Women Who Dressed as Men and Made History

Pharaoh, pirate, soldier, spy. Most have heard of Joan of Arc, but throughout history and across cultures, there have been a great number of women who have dressed in male attire in order to fulfill the roles that had traditionally been reserved for men. Many disguised their identities, sometimes taking their secret to the grave, while others were brazen, and even celebrated by their contemporaries. While their stories have largely been lost to time, there are some that made their mark on history.

Image detail of a newspaper article from the July 31, 1910 Salt Lake Tribune with the headline "Adventurous Lives of Women in Trousers." The article contains sketches and photographs of women dressed in male attire.

“Adventurous Lives of Women in Trousers,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), July 31, 1910.

Detail of a hieroglyphic image of female pharaoh Hatshepsut from the Oct. 12, 1913 El Paso Herald newspaper.

“Hatshepsut Making Offerings to the Gods.” El Paso Herald (El Paso, TX), October 12, 1913.

Hatshepsut (c. 1479-1458 B.C.E.)

For nearly 20 years, she ruled Egypt as one of the few female pharaohs in the history of ancient Egypt. Her rule began when her husband died and her stepson was too young to be pharaoh. Because of her unorthodox rise to power, Hatshepsut made efforts to legitimize herself in the role. In addition to leading military expeditions and expanding trade, it is believed she also dressed in the attire typically worn by male kings. Depictions of Hatshepsut range from a physically female form adorned with pharaonic male accoutrements, to images of her as a physically male king with a man’s chest and build, including beard.

Kit Cavanaugh / Christian Davies (1667-1739)

Irish-born Christian “Kit” Cavanaugh disguised herself as a man and joined the British army as a dragoon in 1693 with the intention of finding her husband who had been drafted the year before. Over the next decade, she served under the Duke of Marlborough fighting the French. She eventually found her husband and convinced him to keep her secret so she could continue to serve. She went on to distinguish herself on the battlefield through multiple campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702-03. She was wounded several times throughout her military career, and it was after she suffered a battle injury in 1706 that required surgery, that her identity was discovered. Though she was discharged, she remained with the dragoons serving as the officers’ cook. After her husband was killed in battle, she remarried two more times, retired from the army in 1712, and opened an inn. Cavanaugh was granted a lifetime pension by Queen Anne and was given a military burial

Anne Bonny (1697-1782) and Mary Read (1685-1721)

Irish-born Anne Bonny grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1718, she married a poor sailor named James Bonny and left for the Bahamas. Once there, Anne spent her time in saloons and seducing pirates. She eventually left Bonny for Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackam and launched her pirating career by joining Rackam’s crew. On board, Anne lived as a woman most of the time, but during engagements with other ships she wore the attire of a man, including a loose tunic, trousers, sword at her hip and pistols tucked in her sash. 

English-born Mary Read had been dressed as a boy as a child by her mother who rented her out as a servant to make ends meet. At age 13, she served on a British warship carrying bags of gunpowder to the crew. She later joined the Army of Flanders and eventually fell in love with her bunkmate, to whom she divulged her secret, and to her entire regiment soon after. Mary quit the army and married the soldier, but after he died a short time later, she resumed her life as a man and sailed for the West Indies on a Dutch ship, which was captured by English pirates, led by Calico Jack. The crew, believing Mary to be a fellow Englishman, encouraged her to join them.

While there are various theories as to how Anne discovered Mary’s secret, what is known is that the two became friends and confidants. They fought side by side during battles and even led their crew in violent raids. In 1720, their ship was overpowered by one of the governor’s vessels and Calico Jack surrendered. The two women stood trial in a Jamaican courtroom, both of them plead not guilty to all charges. 

Detail of drawn images of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in male pirate attire from the Dec. 3, 1905 Los Angeles Herald newspaper.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), December 3, 1905.

Detail of drawn portrait of Hannah Snell dressed as a male soldier from the Feb. 5, 1893 Salt Lake Herald newspaper.

“Hannah Snell,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, UT), February 5, 1893.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792)

Englishwoman Hannah Snell assumed the identity of her brother-in-law, James Gray, after her child died and her husband deserted her. For four years, she served in the British Royal Marines. In 1748, she fought in the Siege of Pondicherry where the British attempted to seize a French colony in India. Hannah was wounded several times during her naval service, including suffering a musket shot to the groin. She purportedly operated on herself to remove the musket ball to ensure her gender remained concealed. In 1750, she revealed her true identity to her shipmates and she was granted an honorable discharge and even a military pension. Snell later sold her story to a London publisher and eventually opened a pub in London named “The Female Warrior.”

Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)

Detail of an drawn portrait of Deborah Samson from the Jul. 7, 1917 Grand Forks Herald newspaper.

“America’s First Woman Soldier,” Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, ND), July 7, 1917.

New England native Deborah Sampson had a fervent interest in colonial and British politics during the American Revolution. In May 1782, she enlisted in the Continental Army disguised as a man using the alias Robert Shurtleff. She fought in several battles, including the siege of Yorktown, and was wounded multiple times. In constant fear that her identity would be revealed, she often tended to her own injuries, including once using metal probes to remove musket balls from her leg. During the cold march north after Yorktown, Sampson succumbed to brain fever and was taken to a hospital in Philadelphia where her condition was considered grim. The attending physician discovered that she was female, but did not divulge her secret. He treated her until she was fully recovered and discharged from the army. Afterward, Sampson returned to New England where she resumed wearing female attire and went on to marry and have children. Her experience in the Continental Army began to attract attention and in the late 1790s, Herman Mann published Sampson’s memoirs. He also wrote a lecture of her adventures, which Sampson adapted to her own liking and toured across New England. As word of her story spread, she became an acquaintance of Paul Revere and several events were held in honor of her heroism. She was awarded pensions from the state of Massachusetts and the federal government. The back of her tombstone in Rockridge Cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts reads, “Deborah Sampson Gannett, Robert Shurtleff, The Female Soldier: 1781-1783.”

Detail of a newspaper article about Charley Parkhurst from the Jun. 25, 1880 Bismarck Tribune.

“Charley Parkhurst,” Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), June 25, 1880.

Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879)

Called the “best whip in California,” Charley Parkhurst was a legendary six-horse stagecoach driver during California’s Gold Rush. The job was dangerous and not for the faint of heart—hauling cargos of gold through open desert and over steep mountain passes, under constant threat of desperados and mother nature. Parkhurst was short and stocky, wore a black eyepatch, drank whiskey and smoked cigars. When Parkhurst died alone in a cabin in 1879, a doctor discovered that the famous stagecoach driver was actually a woman.

Charlotte Parkhurst was born in 1812 in New Hampshire and was abandoned by her parents. It is believed that she ran away from an orphanage dressed as a boy and wound up in Massachusetts, where she worked cleaning horse stables. She also found a mentor who taught her how to handle horses. After working as a stagecoach driver on the East Coast for several years, Parkhurst journeyed west and arrived in San Francisco around 1850-51. She quickly earned a reputation for her ability to move passengers and gold safely through routes between mining outposts and major towns like San Francisco and Sacramento. By the late 1860s, stagecoach driving became a dying profession with the growth of the railroads and Parkhurst retired and opened a saloon for a time. She also worked as a lumberjack in Northern California.

Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841-1898)

In 1857, Sarah Emma Edmonds left rural New Brunswick, Canada to escape her abusive father and an arranged marriage. At age 16, she took a job as a travelling book salesman under the alias Franklin Thompson and found that customers readily accepted her disguised as a man. She later landed in Hartford, Connecticut and was hired by the American Publishing Company selling book subscriptions. In December 1860, when the country was on the brink of civil war, the company sent her west to Flint, Michigan. When war was declared in 1861, Edmonds enlisted in the Union army and she joined the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry as Franklin Thompson. She was at the First Battle of Bull Run and at the Battle of Williamsburg. In 1862, Edmonds contracted malaria and began experiencing recurrent health issues. She decided she would need to desert in order to be treated without revealing her identity. She had originally planned to return to her regiment once she had recovered, but left her male disguise behind forever once “Wanted” posters appeared for Private Franklin Thompson for desertion. Edmonds eventually moved to Washington, DC and worked as a nurse at a military hospital. In 1865, she published a memoir of her adventures in which she claimed to have been a spy for Union army and that she carried out eleven missions behind enemy lines. 

Detail of side by side sketches of Sarah Emma Edmonds dressed as a female and as a male from the Nov. 27, 1898 Saint Paul Globe newspaper.

Side by side portraits of “Mrs. Seelye” (Edmonds’ married name) and “Frank Thompson.” The Saint Paul Globe (St. Paul, MN), November 27, 1898.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904)

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Eberhardt was an explorer who lived and travelled extensively throughout North Africa. She was well-educated, spoke multiple languages, and often dressed as a man in order to freely go about her travels. In 1897, she journeyed to North Africa with her mother and they both converted to Islam. When her mother died later that year, Eberhardt stayed and made her home in northern Algeria. Disguised as a man, she went by the alias Si Mahmoud Essadi, which enabled her to travel within Arabic society. She married Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, in 1901. Eberhardt wrote about her travels which were published in several books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes (1905), Dans l’Ombre Chaude de l’Islam (1906), and Les journaliers (1922). She died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria in October 1904. 

Photograph of Frances L. Clayton dressed in a Union army uniform holding cavalry sword, taken c. 1865.

Frances L. Clayton (ca. 1865). Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Frances L. Clayton (c. 1830-Unknown)

In 1863, Frances Clayton journeyed across the Midwest seeking help to receive back pay owed to her late husband who had died during the American Civil War. She spoke to reporters along the way about her previous life as a Union soldier.  

According to Clayton, when fighting began, she and her husband decided to enlist together. The Minnesota couple joined a Missouri regiment with Frances disguised as a man and under the alias, Jack Williams. For months, the two fought side by side until her husband succumbed to a bullet on the front lines at the Battle of Stones River. Frances told reporters she had to step over his corpse during the conflict. Shortly after, she revealed her true identity and was discharged from the army. 

Several newspapers reported her story throughout 1863 to 1865. Additionally, she had pictures taken of herself in a Union military uniform in 1865, which became some of the most well-known photographs of women soldiers during the Civil War. However, the authenticity of her story has been questioned by historians due to contradictory information reported in newspapers, such as which battles she fought in and the regiments she served in. There are also no records that she ever received or sought out a military pension.

 

Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964)

Photograph from the November 2, 1919 Detroit Free Press newspaper of Dorothy Lawrence dressed in a British Army uniform.

“Only Woman Soldier in British Army,” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), November 2, 1919, p. C1.

During the First World War, Englishwoman Dorothy Lawrence aspired to be an investigative journalist and she contacted several British newspapers offering to work as a war correspondent in France. All of the editors refused to hire her believing that the work was too dangerous for a woman. Undeterred, Lawrence disguised herself as a man, and using the alias Denis Smith, joined the British Army. For ten days, she worked in the trenches on the Western Front and laid mines in no man’s land under fire from shrapnel and shells. Dorothy began experiencing fainting fits so she turned herself in and revealed her identity. Authorities were first suspicious that she was a spy and detained her in a French convent. Before she was released, she was forced to swear an affidavit promising not to tell the public how she fooled the British military. That did not stop Lawrence from publishing an account of her experiences in her memoir in 1919. 

If you know of other stories of women who dressed like men and made history, or similar stories of lesser known women, share their names and stories in the comments!

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

5 Comments

  1. Prakash Soni
    March 30, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    Looks like you missed Rani Laxmibai, the legendary valiant queen of Zansi in India.
    Natgeo link https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/india-warrior-queen-lakshmi-bai-fought-british-rule

  2. Prakash Soni
    March 30, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    Looks like it will be worth adding Rani Laxmibai, the legendary warrior queen of Zansi, India.
    Link to the natgeo program on her https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/india-warrior-queen-lakshmi-bai-fought-british-rule

  3. Marcelo
    March 30, 2021 at 4:18 pm

    Catalina de Erauso to begin with in Spanish history.

  4. Norma Canham
    March 30, 2021 at 5:05 pm

    What about George Sand, English writer of 19th Century?

  5. Penny janson
    September 5, 2021 at 9:32 pm

    Kady Brownell, American Civil War soldier. Known to be a woman but paid anyway as a officer. 1st Rhode Island infantry Regiment 1861

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