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Pair 19: Sex and Gender in the Public Sphere

Pair 19: Knowlton/Wilkinson

In 101 Treasures, a grouping of publications is linked together under the title, “Sex: A Timeless Subject of Public Consternation.” Inquiries into how sex, intimacy, gender identity, and affection were performed in both public and private spaces frequently locate their historical subjects in consternation, conversation or even controversy.

The work of radical freethinker and physician Charles Knowlton, the anonymous author of Fruits of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Young Married People (New York: 1832), resulted in such contention. Knowlton’s book provided the first detailed, graphic descriptions of the female reproductive system published in America, and one of the first explicit discussions of birth control: “Philanthropists…have for years been endeavoring to obtain…a knowledge of means where by men and women may refrain at will from becoming parents, even without a partial sacrifice of the pleasure which attends the gratification of their productive instinct.” Knowlton was taken to court for “libel against public morals,” and the book’s ability to “debauch and corrupt.” Even after Knowlton was prosecuted, fined, and jailed, the book continued to be issued by freethought publishers in the United States and England.

Knowlton, Charles. Fruits of Philosophy! Or The Private Companion of Young People. Boston: [Publisher Not Identified], 1833.

Hudson, David. History of Jemima Wilkinson, A Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century. Geneva, N.Y.: S.P. Hull, 1821.

To publish the overt details of sexuality was nearly as outrageous as to perform the absence of gender altogether. In his History of Jemima Wilkinson, A Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century (New York: 1831), David Hudson chronicles Wilkinson’s claim to have died and been reborn as a genderless spirit, “The Publick Universal Friend.” The Friend became an itinerant preacher who slowly accumulated their own community of followers, known as the Universal Friends. Followers used genderless language to refer to the Friend, who advocated for celibacy and dressed in a combination of male and female clerical clothing. By 1787, the Friend’s radical performance of religion and gender had become an international crowd-inducing sensation. Newspapers accused the Friend of fraud, seduction, and even murder, and meetings began to attract violent and disruptive mobs. Eventually, the Friend purchased a parcel of land from the Iroquois Confederacy and founded one of the first Anglo-American settlements in Western New York State, where they lived until their “departure from time” in 1819.