Dr. Jodi Schorb, Associate Professor in the Department of English, used her 2016 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to study primary materials in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University and the Wilkinson collection at Yates County History Center, NY. Her current book-length manuscript project, Life Writing and the Eighteenth-Century Erotic Imaginary, explores sex and gender difference in eighteenth-century American life writing and seeks to expand our understanding of conceptions of sex and gender prior to the medicalization of sexuality and the rise of sexology.
The research done during this fellowship focuses on the writings by and about Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819), later known as Publick Universal Friend. Jemima Wilkinson, upon waking from an illness in 1776, declared themselves to be neither male nor female and announced that they would from that point onward be referred to solely as Publick Universal Friend. The Friend traveled throughout the Northeast as an itinerant preacher and sect leader with their followers, members of the Society of Universal Friends, eventually settling in upstate New York.
Previous scholarship of eighteenth-century sexuality and gender diversity has often focused on sources that discuss sexual and gender transgressions (such as legal documents and news accounts of sensational events) instead of sources focusing on firsthand accounts by everyday people. For example in published texts written by outsiders, Publick Universal Friend was often depicted as a woman, a con artist, an idolater, or a seductress. Scholarship derived from such archives has supported a traditional rendering of Publick Universal Friend as a “female preacher” and “visionary woman” with a “masculine Persona.” This view has neglected to explore how Publick Universal Friend and their followers understood the Friend’s unique gifts, including their gender ambiguity.
Dr. Schorb’s research shifts the focus to unpublished manuscript archives written by Publick Universal Friend and their followers. She uses the relevant life writings of Publick Universal Friend and their followers to expand the models and vocabulary that eighteenth-century individuals used to discuss sexuality and gender diversity, including the pronoun choices in their diaries and dream journals, and extensive religious dream accounts describing encounters with the genderless Friend. Her work expands scholarship on early life-writing by exploring how individuals understood gender ambiguity firsthand, instead of relying on published accounts by a sensational and often hostile press.
Dr. Schorb also plans to address the long debated issue of whether or not it is ahistorical or anachronistic to apply queer theory to people who pre-date the invention of queer theory. She argues that these life writings can facilitate an understanding of the possibility of transgender identities prior to the rise of sexology.
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and the Public Sphere
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University of Florida
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