20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory

Trista - September 29, 2019

Throughout history, women have been held to a standard of what society thinks is appropriate. Being “ladylike” or the “weaker sex” requires females to be demure and follow by certain guidelines. Anyone who thought otherwise was considered shrill, crazy, or not acting like a real woman.

Even when there is something that is required, there are some women who refuse to follow those rules. These are stories of true heroism from those who felt they had to disguise who they are in order to accomplish something they wanted to do. These are women who dared to defy and made history in the process.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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1. Elisa Bernerström

Elisa Bernerström disguised herself as a man so she could join the Swedish army when her country was fighting Russia in 1808 and 1809. Elisa worked as a maid when she met the soldier Bernard Servenius when he was stationed in Stockholm. They fell in love and they married, but when the regiment left to fight, Elisa could not stand to be without her beloved.

She decided she wanted to live and die with her husband, so she disguised her gender and enlisted in the army. She tried to keep her true identity a secret for love.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Elisa Bernerström proved to be a capable soldier. She was decorated for her bravery in battle. She reportedly collected ammunition and gave it to fellow soldiers. Her secret was revealed, and she was later fired from her post.

Her husband was believed to have been killed in action during the Battle of Ratan Savar but later was found to be a prisoner of war. They were reunited in Stockholm following the war. Elisa is not the only woman who served in the Swedish army, but she is one of the few who were ever recognized for her bravery in battle.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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2. Rena Kanokogi

Rena Kanokogi was a renowned Jewish-American judo expert, but in 1959, she found that she could not compete because she was a woman. She disguised herself as a man so she could participate in a YMCA judo tournament, and she won, defeating all of her competitors.

After it was discovered that she was a woman, Rena was forced to return the medal she had won. Even with this setback, she did not give up. She was determined, so she traveled to Japan to continue her judo training.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Rena Kanokogi became the first woman to train with the men at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. She became the founder of the first world female world championship when it was hosted in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden.

About 50 years, in 2009, after she was stripped of her first-place medal, Rena was awarded a gold medal by the New York State YMCA commending her for her contributions to the judo sport. “[The medal] should have never been taken from me,” Rena Kanokogi said at the time. “But we’re righting a wrong, that’s what counts.” She died three months later.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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3. Joan of Arc

Known as the Maid of New Orleans, Joan of Arc acted on a vision she saw and changed the course of history. After saints visited her in a dream, the peasant girl disguised herself in armor and pretended to be a man so that she could lead the French army over the English during the Hundred Years’ War.

Joan proved to be an excellent leader, and King Charles VII was quite the champion of her. She gained prominence after a siege and several other swift victories that led to Charles’ coronation.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundian faction, a group of French nobles who had become allies with the English. She was handed over and put on a religious trial for a variety of charges, including cross-dressing. She was found guilty and burned at the stake in 1430. She was only 19 years old at the time.

Joan of Arc would later be exonerated by the French for her bravery. Since her death, she has become a popular figure in literature, painting, film, and other cultural works.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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4. Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a journalist who decided to become a “gender spy.” She went undercover as a man for 18 months, going by the alter ego, Ned Vincent. She wanted to know whether she would be treated any differently if she was perceived to be a man.

Vincent was committed to her transformation, she glued stubble to her face, took voice lessons to speak like a man, and wore a jockstrap to make her physique more realistic.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Her book “Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised As A Man” was published in 2006. She depicted her social experiment that she became more fully realized the benefits of being female and the disadvantages of being male.

Vincent wrote: “Men are suffering. They have different problems that women have, but they don’t have it better. They need our sympathy, they need our love, and they need each other more than anything else.”

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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5. Kathrine Switzer

Kathrine Switzer recalled talking about the Boston Marathon with her coach. Women were not allowed to compete but if they could, he said, she could be the one to do it. Switer signed up for the competition under the name K.V. Switzer in 1967 just so she could do that. She is the first woman to participate in the famous runner’s competition.

Switzer recalled on her webpage that moments before the marathon, a racer named Tom commented that she should take off her lipstick so she would not be found out. She refused. When sports reporters questioned after the marathon, she told them that she likes to run, the longer, the better, and that she would come back to run even if her club is banned.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Kathrine Switzer is part of the reason why things changed for women who loved to run and participate in long distances. Not long after she ran in the Boston Marathon, officials lifted the ban on keeping women from competing.

Kathrine would make history again as a female runner. She took first place in the New York City Marathon in 1974. She would later participate in both the Boston Marathon in 2017 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her historic run.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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6. Malinda Blalock

Sarah Malinda Blalock enlisted in the Confederate Army to fight in the American Civil War after her husband William Keith Blalock joined the 26th North Carolina Regiment. She used the name Samuel Blalock in 1862.

Malinda feared for her husband’s safety since the newlyweds had only been married for a year. So she marched with the same federal unit that he joined. She said she was her husband’s brother in order to get in.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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The Blalocks had not counted on was that their outfit was bound to an eastern part of the state with little enemy activity. However, one night, Keith and Malinda Blalock were given a mission to search for enemy soldiers, and warfare broke out. Malinda was shot in the shoulder, and because of the injury, the unit was going to find out her secret.

Keith rolled in poison oak, and medics thought his fever and spots were small pox. He was allowed to go home. When Malinda tried to join him to take care of her “brother,” the unit colonel refused, forcing her to confess. The Blalocks would later deflect, and Keith joined a Union regiment with Malinda’s support.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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7. Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds was another woman who disguised herself as a man to join the American Civil War. Born in Canada, she served as a member of the Union army to become a male field nurse and spy. She was an ardent Unionist, and she wanted to fight for the cause, joining the 2nd Michigan Infantry.

Sarah was assigned to work as a mail carrier for the regiment. She was asked to conduct espionage missions. She wrote in her memoirs about her exploits behind enemy lines. She also worked as a stretcher-bearer and picked up wounded soldiers from the battlefield and later as a hospital attendant.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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In 1863, Sarah Edmonds contracted malaria and tried to get a leave but was denied. She did not want to receive medical attention because she was afraid she would be discovered. She left her comrades and “Franklin Thompson” was charged with desertion.

Edmonds worked with the United States Christian Commission as a nurse from June 1863 to the end of the war. She published her memoirs “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” and donated the proceeds from the book to various soldier groups.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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8. Saint Marina

Back in the 8th century, Marina disguised herself as a boy so she could accompany her father to a monastery. The reason she did this was that women were not allowed to go inside. This completely shaped the young girl’s life forever.

Marina became a monk and went under the name Marinus. She traveled with her father after several years at the monastery. Her secret became in jeopardy when an innkeeper’s daughter falsely claimed that Marina had impregnated her.

But instead of revealing the truth, Marina raised the child herself after being kicked out of the monastery. Her true identity remained a secret until her death.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Instead of revealing her true identity, Marina raised the child herself, even if it meant she was kicked out of the monastery. No one knew about her true identity until her death in 270 A.D. The saint virgin and martyr Marina of Antioch is now recognized as the patron saint of kidney sufferers and the protectress of nephrology.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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9. Hua Mulan

The classic animated Disney film “Mulan” is based on an ancient Chinese ballad that has existed since at least the fifth century. The story is centered on when China is invaded, and a girl named Mulan joins the army in place of her elderly father. She is afraid her father is too frail to fight in battle.

Mulan starts from the bottom when she enlists and fights for more than 10 years. She had excelled in kung fu, sword fighting, and archery. The legend says that Mulan was offered an official post, but all she wants is a camel to get back to her family. When she puts on traditional female clothing, her fellow soldiers realize she had been a woman this whole time.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Readers and audiences have been fascinated with the legend of Mulan for centuries. The story has been retold in many fashions over the years, including in plays, operas, and films. The first onscreen version of “Mulan” dates back to 1927.

The Disney animated film “Mulan” brought the story of Mulan to the forefront of popular culture. A sequel “Mulan II” came out in 2004, and a live-action film starring Liu Yifei as Mulan will be released in 2020.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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10. Hannah Snell

It is said by locals that Hannah Snell often pretended to be a soldier when she was a child. She spent her life disguised as a male British soldier named James Gray, who fought bravely in the 1700s. She ended up borrowing a man’s suit from her brother-in-law and assuming his name in order to get to the battlefield.

Hannah was wounded in battle 12 times, including one to the groin. How she was able to recover from her injuries and still keep her identity under wraps remains unknown. It is believed that she may have asked a local woman to extract the bullet instead of seeing a regimental surgeon.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Hannah Snell would eventually reveal her true identity to her shipmates in 1750. Her story “The Female Soldier” was published in London in two different editions. She was honorably discharged and granted a pension, which is a rare occurrence in those days.

In her retirement, Hannah became a pub keeper for The Female Warrior. After her mental and physical health deteriorated, she was placed in an institution and died in 1791.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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11. Mary Read

Born in 1690, Mary Read is one of only two women who have ever been convicted of piracy. Mary spent much of her early life disguised as a man and joined the British military as Mark Read. She took to the sea during what many historians called the “golden age” of piracy from the beginning to mid 18th century.

But her military life was about to change. When the naval ship she was on was captured by pirates in the West Indies, Mary Read was forced to join them. Although she was not a willing participant at first, she found that she enjoyed a pirate’s life.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Mary Read would partner up with another female pirate Annie Bonny, earning a reputation for being ruthless and “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board.” The women and their crewmates commandeered a 12-ton sloop, causing the governor of the Bahamas to declare the hijackers “enemies to the crown of Great Britain,” with Read and Bonny specifically named.

Both women were eventually captured, tried, and convicted. Since they were both pregnant at the time, their executions were postponed. Read died in prison on April 1721 after reportedly developing a fever.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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12. Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts was so determined to fight in the Revolutionary War that she tried to enlist in the fledgling army twice. During her second attempt, she used the identity “Robert Shirtliffe,” and she successfully fought in the war for almost two years. At five-foot, seven-inches tall, she had an impressive height advantage over most women at the time.

Sampson joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, and she was assigned to Captain George Webb’s forces. She had the dangerous task of scouting neutral territory and assess the British’s buildup of men and materials in Manhattan.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Deborah Sampson’s identity managed to escape detection, but not without a couple of close calls. She received a gash on her forehead from a sword. She extracted a pistol ball herself after she was shot in her left thigh.

A year and a half into her service, Sampson fell ill during an epidemic and was taken to a hospital. Her gender was discovered. She would receive an honorable discharge in October 1783. Her life after the war was mostly that of a typical farmer’s life. In 1802, she toured throughout the country to talk about her experiences as the first American woman to do so, at times dressing in full military regalia during her lectures.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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13. Mary Ann Evans

Mary Ann Evans was an author in the 19th century who was concerned that her work would not be taken as seriously because of gender stereotypes. She decided to publish her six novels under the pen name George Eliot.

Most of the female writers at the time were focusing on lighthearted romances. Mary Ann wanted her fiction to be judged separately from her contemporary peers as well as her other work as an editor and critic. It was also thought that using a pen name would help her shield her private life from public scrutiny since she was involved with the married George Henry Lewes. Lewes was the one who encouraged Evans to write.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Eliot contributed to the Westminister Review, a leading journal for philosophical radicals, and later was named the editor. The novels published under George Eliot name were “Adam Bede” (1859), “The Mill on the Floss” (1860), “Silas Marner” (1861), “Romola” (1862-63), “Middlemarch” (1871-72) and “Daniel Deronda” (1876).

Many of the writings were set in provincial England, and they became known for their realism and psychological insights. The most notorious example is “Middlemarch,” which has a central theme about a heroine who is living in the wrong time in history.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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14. Charley Parkhurst

One of the most excellent stagecoach drivers of the Old West was Charley Parkhurst, and many who raced her were surprised to find out she was a woman. Charley grew up in an orphanage and ran away, and she would dress as a boy so she could work in stables, which is where she learned how to drive a coach.

Known as One-Eyed Charley or Six Horse Charley, she was short in stature but strong in nature. She built a reputation as a skilled and talented driver but had to flee to Georgia after a possible threat of exposure. Charley would later move west to California in 1851.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Once in California, Charley Parkhurst started to become famous for stagecoach driving, and she had several mail courier routes as a result. It is rumored that she may have been the first woman to vote in a presidential election in California in 1868.

After she died of tongue cancer in 1879, doctors discovered that Charley Parkhurst was, in fact, she and a woman also had given birth at an earlier time.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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15. Dorothy Lawrence

Dorothy Lawrence dreamed of being a war correspondent journalist during the first World War. She decided to act on her aspirations of becoming an investigative journalist when her editors told her she had no hopes of them coming true.

She cycled through the French countryside and dressed down her appearance, even using watered-down furniture polish to cover up her pale skin. She forged documents and claimed to be a British soldier when she enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Dorothy Lawrence, or Denis Smith as she was known to her troops, traveled to the front lines and worked as a sapper with a mine-laying company. After 10 days of laying mines in the field, she fell ill and confessed to a commanding officer, because she was afraid she would be found out. She was promptly arrested as a spy.

Because the military was afraid other women would try to imitate what she did, Lawrence was forced to sign an affidavit that she would not write about her experiences, but she later published her story in full many years later.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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16. Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton was a famous jazz musician who played both the piano and the saxophone. Born in 1914 as Dorothy Lucille Tipton, she was told she could not have a spot on her high school band because she was a girl. Billy worked as a professional musician and one day decided to identify as a man.

By 1940, Tipton presented as a man and bound the breasts to conceal his sex. He performed along with various bands and had several long-term relationships with several women who never knew.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Tipton recorded two albums of jazz standards in 1957, and the songs included “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “What’ll I Do” and “Don’t Blame Me.” It was reported that the albums sold more than 17,000 copies, which was considered a respectable sum for an independent record at the time.

Tipton adopted three sons with Kitty Oakes, and neither Oakes nor their sons knew Tipton’s secret until the death in 1989 age 74. Tipton’s life inspired an opera, a play, a musical and others.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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17. The Bronte Sisters

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte published a collection of poetry “Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell” their male pseudonyms in 1846. They would later use the aliases for other celebrated works.

The following year Emily Bronte would publish “Wuthering Heights” under her pen name, Ellis Bell, and Charlotte Bronte would use her pen name to release “Jane Eyre.” Anne used Acton Bell for her “Agnes Grey.” All are considered classic forms of literature even to this day.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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The reasons why the sisters used pen names for the poems and novels were explained more than 50 years later. Charlotte wrote the explanation in a preface for the 1910 edition of “Wuthering Heights.” Emily had died in 1848.

“… while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without all that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,” Charlotte wrote.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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18. Joanna Zubr

Joanna Zubr was a Polish soldier who concealed her identity so she could fight in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1808, she joined the army along with her husband Michal, and they served in the Greater Polish Division.

Joanna Zubr turned out to be a talented soldier. She was eventually promoted to sergeant. The Zubrs took part in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but Joanna was separated from the division during the retreat.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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Joanna Zubr managed to escape to Russian territory on her own, and then she returned to Poland safely where she was reunited with her husband. They would eventually settle in Wielun, where Joanna lived out the rest of her days.

Joanna Zubr was the first woman to receive the Virtuti Millitari medal, which is the highest Polish military honor. This distinction makes also makes her the first to receive an award for bravery in battle.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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19. James Barry

James Barry was a military surgeon and inspector general for the British Army. He was charged with military hospitals and worked in the second-highest medical office in the army during the early 19th century.

Born Margaret Ann Bulkley, Barry had aspirations of being in the military, and when he was 18 years old he chastised his older brother for abandoning legal studies, writing “Was I not a girl I would be a Soldier!” Barry would later prove those words when he chose to live as a man and joined the services across the British Empire.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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James Barry fought for hospitals to be safer for his soldier patients. He also performed the first cesarean section in Africa by an Irish surgeon, where the mother and child both survived the operation.

James Barry was forced to retire in 1865 due to illness and elderly age. It was not discovered that Barry was born a woman until after death. The British Army was reportedly so shocked by the news that they blocked access to all of the papers until a historian reopened the case in the 1950s.

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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20. JK Rowling

One of the most famous authors of a beloved book series decided to drop her first name when she was still unpublished. Joanne Rowling decided using her initials J.K. might help appeal to a young male audience. She wanted them to read her books on a boy’s journey into wizardry and witchcraft.

“Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone” went on to become the first of the best-selling book series in history. The seven novels have been translated in over 60 languages and were launched into a popular film series as well.

 

20 Women Who Posed as Men and Made History Into HERstory
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It is interesting to think that her next creative endeavor would have JK Rowling once again assuming a male persona. Rowling would publish another book under the pen name Robert Galbraith in 2013. The crime fiction novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the first in the Cormoran Strike series, which has published three sequels.

Rowling said she published the book under the pseudonym to “successfully channel(ed) her inner bloke!” Editor David Shelley read it without knowing Rowling was the author and admitted that he would never have thought “a woman wrote that.”

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