The season is here when, as we all know, adults and children alike enjoy putting on costumes and disguises and pretending to be someone else. What may surprise you is that this ritual has had special significance throughout American Women’s History! In the past woman have used masquerade for purposes other than enjoyment and holiday celebration. There are countless stories of women so determined to follow their dreams that they resorted to “masquerading” as male.
One great example is the courageous Deborah Sampson, who disguised as a man, enlisted in the Spring of 1782 in the American Revolutionary War. In spite of the thick smoke of musket powder in the air and fighting side-by-side with men on the battlefield (including the battle of Yorktown), she served for more than two years. When she was injured by a shot to her thigh, near her groin, she bravely extracted the pistol ball herself in order to escape detection. Eventually, she was injured again and found out. In the end, she received an honorable discharge and even went on a brief lecture tour in 1802.
In the Civil War, it’s surprising just how many females enlisted as soldiers. It is estimated that between 400-750 women disguised as men in order to serve. One historian surmises this number might be low—the figure could be as high as 1,000 to 3,000 women!
Why did such great numbers of women put themselves in harm’s way? Some did it to be near a husband or other relative, others for the glory, the achievement, or for pure patriotism. But let’s get real—some did it simply for the paycheck. Compared to low-paying “female” opportunities for earning a living, a soldier’s paycheck plus enlistment bonus was huge and enticing for supporting families back home.
How they got away with it, has been a puzzle to me! It turns out most enlistment doctors were concerned only about eyesight and hearing, and rarely had recruits disrobe. And since women in those days always had long hair and wore long skirts with petticoats, it was just assumed that the recruits, who showed up in pants and short hair, were male! Some of the women even took up cigar smoking and swearing to ‘get along’ with their fellow soldiers. So many of the women were not discovered at all—they died on the battlefield or served their duty until the end of the war and quietly returned to their life as women and unsung heroes.
Jumping into the 20th century, in 1967, you may recall the Boston Marathon entrant, K.V. Switzer, who made history as the first woman to complete this famous 26-mile run. She used only her initials in filling out her application to run. During the race, an official spied her in ‘his’ race and became enraged. He attacked Kathrine Switzer, trying to pull her bib and official numbers. Fortunately, her coach and her boyfriend were running aside her and pushed the official aside. Switzer finished the race and consequently, changed the face of women’s sports in this country—encouraging women to participate in all manner of athletic endeavors. By the way, you can see Kathrine in person this month, when she will be in St. Louis speaking on October 19th. For details, see http://girlsontherunstlouis.org/.
Did you know that originally, Toastmasters, the public speaking clubs founded in 1924, was for men only? That regulation was challenged when “H. Blanchard” joined a Toastmaster’s club in 1970. When the International office asked the club to provide a first name, “Homer” was the answer. Well, Homer was really Helen, and by 1973, Toastmasters began openly accepting women. Helen Blanchard went on to become the first woman president of the organization.
Fortunately, women have come a long way in our American history, and no longer have to masquerade as males—in costume or on paper—in order to have opportunities previously only available to men. Sometimes we may still adapt male behaviors in order to “get along”, but thankfully we don’t have to resort to wearing male disguises and smoking cigars!
Let’s remember to celebrate our history!