It's a common (and tiresome) critique of historic or fantasy novels that place women in pre-industrial military roles that such a character and activity is simply implausible. "Women couldn't do the work." "A long-term disguise as a man is not believable." And so forth at tiresome length. The best counter to such critiques is to drown them in data. Alas, even that approach won't satisfy the more stubborn of the nay-sayers. I've watched online discussions where such critics picked away at each piece of data as "a special case", "marginal", "not really a combat role", "poorly documented", "exaggerated for sensational purposes"...all while ignoring how much of male military history would fall in exactly those same categories by the same criteria.
This isn't to say that historic women in military roles were ever common, or that they were openly accepted except in special circumstances. But there's no reason to think that the simple act of creating a fictional historical woman in a military context should break the suspension of disbelief. Diane Dugaw's book on "warrior women" in fact and pop culture focused mostly on the 17-19th centuries. Today's publication brings that picture up to date by focusing on the 19-20th centuries.
Wheelwright, Julie. 1989. Amazons and Military Maids: Women who Dressed as Men in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness. Pandora, London. ISBN 0-04-440494-8
This book is aimed at a popular audience rather than being a scholarly treatise, and is focused strongly on the 20th century and on personal reminiscences and memoirs. But there is a great deal of coverage of prior centuries, and many biographical specifics. A book well worth browsing for inspiration.
Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included. Although some of the individuals documented in this book would most likely identify today as trans men, I will follow the framing given in the book and use female gender.
The introduction (chapter 1) notes the relatively common occurrence in the 19th century of women passing as men for economic reasons, not only in military contexts, but in industrial settings. The survey of historic roots of passing women notes cross-dressing roles in 17th century theatre, as well as “female warrior” ballads.
Some of the best documentation comes from military contexts (sailors and soldiers), which was a popular choice in part due to indiscriminate recruiting practices. Most of these came from the working classes, but there are examples such as Fredrika Bremer in early 19th c Sweden and Nadezhda Durova, fighting for Russia against Napoleon, as well as many other women from the middle and upper classes in France, Prussia, Germany, and Austria at a similar era, who enlisted for the adventure or out of patriotism. Women also took defensive roles in desperate circumstances without necessarily attempting disguise.
As one of the tropes of “female warrior” biographies was the adoption of masculine behaviors with regard to women (flirting, visiting brothels, and engaging in sexual teasing) it can be difficult to determine to what extent homoerotic desire may have been a motivating factor for passing. In some cases, the passing women had a clearly heterosexual motivation in pursuing or accompanying a husband or male lover.
Military women, both fictional and historic, were held up in popular culture both as aberrations and as role models. Some women pointed to such pop culture representations as their inspiration for taking up a military career in disguise themselves. Military women were also used in pop culture to reinforce gender norms, used as a symbol to shame men into enlisting, or contrasted with images of women’s “natural” pacifism.
Nineteenth century Europe was undergoing a conceptual shift in how armies were organized, moving toward a more rigid, professional approach, rather than the previous system which allowed for the integration of supporting roles (“camp followers”) that were often filled by women. This shift meant that women lost opportunities to participate in an unofficial (and often unpaid) capacity. In the “new” military, disguise became the only way for a woman to participate, rather than being only one of several options.
Chapter 2 begins with biographies from the American Civil War, including that of Emma Edmonds, whose gender-disguise was inspired by a fictional female pirate captain. She left home to avoid an unwanted engagement in disguise as a man. After a time as a traveling bible salesman (during which she strongly considered marrying a girl she met in her travels), the start of the Civil War spurred her to enlist. In the same era, the English story of Christian Davies includes a detailed explanation of how her transformation was accomplished via dress, accessories, and behavior, including a urinary device that helped her keep her disguise intact. Madeline Moore, another American Civil War participant, notes how she used theatrical whiskers to help her impression. One American Civil War nurse (not in disguise) estimated in 1888 that there were 400 or more female soldiers in the war in disguise.
Women who were accustomed to hard physical labor had little trouble performing the military duties of men, and having achieved the more lucrative careers that made possible, they sometimes were loathe to leave them when the war was over. In the mid 18th century, Mary Lacey served in the Royal Navy in disguise, learning a carpenter’s trade, and continued working in the shipyards in disguise until her death. Mary Anne Arnold in Kent and Isabelle Gunn in Orkney both took up careers as sailors in disguise driven by the economic disparity in men’s and women’s wages. Similarly, Almira Paul and Elsa Jane Guerin, who had been left widowed with small children to support in the early 19th century, enlisted as sailors in disguise as the best economic option available.
Another path to enlistment was in the line of a family trade. Phoebe Hesssel was the daughter of a military drummer, who disguised her as a boy in order to keep her with him as a fife-player, from which she moved on to a combat position. Not all such family connections were positive: two late 18th century stories involve women being forced into menial naval occupations in disguise to accompany a controlling husband or stepfather (Mary Anne Talbot and Marianne Rebecca Johnson).
The text continues to provide names, dates, and specifics of particular individuals, but for the rest I’ll confine myself to summarizing themes. Unless otherwise noted, all discussions include 18-20th century examples, but I’m skipping over material that focuses only on the 20th century.
Chapter 3 discusses the process by which disguised women integrated themselves into their male roles. Romantic entanglements with women, including marriage (or at least engagements) were often part of the process. In some cases, these appear to be “part of the act”, but in others, the women’s memoirs express genuine romantic attachment. Acting the part could also mean meeting challenges and suspicions by simply outdoing their male comrades at the work, or by taking on an exaggeratedly masculine affect to balance any physical deficiencies. Due to the context, however, these examples of proficiency weren’t understood as contradicting myths about feminine frailty, and the disguised women frequently put on misogyny as an essential element in their disguise.
Chapter 4 covers the context and consequences of being unmasked. This might happen during treatment for injury, but it also might happen that a co-worker became suspicious and the woman was directly challenged. Expulsion from the ranks was the expected result, with the resulting economic consequences of both loss of a job and loss of access to male wages. In some cases, the unmasking would create an opportunity for marriage, though even the heterosexually inclined might be bitter about a return to a feminine social role. In rare cases, she might be allowed to continue working as a man, if there were an urgent need. Several military women continued to serve after discovery, but then had to struggle to be granted the wages and pensions they’d earned.
More rarely in life than in fiction, discovery might be a consequence of pregnancy (indicating that the disguise had not been entirely complete). Warrior ballads often gave their heroines behavioral “tells” that betrayed their femininity. In real life, disguised women often chose to tough out wounds with little or no medical treatment--or horrific self-treatment in some cases--to avoid having their secret discovered by doctors.
In rare cases, a woman might be granted permission to continue in a military role, if she could function as a powerful propaganda symbol, such as Angélique Brulon in the Napoleonic forces. A mitigating factor in her case may have been a strong family tradition within the specific regiment she joined, including her father, brother, and late husband. Family connections (and inspirations) similarly were behind the acceptance of Félicité and Théophile de Fernig after discovery within their father’s French Garde Nationale detachment in the late 18th century. More often, a tacit allowance to continue would be due to the pressing need for soldiers. During the American Civil War, references to soldiers discovered to be female received little comment or reactions.
Some women chose their own moment to end the masquerade. Mary Anne Talbot, confronted her villainous guardian while still in male disguise in 1797 and had the satisfaction of revealing her identity to him when he lied and said “Miss Talbot” had died some years previous. Unfortunately her satisfaction did not include regaining her stolen inheritance from him. The famous Hannah Snell made certain to collect her final pay before disclosing her sex to her former comrades and officers.
And some women continued in disguise until discovered only after death.
Chapter 5 looks at how these women’s stories were shaped and presented for public consumption after their “retirement”. Some of them used their notoriety for their own benefit, continuing to perform the act of “female soldier” now more openly either literally on the stage, as did Hannah Snell, or as a public persona to attract interest for their new professions. An entire genre of gender-disguise biography developed (often ghost-written, and almost always fictionalized to better conform to social expectations and ideals). Moving into the 20th century, these narratives developed a didactic purpose of arguing for the suitability of women to serve in the military beside men.
Chapter 6 considers several case histories of women who struggled for recognition, and especially financial compensation, for their service in male guise. Some were successful in gaining pensions or stipends, but often framed as a special and personal allowance, rather than as something earned by right.
With the invention of the science of sexology in the late 19th century, women who had taken up male lives to escape the restrictions of a feminine role now faced a diagnosis of psychological disorder and sexual inversion. Under this interpretation, the desire for a (inherently “masculine”) military career was a sure sign of “transvestical and homosexual impulses” and perhaps transgender identity (under the term “erroneous sex determination”). This medicalization of the behavior erased all the many different motivations and contexts that had previously led women to pass as men to enlist.
The final section of the book presents selected brief biographies of many of the women discussed, about 2/3 of which fall before the 20th century.