Women have been choosing to don the uniform of a country’s military for many years now. These days, to pass a woman on the street clothed in military dress would barely warrant a second glance. Even more recently, the bar has been lifted for women to begin serving and leading in front line combat units – at least in the United States and a few other countries. But it wasn’t too long ago that women were not allowed to openly serve in the military and to be able to prove that their mettle could be just as strong as a man’s. In fact, they often had to disguise themselves as men in order to demonstrate their courage under fire or to just be allowed to serve from that time. We will present just a few examples of these trailblazers – and rulebreakers – who proved that gender is not a barrier to one’s abilities. The stories of these women from across the globe also show that this theme of women defying the gender norms of their societies is indeed a common thread which spans across time and geography. We hope that you will be intrigued and inspired by the tales of these courageous past women warriors. So read on!
One more point before we continue. It may too bold to consider the women who “cross-dressed” back then were an early version of what we know now as today’s transgender community. While this may have been the case, as you may read with one of the stories – and quite possibly the last story in this post as well, you may find that the motivations of these women were probably very similar to many men who felt the need for adventure or to answer their patriotic call. They may have once dressed as men but many had little difficulty in shedding this role to regain their “femininity.” Several of these women even had children and raised families. Maybe the best analogy to describe these women is to never judge a book by its cover.
Sara Emma Edmondson was born in Canada. But when she was just 16 years old, she left both her abusive father and an arranged marriage, and changing her name to Edmonds. It may also have been because of these reasons that drove her to immigrate to the United States and to secure work as a traveling salesperson – in the dress of a man. She took on the name of “Franklin Thompson” to complete this transformation. This might have been it for “Mr. Thompson” had it not been for the outbreak of the Civil War. As a supporter of the Union, she took her beliefs – and her disguise – to enlist in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. The regiment served in several battles until Edmonds contracted malaria in 1863. Fearing being discovered during a medical exam, she left her unit and was subsequently charged with desertion. However, she continued to serve the Union cause as nurse – this time as her original female self.
But her story does not end here. Edmonds later published her memoirs, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, about her experiences during the war. Her fellow veterans rallied to her cause and also successfully petitioned Congress to clear her desertion charges and allow her to receive a military pension, which she finally received in 1884 – the only women to be awarded one from the Civil War. Edmonds died in Texas in 1898 but was later reburied with military honors in 1901 in Houston.
Another woman who fought in the Civil War but on the side of the Confederacy was a woman named Loreta Janeta Velazquez. However, much of her history comes from her own personal memoir, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army. Besides the extraordinarily long title, the stories within have not all been fully verified so some skepticism may be in order.
Velazquez was born in Cuba on June 26, 1842. When she was about 7 years old she was sent to New Orleans to live with her aunt. At the tender age of 14 she eloped with an officer from the Texas army. After succession in 1861, her husband joined the Confederate army. Velazquez did not want to be separated from him, so she created a uniform and disguise for herself and became Harry T. Buford with a self-appointed rank of lieutenant.
She raised a regiment of volunteers on her own and followed her husband to Florida but unfortunately for him, he was killed in a shooting accident shortly after their reunion. Velazquez decided to continue the fight in her own way and proceeded to Virginia to join the Confederate army in several battles. She then reverted back to her female self and worked briefly as a spy in Washington, DC. For the next couple of years, Velazquez would transition between her male and female alter egos. As a “man,” she traveled to Tennessee and supposedly fought in the Battle of Shiloh. As her female self, she returned to Richmond to act as a spy.
Her post-war life was almost as colorful. Velazquez met a man, married, and moved to Venezuela for several years. After the death of her second husband, she returned back to the United States. In 1876, she decided to publish her story and earned mixed reviews. Some Confederate veterans would not believe a woman had served in their ranks and dismissed her time in the army as a fabrication. She married once more and was last believed to reside in Nevada where she is believed to have died sometime in 1897.
Before we leave the Civil War for good in this post, there is just one more example of a woman who just wouldn’t allow herself to be stuck far from the frontlines. What makes this story even more interesting was that the person that will be described was not just a woman, but also an African-American woman, who was once also a former slave. This remarkable woman who overcome barriers of gender and of skin color, was Cathay Williams who was born in 1844 in Independence, Missouri.
Her father was a freeman but her mother was still a slave which unfortunately, automatically made young Williams also a slave. As such she worked as a house slave on a plantation. When Union forces occupied the area in 1861, all slaves were considered to be “contraband” property and therefore impressed into service by the Union army. Williams found herself employed by the 8th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. Throughout the war she would remain with the Union army in various locations and battles.
After the conclusion of the Civil War, Williams decided that she wanted to join the army herself as a free person. However, she was the wrong gender to do so. But this did not stop her plans. On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams became “John Williams” and enlisted in the U.S. Regular Army for a three-year contract. From there she joined the 38th Regiment in patrolling the western states. She successfully managed to hide her gender but was uncovered and discharged from the service in 1868. She remained out west and lived in New Mexico and Colorado. She applied for a disability pension from the military but was denied in the end. She dies sometime in 1891 but the exact date and location of her burial are unknown to this day.
If you or your family has ever seen the Disney movie, Mulan, you could be forgiven if you felt that the story was just some whimsical creation of the talented film animators. But the film story is actually based on a Chinese legend of a young woman, Hua Mulan, who took her aged father’s place in the army and fights for twelve years until she retired and was able to return home. Her story is set sometime between the 5th and 7th century China but the actual chronicle is captured in The Ballad of Mulan which dates back to the 12th century.
The poem describes a situation where China is under threat of invasion and each family is ordered to supply one male to serve in the army. Mulan knows that her father is too old and her brother is much too young to fight. However, since she is skilled in the martial arts and in sword fighting, she decides to take their place in the guise of a man. For twelve years she fights in the army. Having served well, Mulan is offered an official post in the Chinese government but she refuses and instead asks for a fast horse to take her home. It is then she discloses her real identity to her male comrade in arms which surprises them but they decide to maintain the good friendship developed over the years together.
In the past as it may be still today, it is not common for wives to accompany their husbands into the army and it was even more rare for wives to fight alongside their men in battle. But this actually happened during the American Revolutionary War! Anna Maria Lane and her husband John Lane may have taken their marriage vows quite literally that only death would allow them to part from each other and joined the Continental Army in 1776 and fought together until 1781.
While women often accompanied the army as “camp followers” who provided various services to the soldiers, from cooking to laundering, Anna Maria was believed to have shunned those tasks and took up arms alongside her husband. Together, they fought in campaigns from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. It was on October 4, 1777 at the Battle of Germantown where Anna Maria was severely wounded in the leg which left her lame for life. John continued to actively serve in the army until he was wounded himself at a battle near Savannah, GA.
After the war, Anna Maria worked as a nurse at a military hospital in Richmond, VA. However, due to her wounds received during the war, she was unable to continue working. She petitioned the Virginia government for a pension stating that she was “very infirm, having been disabled by a severe wound, which she received while fighting as a common soldier… from which she never recovered.” In 1808, after several years petitioning the governor, pensions were granted to several disabled male veterans and a few women. John Lane received a £40 per annum pension but Anna Maria would receive a different amount. Within her pension record, it stated:
In the Revolutionary War, in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, [she] performed extraordinary military services and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown.
For this service, she received a sum of £100 per annum! However, she was only able to enjoy this reward for a couple more years when she died in 1810.
In 18th century Sweden a woman dared to defy both strict religious law and the customs of the day to serve in the Swedish army. Her name was Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar who was believed to have been born in 1683 in the town of Svenarum. Her father was lieutenant-colonel in the army which may have influenced her future career choice. But she may have also felt that being a woman, and the social roles that entailed, was not what she was truly meant to be.
As a young child, Stålhammar was always drawn to tasks that would normally be accomplished by men. She particularly enjoyed hunting. When her father and she and her five sisters were left with little money. Her sisters soon began to enter into marriages which would help them regain some of their lost fortunes. But this was not to be the case for Stålhammar. She dressed in her father’s clothes and made an attempt to enlist into the army. She was finally successful when on October 15, 1715, she became an artillerist under the name Vilhelm Edstedt.
Stålhammar, now as Edstedt, served in the Kalmar region during the Great Northern War but never saw any real action. However, her conduct was such that she was promoted to the rank of corporal. During this time, she surprising fell in love with a female maid named Maria Lönnman in April 1716. Even after learning of her real gender, Maria decided to remain with Stålhammar. But Stålhammar’s sister Elisabet, when learning of this arrangement, declared that her sister had committed a “sin against the will of God.”
In 1726, Stålhammar left the army and shortly afterward, under pressure from her family, made a confession about her deception to the Swedish monarchy and asked for a pardon. Instead Maria and Stålhammar were placed on trial. The charge was having “violated the order of God” by dressing as a man and marrying a person of the same sex. After a contentious trial, Stålhammar and Maria were both found guilty. However, due to some witness testimonies and that of the accused, the sentences were greatly reduced (the original penalty was death). Afterwards, both women went to live quietly with Stålhammar’s relatives. Stålhammar passed away in 1733 but Maria continued on as a housekeeper until her death in 1761.
In Brazil there is a woman who is considered their own Joan of Arc. Her name was Maria Quitéria de Jesus and she was born on June 27, 1792 in the Bahia state of Brazil. She was the eldest daughter of a farmer and though she never received a formal education, unusually she was given instruction in skills that would normally be given to a farmer’s son such as hunting, fishing, and horse riding – skills that would be invaluable in her later military career.
In 1822, the Brazilian War of Independence broke out pitting the newly independent Brazilian Empire against her former colonial master, Portugal. Maria Quitéria refused to stay on the sidelines of the conflict and joined the Brazilian army disguised as a man by cutting her hair and dressing in a man’s clothing. She fought in several battles until she was outed by her very father who was furious at her joining the army against his wishes. But due to her bravery and skill in battle, she was allowed to continue to serve in the army. By August 1823, she was recognized by the Brazilian government and given a promotion to the rank of lieutenant.
After the war, she did marry and had one daughter. Sadly, her fame did not translate into fortune and she died in poverty and relative obscurity in 1853. However, one hundred years later, her memory was revived by the government and a bronze medal was cast called the “Medal of Maria Quitéria” to be issued to outstanding civilians and soldiers for contributions to military efforts. She was also declared a Patron of the Corps of Support Staff Officers in the Brazilian Army in 1996.
Britain has her own story of a woman who decided to serve for king and country but initially not for selfless reasons. Hannah Snell was born in Worchester, England in April 1723. A few years after moving to London in 1740, she married a man named James Summes. Together they had a child, a daughter, who unfortunately passed away a year later. Summes was not exactly a responsible father and disappeared sometime after Snell became pregnant. Snell then went in search of her one-time husband. It was then she learned that he may have joined the British Army.
Snell did not let this stop her quest and she enlisted the help of her brother-in-law, James Gray, to provide her with a set of men’s clothing and his name to enter into military service. According to her own personal account, she joined the 6th Regiment of Foot in Scotland. It was here that she was supposedly given 500 lashes for ‘neglect of duty’ in an incident where she supposedly prevented the rape of a local girl by another soldier. It was then that she left the army.
When Snell’s daughter passed away, she again felt the calling to serve and this time joined the Royal Marines. She was assigned to the warship Swallow that was assigned to the mission to capture the French colony of Pondicherry in India. After this action, she fought in another battle at Devicotta in June 1749. Snell was wounded eleven times during her service in India but her twelfth wound almost gave away her disguise. Having been shot in the groin she could not go to the regimental surgeon and supposedly either operated on herself or convinced a local woman to help with the makeshift surgery. Either way, her wounds were such that she could no longer actively serve.
In 1750, she returned to Britain and there she revealed her true identity to members of her unit. They may have been surprised at this announcement but this did not prevent them from convincing Snell to petition the head of the British army, the Duke of Cumberland, to grant her a military pension. What was a surprise was that her request was granted and she was discharged from the service with her pension – something completely of unheard of at the time.
Her tale spread quickly and she was convinced to sell her story to a London publisher with the title, “The Female Soldier.” From this point she moved to the town of Wapping and briefly opened a pub calling it the The Female Warrior. She married twice more in the following years and raised a pair of sons. In 1791, she began to show signs of what was now believed to be dementia and was admitted into an asylum where she died six months later.
A little over 150 years after Hannah Snell wore the uniform, another British woman wanted to make her contribution to the cause and this time it was doing the First World War. Dorothy Lawrence was born on October 4, 1896 in the town of Hendon in Middlesex. Her lineage is cloudy and it was believed that she was an illegitimate child. She was adopted by a guardian of the Church of England and raised by them until she was an adult.
Growing up, Lawrence had a keen interest in pursuing a career in journalism and successfully published a few articles in The Times. However when war broke out in 1914, she petitioned several papers to be allowed to cover the war for them. In 1915, she travelled to France to cover the war as a freelance journalist. However, she was arrested by the French authorities attempting to enter the French sector of the war zone. This did not discourage her as it turned out.
In Paris, Lawrence befriended a pair of British soldiers whom she met at a café and who later agreed to help her by initially smuggling pieces of soldier’s uniform to her. Eventually others would be enlisted to assist in her scheme in learning the basics of being a soldier – such as learning to march, etc. Her transformation was complete when she received forged identity papers to become a Pvt. Denis Smith of the Leicestershire Regiment. She was, at least outwardly, ready to head to the front.
At the frontlines, she met a tunnel-digging sapper named Tom Dunn who offered her assistance. Dunn even offered her a job as a sapper digging tunnels for the Royal Engineers. However, the stress and strain of maintaining this masquerade eventually took its toll on Lawrence and she turned herself in after just ten days on the frontline. She was promptly arrested and taken for interrogation. Military authorities after first believed she was a spy but after realizing who she really was, they were embarrassed that a woman could get so close to the front. She was briefly held in a French convent before being released and sent back to England.
Lawrence made a few attempts to publish her story but wartime censorship did not permit this to happen. It wasn’t until 1919 that she was able to publish a still censored account of her story in Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier. Unfortunately, the book was not a commercial success. In March 1925, she was institutionalized due to mental illness that she ascribed to childhood traumas she experienced as an adopted child. She never left and died in 1964 and was subsequently buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery.
Finally, we leave with the story of a woman who made it through an entire career in the British army – as a man. Her name at birth was Margaret Ann Bulkley, but the name that has been known most in history was James Barry. Bulkley was born in Ireland in 1789. Her mother was the sister of a James Barry who was a celebrated artist at London’s Royal Academy. The young Bulkley was educated to become a tutor but struggled to find a position. Instead he applied to medical school at the University of Edinburgh. It was at this point that Bulkley became Barry and would remain so for the next 56 years!
To aid in his transition, any letters addressed to “Margaret” would be forwarded to his mother whom he then began calling his “aunt.” Barry did struggle to be accepted at medical school – his short stature, young voice, and delicate features made some suspect that he was too young to apply – but his efforts were successful when he passed his examinations at the Royal College of Surgeons to become one in 1813. Following this, Barry joined the army and began military training.
In 1816, Barry was given his first post in Cape Town, South Africa. There he was noted as performing the first known successful Caesarian section where both the mother and child survived. In November 1827, Barry was promoted and then went on to serve in Mauritius, Jamaica, St. Helena, and then the West Indies. His ultimate position was when he was made Inspector General of Hospitals in Canada (equivalent to a Brigadier General). In this post, Barry made it is his business to ensure that patients received proper food and that sanitation was made a priority. Barry himself held strict views and was a lifelong vegetarian and teetotaler.
Barry was forced into retirement due to ill health in 1859 and eventually died of dysentery in 1865. It was then that an attempt to expose his gender identity was made by a woman who may have been involved in preparing Barry’s body for burial. In attempt to suppress this scandalous knowledge, the British army decided to seal his records for 100 years. It was by then that historians began to shed light on the truth about Barry’s gender and incredible life-long deception.