“Mulan wasn’t the only woman to ever don male clothing in order to take her place in the battle line”
LONG BEFORE Disney brought the legend to life on the big screen, the Chinese have told the story of Hua Mulan, a young girl who sometime prior to the 6th Century dressed in men’s clothing and marched off to war against her people’s enemies. According to the original tale, Mulan fought for 12 years and won the respect and admiration of her comrades, none of whom realized that she was in fact a young woman. After winning acclaim for her martial prowess, Mulan shunned the spotlight and retired to obscurity in rural China. Originally written as a poem, the story was expanded into a novel sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1300s to 1600s). Of course Mulan wasn’t the only woman to ever don male clothing in order to take her place in the battle line. History is full of similar cross-dressers. Consider these:
From Soldier to Pirate
Together with her partners in crime, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack Rackham, Mary Read made up one third of an unholy pirate trinity that has captured the public’s imagination for nearly 300 years. While Bonny and Rackham were career criminals, Read joined them only after her West Indies bound ship was taken by the pirates in 1718. As a member of the pirate crew, Read quickly proved herself handy with a blade. That’s because the young woman had already spent much of her adult life posing as a male foot soldier in the English army as it fought with Holland against France. Read, born in the late 1600s as an illegitimate child, was raised as a boy in order to claim a family inheritance. As a teen, she entered the army where she met and fell in love with a Flemish soldier. The two were married and opened a tavern in Holland. When her husband died a short time later, Read donned men’s garb once more and headed to the Caribbean to start a new life. There she fell in with the pirates. She died in prison on Jamaica after being taken in action off Jamaica with Rackham and Bonney. The two women pirates reportedly fought like demons as British sailors boarded their ship. Unfortunately, the male pirates were supposedly too drunk to help them.
In Pursuit of a Scoundrel
When 21-year-old Hannah Snell’s husband abandoned her and their child in 1744, the young mother from Worcester, England borrowed both her brother in law’s clothes and his name (James Grey) and set out to find her rascal of a spouse. When she discovered that her wayward hubby had been hanged for murder, she turned her back on a life in the kitchen and joined the Royal Marines instead. Snell fought as a man in battles throughout India in the 1740s and was wounded a dozen times, once even in the groin! Somehow she managed to keep her true sex a secret from the army surgeons and returned home to England in 1750. During the sea voyage, her real identity was discovered. Once outed, she was drummed from the service, but not before attempting to secure her pension from the Duke of Cumberland, who at the time was the head of the English army. Her wish granted, Snell sold her story to a London publisher who immortalized her saga in a book entitled The Female Soldier. Snell later toured England, appearing on stage in military uniform and performing drill. She eventually opened a pub called the Female Warrior, married again and had two more children. Snell died in 1792, but her story lived on – in the 1980s, two radio plays about her were broadcast in Britain: Against the Wind and Warrior.
Love Made Her Do It
Brita Hagberg also dressed as a man to find her husband. Although her spouse Petter didn’t abandon her for a life of debauchery. A career soldier in the Swedish army, he was called away to fight in the 1788 war against Russia. Unable to bear life without her soul mate, Brita donned her hubby’s clothes, cut her hair and followed her spouse off to war. She enlisted under her married name. A veteran of numerous battles, the young woman eventually was unwittingly transferred into her husband’s own regiment. According to the story, one day during roll call, the commander yelled “Hagberg” and both Brita and Peter stepped forward. Reunited at last, the two kept her true identity secret, that is until Brita was wounded while serving as a marine at the Battle of Vyborg Bay. When a surgeon discovered her sex, she was discharged, but not before being awarded a medal for bravery and a full pension for her service. When she died in 1825, she was honoured with a full military funeral.
The Curious Case of Albert Cashier
There are accounts of hundreds of American women posing as men and enlisting to fight in the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps the most famous of these was Jennie Irene Hodgers aka Albert Cashier. While serving as a private in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment, the diminutive 19-year-old Irish girl fought in more than 40 engagements. She was even taken prisoner by Confederate soldiers but managed to escape after overpowering her captors. She remained in the army until the end of the war and then lived, worked and even voted as a man until being committed to a veteran’s hospital in 1911. It was only then that she was discovered. Permitted to stay in the facility, Hodgers lived out her last few years as a woman and died in 1915. Her story along with those of others women who fought as men in the war between the states is recorded in the 2002 book: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.
The Story of a Lifetime
Dorothy Lawrence was an aspiring journalist in Britain during the First World War. She knew that covering the action on the Western Front would make her career. So at the age of 19, Lawrence went undercover as a Tommy by the name of Denis Smith. After making her way to Paris, Lawrence borrowed a uniform and used phony identity papers to bluff her way into the trenches at the Somme. She fought with the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment for several days before turning herself into military police. Instead of being allowed to file her story, Lawrence was arrested. After a long series of interrogations in which she was accused of everything from spying to being a prostitute, she was bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement that forbid her from revealing any details of her experiences. British generals dreaded the embarrassment that would ensue if it leaked that a young woman faked her way into the front lines, while some worried about legions of others who might try to copy her. Fearing legal ramifications if she revealed her story, Lawrence kept her silence for years. Long after the war when she attempted to sell her story, the military intervened to quash its publishing. Financially and emotionally shattered, Lawrence was institutionalized in an insane asylum in 1925 where she died 39 years later.