In The Company of Men — Women Who Disguised Themselves To Fight

An all-female rifle platoon in the newly independent Polish army. Prior to the 20th Century, the overwhelming majority women who wanted to serve in battle had to do so disguised as men.

An all-female rifle platoon in the newly independent Polish army. Prior to the 20th Century, the overwhelming majority women who wanted to serve in battle had to do so disguised as men.

“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:

A fanciful illustration of the pirate Mary Read revealing her true sex to a victim.

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.

Hannah Snell of the Royal Marines.

Hannah Snell of the Royal Marines’ James Grey.

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.

One Swedish bride disguised herself as a solider to follow her new husband off to war.

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 Civil War private Albert Cashier was really a 19-year-old Irish girl.

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.

Journalist Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a British soldier to report on life in the trenches of World War One.

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.

13 comments for “In The Company of Men — Women Who Disguised Themselves To Fight

  1. 26 July, 2012 at 1:42 am

    So sad that Dorothy Lawrence couldn’t use her story even after the war was over. Excellent post. I’m going to reblog, hope that’s no problem. Let me know if it is and I’ll remove it. Thanks.

    • 26 July, 2012 at 7:40 am

      Feel free to reblog. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. 26 July, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Reblogged this on SSS News & Notes and commented:
    Tales of women fighting in wars from the 6th century up to World War I. These are very nice summaries of a few of these women.

  3. 26 July, 2012 at 3:52 am

    While not entirely on topic I think this sheds a good light on the minlitarys long term problem with female soldiers. It goes to show that they are no worse fighters or soldiers than men.
    In my experience the problem with women in units are not the women but the men. While I never had any women in my unit, we were at times deployed alongside units that had. It instantly turned most of the men into peacocks (at best) and it took a lot of effort to keep them in line. On the other hand the women performed their duties without any cause for complaint.
    So sad as it is… in my experience all this talk about women been too weak (physically and mentally) to serve, is nothing but a smoke screen so the top brass does not have to admit that they do not think they can keep the men in line!

    • 26 July, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Thanks for the feedback. I remember reading that during the war in fmr Yugoslavia in the 1990s, units with women combatants (either Serb, Croat, or Bosnian) enjoyed some advantages. Supposedly, the soldiers in the units were better at coping with the emotional strain because the female members encouraged the males to talk about their feelings. Not sure if there is any documented evidence on this, but I remember it coming up in the debate in the US about allowing women into combat roles. Hmmm.

      • 26 July, 2012 at 5:59 pm

        I could ask my better half… she is a psychologist and might know (although she has nothing tomdo with military psychology).

        No matter what, anything that kept a peron sane during the Balcan wars is good. Some of the accounts I have read even make some of the ethnic cleansing during WWII pale by comparison.

  4. 26 July, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Hodgers story has always fascinated me. There were quite a few women who fought in the Civil War the more well known Sarah Emma Edmonds. And then there was Rosetta Wakeman whose story was sad. I once read an estimate of how many women had fought in the Civil War disguised as men, and if I remember correctly there were quite a few.

  5. TrT
    26 July, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Burkhard
    women are eight times more likely to suffer career ending injuries.
    That was the actual result in the british army.

    I was reading a piece by a female usmc engineer.
    Her 6 months in ghanners left her infertile due to what was effectivly starvation.

    Annecdotes are not statistics.

    • 26 July, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      If you look at the report, this only goes into basic training not military setvice per se. In other words it only says that the number of medical discharges during this period was eight times as high for women as for men. On the other hand the report also says that with either longer basic training (or prior fitness training to bring them up to neccessary levels) they would be up demands. Also a medical discharge might not neccessarily mean a career ending injury. Imknow a medical discharge is often chosen as a way for someone to leave the services and safe face if they find they domnot fit into army life.

      I agree that military service can leave people with serious health issues afterwards (especially through mal nourishment or dehydration), but as strange as this sounds, this has nothing to do with gender, but often the NCO’s and officers not looking after their men as is their duty. I saw this when my unit was deployed during the Elbe flooding in 2002 in blistering hot weather. Pretty early on I noticed that my men would not drink enough, so they had to empty a bottle of water in regular intervals before my eyes. After two days I noticed that the men would often skip mess because they were too exhausted to eat, so I made sure they ate enough. And mine was an all men outfit.
      On the other hand it is not always easy for a NCO to take care of everything. If I think back to this deployment, we always worked double shifts, at night there was hardly any sleep anyway since our rest area was right under the flightpath of the helos coming in to pick up sandbags. I had to keep an eye on the medical condition of my men (mostly blistered feet and algeric reactions to mosquito bites), attend staff meetings, do my paperwork and so on. In the end I only slept four hours during the eight days we were deployed and I am not sure how much longer I could have kept going.

  6. TrT
    28 July, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Burk
    Except the rate of Medical discharges was 4% before they had to meet male fitness standards.
    That already accounts for crying to the doctor that they dont like it and want to go home.
    At best, that just makes it 5x more likely.

    I find it unlikely that men were put on secret pre training courses that women were not allowed to attend.

    The rest of your comment is interesting, but not really relevent.
    I’m not argueing men are unlikely to be injured, they are, 1.5% of male recruits are demonstrably lost to injury.
    But 11.1% of women were.

    I’m not argueing women shouldnt be allowed into the armed forces, but we must accept that they have limitations.
    Nor am I argueing men dont have limitations (see the bit by NH Mallet).

    If you want men and women to pass the same test, you either cut the standards, or injure a large number of the women.

    The Olympics is on now, compare the various times ran/swam/cycled ect by men, and compare them to those of the female contestants,

    Are the Olympics Sexist?

    • 28 July, 2012 at 8:51 am

      But the report itself says that it has something to do with female bone and muscle structure, but that this could be changed be either prior training or a longer basic training. This indicates that it has nothing to do with sex but prior training.
      After all roughly 89% still managed to pass basic training without injuries. The remining 11,1% in my opinion accouts for those who went into it blueeyed and without proper prior training. I guess men are saved from the worst because of their prior physical life.

      this does not mean, that men undergo secret training before basic training. We just do a lot of different sports then most women do. While most of the sports men do are geared towards strength and endurance, most women aim for fat reduction or body shape (without looking muscular). Both require different training and the military aims for the former.
      Most real injuries in military training are results of accidents, stress fractures or back injuries (usually results of the musculature not being up to support the weight an stress being put onto the body and thus passing it on to the bones) or exhaustion (a result of a lack of endurance). And these are the fields females are most likely to ignore.

      I know that there are different standarts in sports, too. But I know female tennis players who can play 5 sets instead of 3 just as well as men. And if you look at the current world records… in most cases women less than 5% slower then men (and probably better then 90% of the males world wide). And that is close enough for me!

  7. Martin J. Bradford
    20 June, 2015 at 9:10 am

    I have recently written an ebook on the life and times of Albert Cashier entitled, “A Velvet Fist in an Iron Glove: The Curious Case of Albert Cashier” published by Kindle Ebooks at Amazon.com. It is an historical/fiction novel that sheds light on the mysterious missing years in the life of the elusive Albert in a plausible and sympathetic manner. Please check it out at Amazon.com.

Leave a Reply