Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cross-Dressing for a Cause

Ladies on the Battlefield--Day Three

It's hard to believe that a woman could pull off dressing as a man, then live and fight alongside men without getting found out. In the case of Deborah Sampson and others, it happened.

During the American Revolution, Deborah, in the guise of a man, enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She was unmarried, so she was not likely following a man (and in fact married a farmer after the war). Only after being hospitalized for a fever (possibly due to a wound that did not heal properly, as she attempted to doctor herself to avoid discovery) was her secret disclosed and she was honorably discharged.

Deborah has often been described as tall for a woman of her time and even burly (the rather awful miniature below might have something to do with it...I have a feeling she wasn't actually cross-eyed either). Contemporary Paul Revere, however, shares that "when I saw and discoursed with her I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable woman." So how did Ms. Sampson pull it off?

Remember that the legal age to enlist in the military in the eigtheenth century was sixteen, and plenty of boys disregarded the rule and claimed to be sixteen when they were younger. So there were plenty of adolescent boys in the ranks who still did not grow beards, had higher-pitched voices, and had not gained the hard lines of a man's face. Deborah probably claimed to be one of these young men.

Even so, her compatriots recognized that she wasn't quite...manly. She earned the nickname "Molly" from some of her fellow soldiers, which is more significant than a simple girl's name. In eighteenth-century slang, a "molly" is an effeminate or homosexual man. So, Deborah pulled off her ruse so successfully that her fellow soldiers never assumed that her feminine mannerisms and appearance were because she was, in fact, a woman.

The only reason Deborah was discovered is because she was wounded--which begs the question of how many women slipped into ranks, served their enlistments (which in the Congressional forces were relatively short, one calender year at the commencement of the war, in the militia even shorter) and disappeared into obscurity. The chances of being wounded weren't terribly high, so it could happen...and did happen, again and again, during the Civil War and other conflicts, until women were formally allowed in the Armed Forces.

Another point that must be made, and is often ignored, about Deborah are her activities after the war. For one, she petitioned--and was granted--a pension and back pay as a war veteran. She even got friend and fellow patriot Paul Revere to write to Congress on her behalf. She, along with Margaret Corbin (who served on an artilley crew) are the only women to be granted pensions from the American Revolution. However, her pension was granted at $4 a month rather than the $5 men received--for no reason I can find other than that she was a woman.

She also spoke publically, dressing in her uniform, running through the Manual of Arms, and addressing the crowds. The subject of her talk was, interestingly enough, an explanation and apology for "swerving from the path of feminine delicacy." Ironically, a woman speaking to mixed audiences was only slightly less shocking than donning a regimental and picking up a musket. In the days before female abolitionists, who are often credited with being the first American women to speak to secular, public audiences, Deborah may actually have earned this honor. Her public speaking tour may make her more "exceptional" than her time as a soldier--who knows how many other women silently served alongside her?

What do you think--was Deborah Sampson singular in her exploit, or did other women--unnamed--also enlist and serve? Throw out the names of some of the heriones of other wars, too--didn't have time to name them all here, so share your favorites!

7 comments:

Isis' Wardrobe said...

All my books are still packed (we're waiting for new bookshelfes) so I can't say the name, but I have mentions of two women who lived as med and also married women. One wasn't detected until she died, the other was exposed by her wife when she discoevred that sexual intercourse had been made possible becase of a dildo...

I think it's more likely that both "wifes" in these cases, where aware of their spouses true identity, and in the latter case the exposure was a way out of teh marriage.

So I think that those we are aware of are just the tip of an iceberg, though perhaps not a very large one. :-) Cross-dressing was, in many places, something with a dath penalty.

Lua said...

Wow- her story is so fascinating and inspiring for all of us! I’m sure there were other women as well, I always feel like women have been the invisible force behind men, even in the battle field!

Corra McFeydon said...

Oh, I love that she spoke publically in her uniform!!!

What an excellent post.

I'm pretty sure I heard about Molly in Civil War class last quarter. But it must have been some other Molly, because they discovered she was a woman when they recovered her body from the battlefield. She, too, was considered effiminate by fellow soldiers. It must have been a trend.

Good for the mollys! And great post. :-)

- Corra

the victorian heroine

Rowenna said...

Thanks Ladies! Isis--that is incredible, the stories about women marrying one another and no one catching on until later!

Lua--I love how you put that, women as the invisible force behind men.

Corra--there are some really interesting Civil War stories. I can't recall the name, but one woman dressed as a man and followed her husband--and records indicate that he never knew it!

GentlewomanThief said...

Good work that gal! Excellent story - I hadn't heard of her before. A pioneer in more than one sense! Great series - I'll be sad when the week ends.

dolleygurl said...

I'm sure that there were other women who hid their identity to be able to help out in the wars. I'm sure many of them didn't want anyone to know, so they never told anyone, and if they weren't found out, we will never know.

Great post - I am enjoying this series.

missbluestocking said...

Seriously, one of these days, I am going to write a story about a female cross-dresser....!!!

I have an interesting article about cross dressers in England. Not just ones who enlisted. But women who cross dressed to become a footman because they were paid better than the maids.

Maybe I'll link to this entry of yours and do a sister article on cross dressing women in England?