I guess “Public Universal Friend” is cumbersome to say every time. Someone asked the Friend, are you male or are you female? And the friend replied, “I am that I am.”

Kit: I mean you can’t argue with that.

Ann: Yeah. [laughs] Exactly. So, this is not, this is the termin– There’s other stories in trans history where we now are like, okay, how did this person see themselves? We don’t really know. But here, they were very clear being like, “I am not male, I am not female. I am Public Universal Friend.” Genderless, is how they described themselves.

Kit: Yeah, and there’s so much evidence. Again, like you say, with a lot of trans history, we’re reading between the lines, we’re looking at accounts of how other people saw them and might have seen them, or they might have seen themselves. Here, we’ve not only got firsthand testimony, we’ve got all their followers and we’ve got all the people who came to see them preach because they became a bit of a religious celebrity and all these people saying, “Oh yeah, this person, they’re not a man or a woman and this is how they dress,” and we get a really detailed picture, much more so than we do with a lot of trans history like you say.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. To me, a relief, [laughs] because I don’t have to… I’m just like, “Ahh, how do I talk about this? Kit, tell me what to do.” But here it’s just like, no! Public Universal Friend is like, “Here’s what’s going on. Jemima is dead, spirit of God is in me.” So yeah, right away the way that this is described is, “They refused to answer to Jemima Wilkinson, ignoring or chastising those who insisted on using that name. The Friend asked not to be referred to with gendered pronouns and followers,” because they did have a following that increased, they “referred only to the Public Universal Friend or sometimes ‘the Friend’ or sometimes ‘P.U.F,’” which is what I started calling them in my notes to save time, I’m just like, “PUF.” The followers avoided gender-specific pronouns even in their private diaries which speaks to how deeply they respected and believed how this person wanted to be referred to. This is just like, I want to pause to be like, anyone today who is like, “Pronouns, blah blah blah.” It’s like, 1776 and earlier, people were doing this.

Kit: Yeah. And people were fine with it, and it was compatible with religion, which is a thing worth emphasizing, I think.

Ann: Absolutely, with Christian religion. Exactly. So, listeners, note that. And so, the Friend dressed, and this is a time period in which there was a very clear distinction between male dress and female dress. “The Friend dressed in a manner perceived to be androgynous or masculine,” so in long, loose clerical robes, which is sort of, I don’t know, I’m just picturing the man on the Quaker oats, I don’t know if he’s wearing a robe.

Kit: To be fair, pretty much actually. [chuckles] That’s pretty on it.

Ann: Yeah. So, here’s the thing. So, it’s like, this androgynous or masculine, so wearing a long, loose clerical robe. The Friend is not wearing trousers. The way that a Quaker preacher would dress was already kind of androgynous in the loose robe and that is what they wore with “a white or purple kerchief or cravat around the neck,” which is like the Quaker oats man, which is a male presenting thing, “Did not wear a hair cap indoors,” so women of the era would wear a cap on their head, the Friend did not do that. “Outdoors, wore a broad-brimmed, low crowned beaver hat in the Quaker male style.”

So, beginning in 1776, “the Friend gathered a group of around 20 of their most devoted followers,” which is just, pause. So, it was in 1776 that Jemima died of typhus, Public Universal Friend was born and that same year, there were already at least 20 followers, The followers are right there. They travelled a circuit around Rhode Island and Connecticut preaching their message. And I like this detail, “They would process through. The Friend would be wearing their flowing, long robe, followers riding two by two behind them on horses,” and they were originally well-received in these churches, so this is between 1777 and 1782, they travelled around, and people were like, “Yeah, this message, we like it.” I assume the message is, I don’t know, what do you know about what the message was? Just, “Everyone be nice to each other”? I don’t know.

Kit: The message is mostly just basic Quakerism; it’s kind of regurgitated bits of the Bible. A lot of people who went to see the Friend preach sort of write back, “Actually, this isn’t anything particularly radical or interesting.” I mean, it’s good. A lot of it is around anti-slavery messaging and there is, maybe we’ll talk about this later, there is quite a feminist strand in the beliefs they have as well, but there’s nothing wildly different from what you could hear from any other Quaker preacher. I think a lot of people came to see them to see this amazing, reborn, genderless person perhaps more than to actually hear anything particularly interesting they had to say.

Ann: And just, what you mentioned about… I just wanted to highlight the pacifism side of things. So, by now, it’s 17– What did I say? 1777 to 1782, that’s the period of the American Revolution almost exactly. So, while the Revolution is happening, Public Universal Friend is going around, just being like, [laughs] “Be cool to each other!” Bill and Ted sort of message but also because Quakerism is incompatible with war, Quakers weren’t allowed to fight in the war, that’s why their brothers were disavowed for doing military training. So, you’re not allowed to participate in wars when you’re a Quaker, and then also, it’s anti-slavery. Because every person has the light of God within them, you shouldn’t treat people in this way.

Kit: Yeah, that is a really important aspect of Quaker theology from the very beginning and that’s one of the reasons why it is such a threat to the English state, that’s one of the reasons why the initial persecution in England, where it emerges, happens because it’s an incredibly non-hierarchical religion. If you’ve ever been in a Quaker meeting, you know that anyone can stand up and say, “The spirit of God has prompted me to say something.” It’s not something where everyone has to sit down and shut up and listen to a particular person, although that’s the main kind of mode that the Public Universal Friend was preaching in, meetings are very, very non-hierarchical. So, that extends, as you say, to valuing everybody equally, including enslaved people.

The flip side of this, of course, and maybe we’ll talk about this a bit more later on too, is that the Friend was also really invested in forming their own community and that requires land, that requires agitating for large amounts of land. So, there’s this kind of incoherent ideology around this anti-slavery message but this perfect willingness to persist with settler colonialism and to not perhaps see Native American people as having quite the same humanity as the enslaved people they were agitating for the freedom of.

Ann: Yeah, it’s complex. On the podcast last week, the listeners would have heard when we were talking about Deborah Sampson/Robert Shurtleff who we were looking at in the context of trans history as well and also settler-colonialism. In order to succeed as a soldier, to be accepted as masculine, there’s a famous story about them killing, for truly no reason, just to kind of look cool, just murdering this Indigenous man. So, it’s like, that angle of things I think is really important to always mention in these stories. The American Indian people are often just kind of invisible in these contexts. I do want to say, about the Quakers in general, because we do have some more episodes coming up, actually starting next week listeners, about some slave narratives. I do talk about the Quakers and how they were really pushing for abolition and that’s part of why it kind of started around Pennsylvania and places where there were a lot of Quakers.

So, the Friend is travelling and preaching through Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania accompanied, this is interesting, by several of their siblings. Their sister, Patience, the one who had been kicked out for having the child out of wedlock was there supporting the Friend, as well as three other sisters and one of the brothers. So basically, all the Wilkinsons that had been disavowed by the Society of Friends were now travelling with the Friend, which is nice that they have that community… Oh! Okay, so this is where, and I don’t know what the distinction is between a religious sect and let’s say a cult. But there are some cult vibes.

Kit: Marketing, I would say.

Ann: [laughs] Fair. Because the Friend starts to predict the fulfilment of some of the Book of Revelation claiming that around April 1780, 42 months after they started preaching, the world would end, which is a real cult thing that people still do, giving a specific day. I forget what happened that day, there was like a solar eclipse or something and the Friend was like, “That was it! I guess that’s what I was thinking of, not the end of days, just a solar eclipse.” [Kit laughs] The same with people now who are like, “The world is going to end on this day,” and when that day comes and goes, they’re like, “You all prayed so well I guess it didn’t happen. Good job, I wasn’t wrong.” It’s just… [chuckles] Anyway. Okay, so “the Friend did not bring a Bible to worship meetings which were initially held outdoors or in borrowed meeting houses but instead, preached long sections of the scriptures from memory.” In Quaker… What are they called, meetings? They’re not services?

Kit: Meetings, yeah.

Ann: Meetings. Is there usually Bible readings or is it people quoting from memory?

Kit: These days, and initially too, it’s mostly silent worship, so you sit in silence and then anyone who feels the need to speak or feels the spirit move within them can speak but that speech, certainly today, may or may not have anything at all to do with the Bible a lot of the time. These days, if you were to go to a meeting, it would be more likely to find a reflection on social justice in many cases than it would be sections from the Bible though clearly, this is a different historical context. But yeah, that’s one of the things that is interesting about the kind of cult celebrity of the Friend, I think, is that in its focus on one individual, it’s not really all that Quaker.

Ann: Yeah, it reminds me and I… Most of my context for understanding the New Testament Bible is the musical Jesus Christ Superstar but I’m like, this is so much like Jesus Christ Superstar, [chuckles] by which I mean the Bible, but it’s just this very charismatic person and people are following them place to place and they’re preaching, that seems to be the model that they’re going after, a kind of Jesus figure. Dying and coming back to life, it just seems kind of like they’re doing a whole Jesus thing.

Kit: You can see why people accuse them of pretending to be Jesus, which they did deny, as you know. But you can see where that came from. It’s not a particularly big leap to be like, “Does this person think they’re actually Jesus?”

Ann: Yeah. Because they’re… It’s a big Jesus cosplay. And so, “The meetings attracted large audiences, some of whom formed a congregation of “Universal Friends”, making the Friend the first American to found a religious community.” So, later on, when we’re talking about Significance in the scoring, that’s significant. Followers were roughly men and also women, mostly people under age 40. “Most were from Quaker backgrounds, though mainstream Quakers discouraged and disciplined members for attending meetings with the Friend,” who had long ago, I guess Jemima was disowned and now the Friend, I don’t know, the Friend had to be separately because it’s like, “I’m a different person now.” But my notes say, “The Society of Friends disowned the Friend.” So, just to make sure, if they were like, “Jemima was disowned.” “But I’m not Jemima anymore.” “You’re also disowned! The Friend!”

So, there were also, at this point, the American Revolution had ended so there are these people who had been soldiers who had been disowned for joining up to fight in the War of Independence were now still just not allowed to go back. It seems like a real shunning sort of thing, once you’re disowned, that’s it, you can’t get back in. So, these people were sympathetic, and they opened meeting houses to Universal Friends, these soldiers who were still probably would have wanted to still be Quakers but couldn’t be. And so “Popular newspapers and pamphlets covered the Friend’s sermons in detail, with several Philadelphia newspapers being particularly critical.” So, in terms of celebrity, I found this interesting. Part of what we know about them and what they did is because they were having huge meetings, being covered by the press, people who attended the meetings would write letters about them. They were a big deal.

Kit: Yeah, they were. And I think like I said, perhaps more because of more of their unconventional dress and people wanting to see this genderless being than because of anything they were actually doing theologically. You can get the stuff they were doing theologically in many other places, but you couldn’t get seeing someone who came back to life as someone with no gender, that was what was kind of unique. And not all the attention was positive, obviously. There were mobs in Philadelphia that attacked them with brickbats. So, it’s not a case of necessarily adoring crowds, it’s more fascinated and, kind of, rowdy crowds a lot of the time.

Ann: Yeah. I’m trying to think, I mean, I don’t know, it’s not like a Taylor Swift moment where everybody who comes to see them is a huge fan and loves everything they do. Some people are going just to boo them probably. Yeah, “Noisy crowds gathered outside each place, they stayed or spoke in 1788,” apparently, but that didn’t stop them. Which is, we don’t– Actually, no. I was going to say we don’t know why they’re doing this, but we do because they were constantly saying who they were and what they were doing, they wanted to spread this message and that’s what was driving them on, or so they said. They wanted people to hear this message which as you said is just basically Quakerism. But yeah, as you said, the coverage of them “focused more on the preacher’s ambiguous gender than on theology.” Again, because their message was not any different from what other Quakers were doing.

Oh yeah, so “the Friend’s theology was so similar to that of mainstream Quakers that one of two published works associated with them,” like… They published two works, one of them was plagiarism of someone else, Isaac Penington wrote a book just called Words and then Public Universal Friend republished it saying “Works by Public Universal Friend” because they felt that people would like it, they would take the message better if they thought that the Public Friend had said it.

Kit: Or at least would have more reach because everyone had heard of the Public Universal Friend. Yeah, that’s not really cool, is it?

Ann: No, no. [laughs] There’s a certain, you know, there’s like you said, the difference between a cult and a religion is often marketing and I feel like the difference between a preacher and a grifter… might be similar.

So, let’s see, this is some more stuff about their concept. So, they “rejected the ideas of predestination and election.” This is the kind of feminist stuff, “held that anyone regardless of gender could gain access to God’s light… God spoke directly to individuals who had free will to choose how to act and believe and believed in the possibility of universal salvation.” I think there’s a bit more later on about feminism and women and stuff, but I think that’s part of what’s appealing about this message because I had said, the people who followed them it was half men half women, generally. It resonated with different sorts of people. I mean, it sounds like again, a very positive, hopeful message. It’s not telling everybody– I was raised Catholic so it’s not telling everybody, “You’re all sinners, [laughs] repent constantly.” This is all just “God speaks to people, we’re all children of God.” I’m like, this is actually kind of nice.

So yeah, the Friend, like other Quakers, called for the abolition of slavery, persuaded followers who were enslavers to free the enslaved people. “Several members of the congregation were Black, and they acted as witnesses for manumission papers,” so I think that’s the papers that were freeing some people from bondage.

This is all, this whole section, I’m getting this all from this reference, thank god that they have the public library, Women in World History, I’m always excited when somebody I’m researching has one of these essays because they’re all really well researched by academics. This is where they’re getting into:

The Friend preached humility and hospitality towards everyone; kept religious meetings open to the public, housed and fed visitors including those who came only out of curiosity and Indigenous people, 

Which is a strange way to phrase that.

The preacher generally had a cordial relationship with Indigenous people, and they had few personal possessions, mostly given by followers and never held any real property except in trust…

The Friend preached sexual abstinence and disfavoured marriage but did not see celibacy as mandatory and accepted marriage as preferable to breaking abstinence outside of wedlock.

What… What’s that…? Did Quakers think that or is this, are we getting some of the Friend’s personal ideas?

Kit: This is an early Quaker thing, it’s not so much a Quaker thing now because obviously, things have evolved. But yeah, it is an early Quaker thing. I guess it’s part of the emphasis on plain dress and abstinence from things like alcohol and tobacco which, again, were kind of early Quaker preoccupations, it’s part of the abstinence from pleasures of the body.

But I think, I mean, if we’re thinking about situations in which women could be liberated as a result of the Friend’s preaching, this is one of them, right? If you don’t marry and you don’t have sex, you’re not going to be pregnant for your entire adult life and then die giving birth to your twelfth child, that’s actually quite an opportunity for lots of people. [chuckles]

Ann: Yeah, speaking of women. So, the preacher, the Friend also said,

Women should obey God rather than men… The most committed followers included roughly four dozen unmarried women known as the Faithful Sisterhood who took on leading roles of the sort that were often reserved for men. The portion of households headed by women in the Society…

What is it? There’s the friend and their followers are considered a society?

Kit: Yeah, the Society of Universal Friends is the name of their followers.

Ann: Different from the Society of Friends, which is AKA Quakers.

Kit: Which is just the Quakers, yeah.

Ann: Right, right, right. So, “the portion of households headed by women in the Society’s settlements was 20% and that’s much higher than in surrounding areas.” This is what you mentioned earlier, the feminist angle, this is the difference between general Quakerism and what the Friend was preaching. There are more opportunities for women, right?

Kit: Yeah exactly. Particularly the idea that women should obey God rather than men. That hasn’t really, at this time, made it into the mainstream Quakerism despite their emphasis on non-hierarchical worship. And yeah, as I said, particularly that opportunity to embrace not marrying is something that is really a great way out of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory pregnancy for women who want that at the time.

Ann: Yeah, there’s going to be, again, I’m doing this whole series about people in the 18th century and there are several instances of women who got married because that was kind of the only thing you could do and then when the husband dies leaving you with debt, you’re fucked. There’s nothing you can do because you’re a woman and maybe you have all these children and you can’t own property. So, what the Friend was offering, I can see where that would appeal to people who wanted something other. So, due to the rising antagonism, you were talking about you know, the crowds, what did you say? Attacked them with bats?

Kit: Yeah, stones and brickbats in Philadelphia. There’s a real religious objection to the idea that the Friend is setting themself up as a religious exemplar particularly, as we mentioned, those comparisons with Jesus. This person coming around with a band of followers saying, “I was resurrected,” that’s a little concerning to a lot of Christians at the time.

Ann: And considering too in these areas like Rhode Island and Connecticut, these are the areas that were founded by people fleeing religious persecution in England, so these are people, whatever, fourth generation people, religion is so important to them. They take it so seriously and so literally that this would be seen as really a threat.

And so, 1783, they transferred the headquarters to Philadelphia which is where their only published work that they actually wrote appeared, “The Universal Friend’s advice to those of the same religious society recommended to be read in their public meetings.” However, Philadelphia was only slightly less intolerant so in 1785, they returned to New England and then met Sarah and Abraham Richards. So, they had an unhappy marriage. Sarah met the Society of Friends as a widow and then with the infant daughter took up residence with the Friend. Sarah also “adopted the same look, the same androgynous robes look, apparently the same dress and mannerisms, (as did a few other close female friends) and came to be called Sarah Friend.”

So, this is another where you’re like, cult or religion? The fact that followers started dressing like, using the same mannerisms, which you see in fandoms, I guess. Again, if someone’s a fan of Taylor Swift, not that I’m calling that a cult but Swifties, they quote her a lot, they do the same dances as her, you maybe cut your hair like her, you dress like her because that’s who you idolize. But here, them dressing like the Friend and adopting the mannerisms, it’s a little culty to me, is how it sounds. But Sarah Friend became a high-up person in this group, they were entrusted with holding the Society’s property and trust and was sent to be a back-up preacher in one part of the country when the Friend was in another. Maybe that’s why you want kind of doppelgangers so you can have lookalikes, so you can do more speaking engagements, I don’t know.

Kit: That’s a good strategy, I could do with some of them.

Ann: [chuckles] So, Sarah Friend had a “large part in planning and building the house in which she and the Friend lived in the town of Jerusalem, and when she died in 1793, left her child to the Friend’s care.” So, Sarah Friend, an example of followers.

So, there’s a lot of detail in here we don’t necessarily need to get to, but the Friend was meeting with some influential people of the time. So, we’re in 1794, it’s post-post-American Revolution, that ended 10 years ago, but still, people are trying to figure out what is this new American country going to be like. How is it going to work with the Indigenous people and the colonists and inventing this new country and how’s it going to be? So, the Iroquois were involved in producing this treaty and “the Friend gave a speech to US government officials and Iroquois chiefs about ‘The Importance of Peace and Love,’” which the Iroquois liked. I don’t know, being the Public Universal Friend, I don’t know how, I don’t want to say that the other people writing these treaties were more suitable for doing that because these treaties were all terrible and shitty. But I also think the Public Universal Friend is a wild person to involve in these sorts of discussions because I don’t see them as having both feet in reality.

Kit: Yeah. They have zero expertise in actually negotiating humane treaties, [laughs] I don’t know what’s going on there.

Ann: Yeah, but for some reason. Part of this, when I was looking through this, I was trying to see, this whole series I’m finding connections between all the people, sometimes unexpected connections between people who you wouldn’t think can connect back to each other. So, this is where the Friend is involved with some of the great thinkers of the time, I think because they were just a celebrity, the same way that you know, the White House might invite some poets or something. It’s like, you’re a notable person of the time. So, 1788:

They decided to try a different climate for preaching and purchased a large parcel of land in Yates County near Seneca Lake in western New York state. Within two years, it was ready enough that the rest of the Universal Friends set out to join it, making it the largest non-Native community in western New York. 

One might say, like a cult might do.

Kit: Uh-huh. When you said cult earlier, I was like, this is the cultist thing they do, create their own cult compound.

Ann: Yes, this is the part where I’m like, I can’t see how this is not a cult. But then there’s drama about land purchasing. I think partially because the Public Universal Friend is not concerned with the laws of society and this is kind of like, “Here’s what I want to do.”

Kit: They’re not a human, right? They’re a spirit in a human body. Rules aren’t for those.

Ann: Paperwork? That’s not a thing for spirits to do. So, anyway, I’m not getting into all these details, but the town became known as the Friend’s settlement. There was a whole issue about who owns this land, who is going to pay for this land, a whole thing about financiers. More and more settlers kept coming and that drove prices higher. It was sort of a bit of a Fyre Festival situation, if you know what that is, just people were coming and there was not the infrastructure there to support a community because of course not, because Public Universal Friend isn’t like, creating the infrastructure to have an actual functioning society, they’re just vibing with God’s messages. It’s like, “But what’s the water source, Friend?”

Kit: “Do you know anything about plumbing, Friend? Can you build houses?” Yeah, no.

Ann: Yeah. So, it didn’t… But there’s other people in the group and maybe they have some skills. So, at one point, a person acquired a large area of land in Canada but, oh, Sarah Friend, still on the scene. So, she persuaded the Friend not to move to Canada. I was like, “Ooh! Is this going to be Canadian content?” No. Anyway, they were just trying to find other places to build their place.

Eventually, so the new town that they settled in was “along a creek that emptied into the Crooked Lake, Keuka Lake. The new town which the Universal Friends began there came to be called Jerusalem,” which is really the name of the towns that a lot of Christians found in various places to be like, that’s just what… There are so many places in America called Salem and things because it’s just religious people see this as, kind of like, it’s like Jerusalem. Anyway, this enterprise did better, I guess there were some helpful people with actual skills, prosper to agriculture and lumbering by 1800 had increased to about 260 members. But as it prospered, those issues about where is this money going? And again, the Friend is not a financier, the Friend is just really not concerned with worldly matters. Apparently, the Friend developed a pension for requesting gifts and personal effects from members by saying “The Friend hath need of these things.”

Kit: This is what celebrity does to you, I guess.

Ann: Yeah. And then assigned degrading forms of punishment for various infractions of the Society rules. Early it had said that the Friend had very few personal possessions and stuff. It’s like, yeah but they had all these things that were other people’s possessions that they came to possess.

So, people were becoming disillusioned, not everybody but some people. So, the fall of 1799, some followers “led several attempts to arrest the friend for blasphemy,” which was probably more to do with disagreements over land ownership and power. It’s a familiar situation I think where people have all the best intentions in the world or spiritual intentions or something but once you get a bunch of people having to live day to day, you’re going to get into some fights and some hurt feelings and things. You can’t just be like, “Everyone love each other!” This kind of hippie commune, eventually, that’s not going to work. “An officer tried to seize the friend while riding on the horse but the Friend, a skilled horse-rider, escaped.” I like that moment. That’s in a movie, that will be a big scene.

Kit: Oh yeah.

Ann: Not to mention, “An officer and an assistant later tried to arrest the Friend at home, but the women of the house drove the men off and tore their clothes,” another exciting sequence in the film.

A third attempt was carefully planned by a posse of 30 men who surrounded the home after midnight, broke the door down with an axe, and intended to carry the Friend off in an oxcart. A doctor who had come with the posse found that the Friend was in too poor a state of health to be moved.

So… Okay.

They made a deal that the Friend would appear before an Ontario,” this is Ontario, America, “Ontario County court in June 1800.


The Friend appeared before the court, it ruled that no indictable offence had been committed, and the judge, in fact, invited the preacher to give a sermon to those in attendance.

[both chuckle] You had said there’s some detail in here you hadn’t encountered before, and I knew the vague outline that this person existed, but I didn’t realize there was all this drama.

Kit: Yeah, so I knew about the mobs in Philadelphia. I didn’t know about the repeated attempts to enter their cult compound/society and actually seize them. This detail was new to me and it’s really striking, the amount of planning and the amount of anger and motivation that really has to go into that, that’s not just opportunistic, “Oh, this person’s down the road. Let’s go and throw some stones because it’ll be fun.” That’s really people sitting and plotting and thinking, “We need to get rid of this person. 30 of us are going to turn up with pitchforks.” That’s quite a lot.

Ann: But then I love the turn that found not guilty, and the judge is like, “Please, [laughs] I would love to hear you give one of your sermons.” So, there’s just as many fans as there are enemies, seems like, still.

So, “Having set aside 12,000 acres of the colony’s property,” which again, to go back to something we talked about at the very beginning, these are white people “buying land” that belongs to the Indigenous people of the area, this is not just an open field that no one’s ever lived on before. So, as much as the Friend is like, “Everybody has their special light and spirit inside of them and all humans are special,” it’s kind of like, yeah, but also, “12,000 acres of this are going to be turned into my personal use now.” So, they had an estate built on the furthest corner of the property and remained there in ‘luxury,’” I’m not sure how luxurious anyone’s life was in colonial America, “although ailing with dropsy.” So, this was probably the same illness where they were in too poor a state to be put in the oxcart by the mob earlier. Dropsy, I’ve come across it a lot, it basically means like a swelling, I think it’s a heart problem, fluid retention, things like that.

Their health had been declining for quite a while, “by 1816 they began to suffer from a painful edema but continued to receive visitors and give sermons.” This is similar to a while ago, I was doing John Knox, I did a special episode about John Knox on my Patreon, and he had a similar end where he was so ill but he was so committed to preaching that he would have people come into his room and he would be in bed and he would give his sermons and I feel like that’s kind of what the Friend is up to here. Just being like, “I can’t stop preaching,” but the sermons will have to be in their bedroom, and they’ll have to be lying in bed.

So, “the Friend gave a final, regular sermon in November 1818 and then preached for the last time at the funeral of the sister,” the one who had the child out of wedlock “Patience Wilkinson Potter in April 1819. The Friend died on July 1st,” which is interesting because July 4th is a very important date to Americans, “July 1, 1819; the congregation’s death book records, “25 minutes past 2 on the Clock, the Friend went from here.” In accordance with the Friend’s wishes, only a regular meeting and no funeral service was held afterwards,” which is interesting considering how much of a celebrity cult leader they were in their life, they didn’t want any celebration afterwards.

Kit: I suppose they derived part of their celebrity from the claim that they’re doing really plain living, so they’ve got a reputation to uphold.

Ann: That’s true, that’s true, yeah. “The body was placed in a coffin with a glass window set on top,” so I guess people could view the body for a while,

Interred four days after death in a stone vault in the cellar of the Friend’s house. Several years later, the coffin was removed and buried in an unmarked grave in accordance with the Friend’s preference. Obituaries appeared in papers throughout the eastern United States… 

because this was a famous person, so people wanted to hear the news that they had died. “Close followers remained faithful but as the original followers died, the congregation’s numbers dwindled.” It was a cult of personality if not a cult cult. It was very much based on people following this charismatic person but unlike Jesus, this did not continue through past generations.

The Society of Universal Friends disappeared by the late 1860s. The Friend’s home and temporary burial chamber stands in the town of Jerusalem, and it is included on the National Register of Historic Places… The Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society’s museums in Penn Yan… 

That might be a typo somewhere,

… exhibit the Friend’s portrait, Bible, carriage, hat, saddle, and documents from the Society of Universal Friends. As late as the 1900s, inhabitants of Little Rest, Rhode Island, called a species of solidago, Jemima weed because its appearance in the town coincided with the preacher’s first visit to the area in the 1770s.

They don’t call it Friend weed or P.U.F weed.

Kit: Yeah, I don’t think they’d have been too pleased with it being called Jemima weed, like, “That’s the whole thing I’m trying to say! Not Jemima.”

Ann: Exactly. I picture them coming in and uprooting all the plants like, “Oh no! I’m not Jemima! This plant is not Jemima!”

So, and then this is where I think you can explain some of this. The way that they have been presented by historians… Following their life, how this story has been interpreted. The Public Universal Friend very clearly was like, “I am no gender. I am the Public Universal Friend, that is who I am.” But then the story has been reinterpreted.

Kit: Yeah, the Friend has fallen victim to a real classic of the way that trans history has kind of flattened and erased when it involves people assigned female at birth which is the kind of desire to find inspiring and pioneering women in history who transcended gender boundaries, which is great, and we should find and celebrate those people. But if, when we’re looking for those people, we find people who very clearly say, “Actually, I don’t identify as a woman,” then it doesn’t make sense from a historical accuracy standpoint or from a standpoint of looking for diverse stories in history and lots of different kinds of experience, it doesn’t make sense to erase that self-identification.

One of the things I guess I’m really passionate about, and I know I’ve talked to you a bit about this before, is that lots of different groups can find identification and solidarity with the same person. So, it’s okay for women to feel solidarity and connection with the story of the Public Universal Friend just as trans people can. But what I think is different about this case is that this is someone really clearly and explicitly saying, “I don’t identify as having a gender,” and that’s been extricable from their spiritual and religious beliefs, it’s not something that’s just about gender, as is the case with pretty much everybody’s gender, it’s also about other things and in this case it’s about religion. That doesn’t mean that women can’t find inspiration in their story, but it does mean, I think, that representing them just as a woman who escaped gender boundaries is really misrepresenting who they actually were.

Ann: Yeah, like you said, in this case, it’s so specific, the Friend described themselves very clearly, “Here’s what’s going on with me.” So, to… Yeah, this is part of where in last week’s episode as well where I was talking to Greta LaFleur about Deborah Sampson/Robert Shurtleff who is a figure who I know because I’ve heard from listeners, women who find inspiration in that story of this soldier. And of course, you can! And like, looking at it through the lens of trans history is not attempting to take that away, it’s just saying, “And here’s another way you can see this story and here’s a way that other people can maybe find inspiration as well,” because that’s an inspiring person. Public Universal Friend, I don’t know if that’s an inspiring person but it’s an interesting person.

I think what I’m learning about trans history as I go through these episodes, I’m learning from you and from other scholars is kind of, looking backwards at somebody lived their life in a certain way and sometime in the 20th century, somebody came along to be like, “Well actually, this is what it is and here’s how it’s actually a woman and here’s why that’s inspiring.” And then in the 21st century, someone comes along to be like, “Is it that?” The way that each generation reinterprets the stories… So, I try to, as much as possible, look back at who was the person actually? Not how were they reinterpreted or people… Again, this story is different in the sense that the Public Universal Friend very clearly said who they were so for people saying, “Here’s what I think was actually going on in their head,” it’s like, we know what was going on in this person’s head actually because they made their whole life just telling this story of who they were and why they were. This is the sort of reason why I love having you on the show and love having other scholars on the show, I want to be able to describe this well for listeners who are maybe new to trans history or new to this way of thinking about narratives.

Kit: Yeah, sure. And I think like I was saying, it’s really important to say that none of this is about saying that you can’t understand this as a really inspiring piece of feminist history, although as I say, the extent to which you might want to be inspired by this particular example is maybe up for debate. But even if you think about it as someone doing things that most people assigned female at birth couldn’t do, there’s no one saying that you can’t find that important but it’s also I think equally important, particularly in a climate where trans history is so often erased and where the claim that trans people are new is being used politically in really meaningful and harmful ways, it is also important to say that what is going on here is an example of people being able to understand the concept of a genderless person or a genderless spirit in the 18th century and that’s pretty cool.

Ann: Yeah, yeah exactly. And as you said also, in a Christian religious context. So, that’s… I really appreciate being able, the scholarship that exists so I can have episodes like this, talking about interesting people from trans history on this podcast. And on the podcast, I do try to focus on weird stories or people who are living sort of audacious, scandalous lives which is exactly what this is. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m taking away from women’s history by talking about trans history. I think it’s all… It’s all one thing. It’s just history; one doesn’t have to negate the other, basically.

Kit: Absolutely, yeah. It can be women’s history and trans history and it can be history of gender not limiting us and gender not being something that we can’t change and mould into what we want it to be and that’s liberating for everyone.

Ann: And I think this story too, just in the context of trans history, it’s another interesting example that trans history comprises all kinds of different gender experiences including that of people who die and are reborn as God incarnate, in a genderless form. [laughs]

Kit: Exactly. [laughs]

Ann: You know, like in the acronym, the LGBTQIA+, this is the +.

Kit: [laughs] There’s a lot under that + and, you know, some of it is resurrection.

Ann: Exactly, the + contains a lot. [both chuckle]

So, at the end of most of my episodes, although I forgot to do this last time I had you on the show, I like to score the people we talk about in a variety of categories, just as a way to wrap things up but also to compare people to each other and a way to… There are certain historical characteristics that are celebrated in traditional, conventional, mainstream, patriarchal history and on my show, I want to celebrate other things to give a really high score to people who might not on other peoples’ scales. So, if you would indulge me…

For Public Universal Friend, we’re going to go through these four categories which I have forewarned you about. The first category is Scandiliciousness. In the context of this, it means, how scandalous were they to the world in which they lived? Sometimes when you look at the history of, I don’t know, let’s say Ancient Rome, which we’re going to look at later, that’s a world where it’s like, “Oh, did you kill your father and then poison your grandmother and then marry your sister? Okay, that’s just kind of what we do.” So, to us that’s scandalous, but in their era, it wouldn’t be. So, we’re looking at how scandalous was this person considering their time and place. And Public Universal Friend, I mean, as attested by the angry mobs, I think was seen as pretty scandalous.

Kit: Yeah, you don’t get stones and brickbats thrown at you, you don’t get 30 people showing up at your house with an oxcart if you’re not pretty high on the Scandiliciousness score, I think.

Ann: Yeah, so on a scale of 0 to 10, I’m just thinking, so certainly the reaction that they had… And part of it too, it’s not just, did things happen to them that were scandalous? But how much were they actively doing things that people found scandalous and their whole deal, the whole, “I’m going to be a Quaker-type person but I’m also going to be a celebrity,” which is so against… The Quakers I think would be like “10 out of 10, this person is horrific.”

Kit: Oh yeah.

Ann: To the Quakers themselves, so I think it’s a pretty high score and then in society in general, the gender presentation stuff, I think people were kind of freaked out by that, people from other denominations who were startled by the, “Does this person think they’re Jesus?” I’m tempted to say 10 out of 10 for Scandiliciousness, honestly.

Kit: I was going to go for 9 or 10, honestly. Yeah, like you say, you don’t get much more scandalous than “We are scared this person literally thinks they’re Jesus,” in a pretty fundamentalist Christian community.

Ann: Yeah. I don’t even know… The only thing that would be maybe more scandalous would be, “This person says they’re Satan,” but I don’t know. Let’s say 9.5.

The next category is the Scheminess and in this show, that’s a positive; people with a scheme and a plan, how much they, sort of, see what’s going on and they can roll with the punches and move along with it? This is interesting to me to think about because the Public Universal Friend, I don’t know how much they had a scheme and a plan and how much they were just kind of like… just vibing.

Kit: Yeah, you said vibing earlier, didn’t you? If you take the conspiracy theory route of like, all of this is a scheme: be reborn as a genderless person, gain incredible celebrity, be able to demand any gifts you want by saying, “The Friend hath need of these things.” If you see that as an actual plan, that’s incredibly schemey. I’m not sure it was an actual plan; I think this person was just kind of going with the flow a bit so I would maybe go lower on that. But if we decide that everything was actually planned then it would be much higher.

Ann: I don’t think it was actually planned, my interpretation of this just seems like, eventually they did get followers and a beautiful house and anything from anybody that they wanted but I think if it had been a real grift scheme, there would have been more money-making stuff going on and there wasn’t really. It was just kind of, the followers came and then that brought with it drama about property taxes and whatever, but I think the Friend was kind of like, “Here’s what I want to do: be a preacher.” So, I feel like the Scheminess is low, but that’s what makes it interesting, they caused so much chaos without really scheming. [laughs]

Kit: Yeah, without really meaning to. And you know, I think there was some opportunism and materialism behind it, but I think there was also some sincere religious belief that they had been reborn and had a vision of God and things. So yeah, I’d go maybe like, 3 or 4 there, I think.

Ann: I’m going to say 4 because I do want to, especially… I’m going to go up from a 3 to a 4 because of that part where they republish that other person’s book as their own book.

Kit: Yes. [laughs] The plagiarism.

Ann: “Well, I just thought more people would read it if it had my name on it.” Okay. [chuckles]

So, Significance, and this can be… The story has a lot of resonances. So, there’s stuff like in terms of just American history significance, the first American to found a religious order. But then there’s also stuff like significance to trans history, significance to religious history and where that would be on a scale of 0 to 10. Although I do want to mention, I don’t know if this will affect, but I did find out, it was not a typo in my thing, the place where the saddle and things are is actually in a place called Penn Yan, that is apparently in Yates County in Pennsylvania. Truly it looked like a typo but that is the name of the place.

Kit: [laughs] Who knew?

Ann: To have a museum exhibit dedicated to you, I think. To be like, “This is their saddle, this is their carriage.” I’m like, well, that speaks to some significance.

Kit: It’s a big deal. And I think they’re really important to lots of trans people today, the idea that someone in the 18th century was confidently declaring that they had no gender, that’s a big deal, and I think has a lot of political resonance today as well. So, I’d go pretty high there.

Ann: I’m happy to go with a 10 for significance. I think everything you said, and I’ll say it again, but the fact that they were confidently being like, “I am agender” and the followers were like, “That’s great,” and 300 of them were like, “We believe that and let’s start commune with you.” In 1776 it’s like, okay, that might be hundreds of years ago, people were cool with it so pay attention world of now.

Kit: Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s give it 10.

Ann: I think so. And then the fourth category which, when I started this show and I made this scale, and I can’t change this scale because I invented it four years ago, I was doing the stories of like, cis women. It was a straightforward thing to be like, how much did sexism affect their life? But then when I’m getting into stories about not just like, trans figures from history but sometimes I’m looking like at a Black enslaved woman where it’s like, well sexism was one of many things that was affecting this person. But for this, the Sexism Bonus, the reason I invented that category was for somebody who some, you know, queen from English history who was shut away in a castle because she dared to speak up and then she was trapped there for 35 years and then died, she would get a 10 out of 10 Sexism Bonus because that’s a person who probably wouldn’t get scores in any other category and I want everyone to get something. But for this story… I don’t feel like sexism got in their way at all.

Kit: I mean they kind of side-stepped the whole sexism thing by being like, “Well, I don’t have one.” Which means that, you know, despite being assigned female at birth, actually sexism didn’t affect them at all. They avoided the fate of their mum dying in childbirth with their twelfth child, which is a huge deal. Yeah, I don’t think sexism held them back very much at all.

Ann: No, I don’t think so, which is, I mean, astonishing given what was happening to their mom and to their sister who was excommunicated for having a child out of marriage. And there’s been other people on the show where sexism, there are some people who it kind of worked to their advantage you know? So, it’s not always… Everyone’s not always going to get a high score. I’m going to say… I’m going to give them a 1 for Sexism Bonus because I’m sure it affected them somehow because of the era in which they lived. I don’t know, if the Friend had been assigned male at birth, died, and came back and was like, “I am a genderless person,” the way that they were treated to some extent was because they had lived the first part of their life as a woman. A man doing many of these things may not have been as controversial.

Kit: Yeah, maybe. Although then they probably would have experienced misogyny if they’d had to dress in a feminine way to emphasize their genderlessness. But equally, they wouldn’t have been treated as… One of the reasons the Public Universal Friend’s dress was controversial is like, “You’re trying to ascend the social hierarchy from woman to something better than woman,” and that was the whole problem. So yeah, I think 1 is fair.

Ann: So, I’m just going to officially put them here in my scale of people. Public Universal Friend, 24.5 is their score out of 40. And just to give you some context for what that means and who else is in that neighbourhood, a name that you probably would know is Catalina de Erauso…

Kit: Oh hey!

Ann: The other figure from trans history who has a 23.5, so they’re neighbours, next-door neighbours on the list, just one point separating them.

Kit: I think they’d get on.

Ann: [laughs] I think they would get on and I would not want to be in that dinner party. I think they were both big personalities and also quite insufferable. So, that’s lovely.

Thank you so much. So, I wanted to just follow up, or just to ask you. This episode is coming out during June which is Pride Month. Is it Pride Month in the UK? I know you have different celebratory months there.

Kit: We do but Pride Month is the same, yeah.

Ann: So, Pride Month is in June in Canada and in the US. Is there any charity or fundraiser or website or anything you want to especially give a shout-out to at this time?

Kit: Oh, thank you. I would actually love to shout out the organization TransActual in the UK who do really important work combating the incredible misinformation around trans rights, particularly trans healthcare and trans kids at the moment. So, if people want to check out their work and consider donating that would be fantastic.

Ann: That’s lovely and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well. And if people want to keep up with you online, I know you have a website and an Instagram. Where specifically would people be able to follow you, would you suggest?

Kit: So, I’m on Instagram @KitHeyamWriter, I am still on Twitter, for my sins, that’s @KRHeyam, but Instagram is probably the network that’s not going to crash and burn in the next few months so go with that.

Ann: Yeah, when I record things a couple weeks ahead, I’m just like, “Where are you and what website will still be functioning two weeks from now?” But thank you so much Kit and I do want to mention to the listeners, the last time Kit was on this podcast, we were talking about Elagabalus, the trans Roman horndog teenage emperor who was emperor for five minutes and I neglected to get Kit to help me with the scoring. So, we are going to record this afterwards and I’m going to make that recording available on Patreon and then also I’m going to go back and edit it back into the Elagabalus episode. So, Kit, if you have five more minutes to spare, we’ll record that next.

Kit: Great, let’s do it.


So, because this is our 18th century/Marie Antoinette season, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Marie Antoinette? Everyone who we’re talking about in this series, I’m going to show you how they connect back to Marie Antoinette. Actually, I did have a suggestion from a listener because I am trying to figure out what would be some good merch ideas for this series and their suggestion was the whole six degrees of Marie Antoinette. So, now I’m picturing one of those conspiracy boards where all the names are attached by red string and maybe there’s a little portrait of the person, just showing how everyone connects back to Marie Antoinette. Public Universal Friend does as well.

So, the closest connection I could find. So, Public Universal Friend’s father’s cousin Stephen Hopkins was one of the many people who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Declaration of Independence was also signed by various American Founding Fathers who would later become friends with the Marquis de Lafayette. Marquis de Lafayette, (again, I can’t not picture him as Daveed Diggs from Hamilton), Marquis de Lafayette was frenemies or frankly enemies with Marie Antoinette; they knew and hated each other. So, if we go from Public Universal Friend, their father, their father’s cousin, to the founding fathers, to Lafayette, to Marie Antoinette, that is five degrees of separation between these two people, for the record.

Again, I do want to just really extra shoutout Kit’s book, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender. It’s described as, “A ground-breaking global history of gender nonconformity.” Kit talks about other people who we’ve discussed on this podcast like Njinga for instance, of Angola. So, it’s a great book to read, and also to celebrate Pride I put together a playlist of 27 episodes of Vulgar History which deal with queer history and that’s people from all of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Like we said in this episode, Public Universal Friend is very much + in terms of that acronym but we talk about people like Njinga who was pansexual and maybe also part of trans history, well for sure part of trans history. We also have episodes about people like Kristina of Sweden who was potentially intersex but also certainly a queer history story, Hortense Mancini who was bisexual. I was just going through all the episodes we’ve done about different people on this podcast who fall under that umbrella. Empress Sisi, I included on this playlist because there’s a reading that she could have been demisexual or maybe asexual.

So, all these, you know, queer history is a huge umbrella and all the people that we talk about on this podcast are various stages of messy chaos people so just celebrating gay villains, queer and trans weirdos. Anyway, the whole playlist, the link to it is in the show notes, I just put it together on Spotify, 31 hours of Vulgar History episodes, including some author interviews, just celebrating queer history, happy that of the however many episodes I’ve done of Vulgar History, 27 have had queer themes and I hope, well now, more do because of this episode. It’s Pride Month and I just want to put that together as my little way of celebrating queer history.

So, this is the Vulgar History podcast, my name is Ann Foster, and you can keep up with me in all kinds of various ways. So, for starters, we are on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod and then also if you want to keep up with us, I have a Substack which is If you want to subscribe there, I have a weekly newsletter. At the moment the newsletter is talking about Tudor history so it’s not exactly the same stuff we’re talking about on the podcast but there’s… I call it, it’s like a sister, it’s like a cousin of this podcast. It’s like a father’s cousin who signed the Declaration of Independence. Some connection but it’s not exactly the same thing.

You can also support the podcast on Patreon at So, I’m doing more on Patreon because Instagram has got some weird things happening with the algorithm, it’s doing some weird stuff with AI. I’m still posting on Instagram as well, but I know not everyone is on there and not everyone loves it so I’m sharing more content on Patreon which you can join for free, and you’ll just get a little notification whenever I post something new there like a picture or a question or a poll. So, everyone is welcome to become a free member of the Patreon.

If you want to become a paid member of the Patreon you get some goodies, like not literal physical goodies but if you pledge at least $1 or more a month, you get early, ad-free access to all episodes of Vulgar History and if you pledge $5 or more a month, you get access to bonus episodes. So, those are things like Vulgarpiece Theatre where I talk about costume dramas with unofficial cohosts, Allison Epstein and Lana Wood Johnson, also things like The After Show, for instance, the recording that Kit and I did after this where we scored Elagabalus, that’s there on The After Show. There’s also episodes of So This Asshole where I talk about gross men from history. That’s what’s happening on Patreon, that’s a place where I’m putting more content so if you want to join me there, either as a free or a paid member, we have a nice time. There’s also chats there so for all the paid members there’s a weekly episode chat where you can talk about it. For people at the $5 or more level, there’s this super-secret salon we have on Discord where we just kind of whatever, sharing pictures of our pets, we’re just chatting, there’s a spoilers thread where I’m kind of giving hints about what I’m up to because you know, I’m writing a book and I’m sharing things there about that.

We also have our beloved brand partner, Common Era Jewellery. So, Common Era Jewellery, I want to say first of all, it’s a small business, it’s a woman-owned business, and they make beautiful jewellery pieces and also things like scrunchies and hair bows, inspired by women from classical mythology as well as from history. In terms of Pride Month, there is a Sappho-themed necklace for all my sapphics. There’s also Hatshepsut, who is another person we’ve done an episode about that’s included on my Pride podcast playlist because Hatshepsut is a part of trans history because trans history is the history of people and gender expressions not specifically just about people who are trans people which Hatshepsut lived so long ago, who’s to say? Anyway, Hatshepsut, an iconic person, and you can get a necklace with Hatshepsut on it from Common Era Jewellery as well as Sappho, other iconic women, Boudica, Cleopatra, Hecate, Agrippina. There’s also Anne Boleyn, Aphrodite, Medusa. Anyway, I love their pieces, they’re my brand partner because I love them and legitimately, I have like three of their necklaces. Anyway, if you want to get a discount, you can go to or when you’re checking out, use ‘VULGAR’ at checkout to get 15% off whatever you’re ordering from Common Era Jewellery.

If you want to get some Vulgar History merch, you can get that at In terms of Pride Month, I’m just thinking about which of the queer figures we have on merchandise. Hortense Mancini, we have a beautiful design with her, we also have a design featuring the Chevalière d’Éon, the iconic trans woman from French history. Anyway, you can take a look at the store,, that takes you to our TeePublic store and that’s got good shipping for Americans. If you’re outside the US, I recommend using the Redbubble shop which is at both places have all the same stuff; T-shirts, pins, stickers… Represent Vulgar History with increasingly niche inside jokes that no one else will understand. But imagine if you were out there and you had your Vulgar History sticker on your phone case or whatever and somebody sees your sticker that has, you know, like, ”Where is your God now, John Knox?” You could make a friend, someone from the tits-out brigade, which is what our listeners are called.

You can get in touch with me, we have a form at where you can send me a message with your thoughts, suggestions of people you want me to talk about on the podcast. Your thoughts about Public Universal Friend, have you been to the museum where you can see Public Universal Friend’s saddle and like, carriage and other things? Let me know because that’s… I would love to see those things.

Next week, we’re going to be sticking with American history a bit longer, it’s going to be me doing a solo episode and I’m going to be talking about a woman from American history who when I did a survey a bit ago of American listeners, of people who I was thinking about doing episodes about, this is the second-best known woman from American history, something like 80% of the people who did this survey had heard of this woman. It’s a fairly famous woman from American history, from 18th-century American history. Marquis de Lafayette is going to be involved again; the Marquis de Lafayette is in so many stories, I feel like I’m inevitably going to need to do an episode about him because I think he was kind of a chaos person as well.

Anyway, thank you so much for listening, happy Pride Month. And until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out.

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster, that’s me! The editor is Cristina Lumague. Theme music is by the Severn Duo. The Vulgar History show image is by Deborah Wong. Transcripts are written by Aveline Malek. Find transcripts of recent episodes at


Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender by Kit Heyam

Public Universal Friend essay by Amanda Carson Banks from Women in World History

Vulgar Pride podcast playlist on Spotify 

Get 15% off all the gorgeous jewellery and accessories at or go to and use code VULGAR at checkout

Get Vulgar History merch at (best for US shipping) and (better for international shipping)

Support Vulgar History on Patreon


Vulgar History is an affiliate of, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.