Ruse of the Independent Woman
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.
These are the words of one Franklin Thompson, a Canadian who emigrated to the United States and fought with the 2nd Michigan Infantry during the American Civil War. After contracting malaria, and fearful of medical attention, the soldier deserted. For the risk of being "found out" was something women like Sarah Emma Edmonds lived with constantly. Because, before she had reached the age of 20 Edmonds had taken on the name of Franklin Thompson and had disguised herself as a man.
Sadly, as Suzanne J. Stark (1998) points out in her book Female Tars, “It was beyond the imagination of most eighteenth-century men to think of a woman as a responsible adult, capable of managing her own life”. In Edmonds' case the ruse was necessary to safely flee the physical abuse at the hands of her violent father, and an arranged marriage.
There are no end of women similarly recorded throughout history. Like Hannah Snell, whom I mention briefly in Lies That Blind:
https://amzn.to/3AIjiPY “What, then, would be your verdict on General Washington’s true nature, young Jim?” my friend asked.
I admitted that as improbable as it seemed there appeared to be considerable proof, since three separate newspapers had reported the story, that the former leader of the Continental Army was indeed a woman in disguise. The written word, so confidently presented, was surely sacrosanct. And how many times had we heard stories of women disguising themselves as men in order to enjoy the freedom of adventure? Women like Hannah Snell who had later made her name and living on the stage, recounting the years she had pretended to be a soldier then sailing to Mauritius as a marine with Admiral Boscawen’s fleet, never once discovered.
“Then you are convinced?”
With a hesitant nod, suspecting a trick, I mumbled, “Yes.”
“Yet the story about General Washington being a woman is false,” declared Roxburgh, rather too smugly for my liking. “For Mrs. Martha Washington still lives and never made such pronouncements. According to Mr. Nichols, the Pennsylvania Gazette appeared on the 6th and 13th of November that year, not the 11th. And there is no such publication as the Dublin Register.”
Those of you who have already read Lies that Blind will know that there's more to this than merely an instructive aside by Jim's friend, Dr Roxburgh, of course!
Much of a woman's ability to disguise herself successfully had to do with how she dressed. It appears that people in the 18th century (and probably long before that) accepted that if someone wore long trousers, a man’s jacket, swore like a trouper, and perhaps wielded a weapon, then that person was a man. As such, she could navigate the world as safe and free as anyone born with testicles and a penis!
The bigger problem arose when a soldier or sailor was injured and required medical treatment. On board ships, where men were especially superstitious, having a woman on board was considered bad luck. Once discovered, a cross dresser—despite having shown equal strength, fortitude, and bravery to her male counterparts—would be turned off a ship unceremoniously.
In his book, The Female Soldier, Robert Walker shares two extraordinary tales about Snell that indicate her extraordinary strength and bravery:
In 1746, a sergeant, who belonged to the same regiment as Snell’s, tried to make sexual advances on a young woman during his embarkation, for which he ordered Snell to help him (unaware of her sex). However, she warned the woman of his plot, and Snell’s action became known to him. The sergeant made a false charge by accusing her of neglect of duty as his revenge against Snell which resulted in her being sentenced to receive 500 lashes.
Men had been known to die from far less lashes than that. But Snell withstood the punishment and presumably had only small or non-existent breasts given that the shirt would have been torn from her back as she was tied up, her arms extended, ready to be whipped.
According to one article in the Military Times, an “uneducated, illiterate former slave” called Cathay Williams managed to keep her true self disguised for at least two years, from 1866 to 1868. She served as the only documented female "buffalo soldier," the term given to members of the U.S. Cavalry’s 10th Regiment by the Commanches because of their strength in battle.
To this day, no one knows how she did it, but if not for that secret she carried daily, her name, like those of countless other ex-slaves, would have vanished into history.
Williams didn’t join the U.S. Army to highlight the often-desperate plight of women, black or white, or to prove she could outwit her peers and superiors. She was simply an independent woman who found a way to take care of herself.
It was not just 18th and 19th century men in the West who could not conceive of a woman doing "men's work", let alone fight in the military. Penang, where Lies That Blind is set, boasts one brave and daring woman named Li Yue Mei who took on the guise of a man to become a driver, aiding Chinese frontliners during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
As with many of her predecessors, Li's true sex was only revealed after she became injured in a road accident in 1940. After that she was only allowed to serve as a nurse. You can read more about her tragic tale here: https://bit.ly/3z88hqB
Luckily, we women today no longer need to dress in men's clothing and pretend to be something we are not, even though beliefs about what we are capable of sadly remain.
Further Reading (DISCLOSURE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases)
Female Tars: Women Aboard Ships in the Age of Sail (1996). Suzanne J. Stark, Naval Institute Press
Lies That Blind (2021). E.S. Alexander, Penguin Random House SEA
The Female Soldier: A Tale of Two Voices. Robert Walker, Renard Press: https://renardpress.com/news-item/hannah-snell-the-female-soldier-a-tale-of-two-voices/
America's Female Buffalo Soldier (2017). Phillip Thomas Tucker, PublishNation.
11 Badass Women Who Pretended to be Men (2015 article in Bustle): https://www.bustle.com/articles/112732-11-badass-women-in-history-who-pretended-to-be-men-because-gender-equality-back-then-was