Masquerading: Eighteenth-Century Woman Warriors

Megan Kahn

Women serving directly in combat has a long and complicated history.  The January 24, 2013, directive removing restrictions against combat service for women in the American military seems ironic against the countless occurrences of women already, unintentionally, experiencing combat in contemporary times.  Unacknowledged in the need for such a directive is the rich history of women purposefully serving in fighting forces around the world.  Eighteenth-century Britain, France, and America hold fascinating examples of masquerading women who would subvert the need for permission and successfully serve in combat with their actual gender unknown.  These cross-dressing woman warriors were surprisingly prominent in an eighteenth-century culture that provided the right intersection of geopolitical and social conditions for them to flourish.  There was a pervasive trend in the eighteenth-century of cross-dressing woman warrior soldiers and sailors who participated directly in traditional wars and revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic, found in ballads, novels, theatrical performances, and most noteworthy: memoirs.  Hannah Snell, Deborah Sampson, and Louise Françoise de Houssay de Bannes are three examples of women whose firsthand experiences as woman warriors who turned to literary, and sometimes to stage performance, to enact the performative quality of gender and demonstrate how it is easily subverted.  The eighteenth-century woman warrior’s endurance historically, literarily, and culturally ensured a rich legacy that makes it clear why the woman warrior was so popular in practice and fiction.  By understanding her achievements, cultural significance, and gender implications in the eighteenth-century, Snell, Sampson and Bannes remind us that as gender is more performed than biological, the contemporary values that inform today’s decisions to include women in the American military in combat roles seem overdue.

The eighteenth-century woman warrior was popular with both upper and lower classes—the upper class could read about her, the lower could sing about her, and both could attend theaters that heightened the audience’s perception of the cross-dressing woman warrior via theatricality and performance.  Scholars have overlooked the reasons the diverse woman warrior permeated all levels of eighteenth-century culture, as well as their connection to contemporary military women [i].  Stories of Classical Amazons and female medieval knights are prologues to the startling number of rich accounts of real and fictitious eighteenth-century women warriors. In Europe and America there were over a dozen major conflicts and wars in the eighteenth-century alone. [ii]  The necessity for a large number of troops made recruiters desperate as they enlisted and impressed young boys from a mixture of villages, making it easy for women to masquerade as military youths, and for audiences to imagine such an occurrence.  The lack of sanitation in the field in this era made it easy to avoid detection, and the woman warrior who went to war was usually from the lower class—heartily conditioned to difficult labor, less restricted by strict upper-class femininity, and interested in adventure and gaining skill sets for better pay traditionally denied to her sex.  Eighteenth-century society was obsessed with the idea of temporary masquerade [iii], and donning a costume and masculine mannerisms to cross-dress was theatrical. The reciprocal influences of ballads, broadsides and a fabricated woman warrior on stage influenced real women to become woman warriors, which in turn produced memoirs and inspired further imagined literature involving cross-dressing warrior women.  These factors created the perfect conditions for the woman warrior to rise in popularity.  In addition, the eighteenth-century operated under a one-sex model in which a woman was believed to be a man, just with inverted genitalia, creating a male/female binary of sex.  To cross-dress and take on masculine characteristics was merely subversive.  Scholar Beth Friedman-Romell explains that when the one-sex model morphed into a two-sex model at the end of the eighteenth-century, the decline in popularity of woman warriors in popular literature in the nineteenth-century was an unsurprising consequence (461).  The two-sex model viewed women as a distinct sex from men, influencing the Victorian ideal that women were frail by nature, making it not only unnatural, but also unrealistic for women to pretend to be men in masquerade.

The eighteenth-century landscape allowed cross-dressing woman warriors to manipulate sex and gender roles and expectations.  While sex is biological and defines most humans as male or female, gender is a social construct composed of male and female characteristics and attributes that are historically, culturally and traditionally defined as “masculine” or “feminine.”  In the eighteenth-century, gender was firmly fixed with manly and womanly attributes in distinct categories.  Woman warriors often showed that gender codes culturally learned from childhood are performative rather than inherent identities.  The performative nature of women masquerading is reminiscent of Judith Butler’s claim that “gender is performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express” and that performativity is both anticipatory and results from “repetition and a ritual” (“Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 24; Gender Trouble xv).  The performance of gender is expected within the two traditional and separate categories of “masculine” and “feminine;” therefore the anticipation is that these norms occur without deviation. Butler explains “repetition and a ritual” as the action of propagating gender and reinforcing the standard social norms which people constantly reenact and re-experience to ensure stabilization of a binary gender system.  Individuals can function outside the traditional repetitiveness, but they are still just performing, just subversively.  If genders are constant impersonations of an ideal, then there is no original gender that can be imitated. Therefore, “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original [italics from Butler]; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 21).  If there was no original, there are no set categories that are “natural” when it comes to gender as it has functioned for most of history.  The women I’m interested in move beyond a two-part “natural” gender system because they have realized the histrionic effects gender can have.  Because gender is performative, eighteenth-century woman warriors recognized that gender could be destabilized, providing an early example of Butler’s theories.

To discourage readers from the blatant blurring of gender roles that woman warriors participated in, accounts of women warriors often end with the women renormalizing to socially accepted forms of femininity (like marriage) or with an audience aware that a bold woman warrior actress on stage will at the end of the night become an appropriate woman once again in women’s clothing. [iv]  The reimposition of gender norms for most women warriors reassured society of the provisional nature of her masquerade—as Friedman-Romell explains, like popular masquerade balls that allowed new, yet temporary “standing orders” in society but did not “necessarily demand a complete reinscription” of traditional roles and hierarchies (470).   The message was clear to eighteenth century women: a masquerading adventure eventually ended, and then one was expected to be redomesticated into the feminine sphere.

Actions of real and fictitious masquerading women warriors anticipated the contemporary theory of gender as performative. Eighteenth-century society also used these masquerading women to bolster male masculinity, especially in war.  Woman warriors are what Judith Halberstam defines as “female masculines.”  In Halberstam’s Female Masculinity she explains that only by looking at women who embody masculine characteristics can real masculinity be defined and constructed.  Female masculines are used as a contrast to men—as a piece of masculinity that has been rejected—so that the “true” masculinity that men possess is what is left (Halberstam 1).  Only by studying female masculines can the constructs of traditional masculinity be uncovered, because by appropriating masculine traits in what was considered a fixed gender system for hundreds of years, these women shaped the concurrent characteristics of what defined masculinity for men.  Therefore, woman warriors are inherently female masculines and have shaped masculinity for hundreds of years.  Attempting to masquerade and take on a different type of gender role can become its own identity when the endeavor at passing as something new is successful, as was the case for eighteenth-century woman warriors who transformed into female masculines (21).  The power dynamic throughout Western history has been in favor of men, and so women who desired the power and freedom of a man had to cross-dress or take on masculine traits.  In the military world, woman warriors become their own class of female masculines.  They destabilized gender with their adoption of masculinity, which in turn showcased the performative nature of gender.  As Halberstam explains of masculinity in Western society, it “inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege” and these characteristics have “been reserved for people with male bodies and has been actively denied to people with female bodies” (Halberstam 2 and 269). Although the social theory of performativity did not exist during the eighteenth-century, real and fictitious actions by women warriors anticipated this kind of theory as they figured out that dress and perception completely influence gender.

The cross-dressing woman warrior had well-known precursors in the seventeenth century such as characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Henry VI and As You Like It, but it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that temporary cross-dressing became fashionable with the rise in popularity of masquerade balls replacing the tradition of Carnival.  During masquerade balls people of all classes wore disguises.  “The flaunting unrealism of carnival disguise permits the acting out of forbidden fantasies: but of course it also limits the meaning of these gestures, by its very theatricality,” literary historian Pat Rogers explains (253).  These balls allowed a woman to dress as a man for a night, but only temporarily, and the reoccurring nature of formal masquerade balls in Britain most likely led to inoculation against the shock of temporary cross-dressing and contributed to its proliferation.  Although there was fear of a trend among women pretending to be men, other sources show that a different gender subversive activity was beginning. [v]  According to historian Linda Grant De Pauw’s extensive research on women soldiers and sailors in Europe and America, “From the late sixteenth through the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of women soldiers and sailors passing as men, and everybody knew about it” (105).  By the eighteenth century, militarized cross-dressing was more than an occasional phenomena or fantasy.  Women moved beyond campfollower duties to those that sometimes led to direct battle support and the development of the masquerading woman warrior in the seventeenth-century was fully realized in the eighteenth-century.

The gender hierarchy of the eighteenth century limited women’s participation in any activities outside the domestic sphere, so pretending to be a man opened doors to other possibilities.  Julie Wheelwright explains in Amazons and Military Maids that popular woman warrior memoirs were typically about working-class women who joined the military for various reasons but at their heart “were unconventional women who spent their lives rebelling against their assigned role before they pursued a male career.  Most could only conceive of themselves as active and powerful in male disguise” (19). Although these dictated stories sometimes embellished the women they were about to make them more enticing, these women’s stories have been verified with a great deal of accuracy. These women’s stories have been verified with a great degree of accuracy.  The Female Soldier; or The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell in Britain; The Female Review about Deborah Sampson in America; and A Narrative of Louise Françoise De Houssay, De Bannes, Who Served In The Army As A Volunteer, From 1792, to July 21, 1795 by the same name in France, were popular woman warrior memoirs in the eighteenth-century. Snell and Sampson also both performed on stage, adding another dimension to their masquerade.

The story of Hannah Snell’s life was written and published at her request by Robert Walker who set her up as a heroine destined for the role of a woman warrior, indicating gender subversive behavior from the beginning of her life.  Snell, born in 1723 to a lower-class, fiercely patriotic family, pretended she was a soldier as a child (Walker 2-4).  As an adult, when Snell’s husband deserted her for the military and her daughter died, Snell realized she was “now free from all the ties arising from nature and consanguinity, she thought herself privileged to roam in quest of the man who, without reason, had injured her so much, for there are no bounds to be set either to love, jealousy, or hatred in the female mind” (Walker 5).   With her new-found freedom, Snell enlisted as James Gray in November of 1745, showing the willingness of the military to ask few questions, and how easy it was for her to move in society as a man based on her appearance and performance.  Walker explains that “since she [Snell] had the real soul of a man in her breast” she easily started dressing and acting as one (Walker 5).  Walker’s insinuation that Snell is predisposed to masculine traits supports Snell as one of Halberstam’s female masculines and the idea that gender is a societal construct, which can be easily manipulated.  What we now define as a transgender person often involves identifying with the opposite set of codes that define gender, but we don’t know if Snell felt this way herself, or if it was Walker’s attempt to reconcile her behavior and sex.  Snell succeeded in rigorous military life as when it came to exercises she “now performed with as much skill and dexterity as any sergeant or corporal in his Majesty’s service” due to her working-class stamina (7).  The verb “perform” can mean “to carry out in action,” but also “to act or play (a part)” (OED Online).  If Snell was acting—wearing masculine traits like a coat—rather than fully embodying them, this complicates Walker’s claim that she had the soul of a man.  Snell, as capable as her male peers, proved the flexibility of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics.

Snell participated in battles near India during the Carnatic Wars where she proved herself and “gained the applause of all of her officers” (Walker 14).  She was wounded in the siege of Pondicherry, India, where she took many shots to the leg and one to the groin that she was unable to receive medical attention for without revealing her disguise (21).  Snell ended up taking the ball out herself, which Walker describes in lengthy detail.  The idea of a wound in an area that could be sexualized intrigued and fascinated the public and also suggests the idea of castration, highlighting that Snell was in a sense a castrated male during her masquerade.  If Snell was a castrated male, within the one-sex model of the eighteenth-century, she was then more female than male.  Walker embellishes Snell’s hardships and lauds her positive characteristics, yet he is slightly incredulous of her subversive adventure.  Walker asks the audience to “imagine” the emotions she experiences while in war, especially as a woman (Walker 14).  Snell’s role in battle is downplayed when Walker focuses instead on her ability to “preserve her chastity amongst a whole crowd of military men at the famous siege of Pondicherry” as if that were her greatest achievement (14).  Thus, Catherine Craft-Fairchild, an expert on masquerade in the eighteenth century explains, womanly virtue is transformed “from something external and tangible (the ability to put the body forward to labour courageously) to something internal and emotional (the ability to regulate one’s desires and remain chaste)” (185).  Snell’s prowess in battle is masculine for the time, but Walker tries to find a way to re-feminize her accomplishments.

When Snell revealed her masquerade she immediately partnered with Walker and capitalized on her time in service to make a living.  In her memoir, he notes her positive reception when her family and shipmates “applauded her intrepidity and presence of mind as a soldier in the most imminent dangers, even when death itself stared her in the face” (Walker 41).  Snell applied for a provision for her time in service and was rewarded with one, but it was not enough money to live on.  Aided by the publication of The Female Solider, she appeared at Goodman’s Fields Theater as a stage act, transferring her performativity of masculinity into an actual theatrical performance.  Snell masqueraded as a man, and then performed on stage as a woman, cross-dressing as her pervious military man persona.  An act on stage implies an end to a performance at the end of the show, but as Snell was merely mimicking her previous disguise; her double subversion of gender was complete.   The advertisements for The Female Solider as well as her performances were listed in newspapers including the General Advertiser and The Classified Ads in the Whitehall Evening Post and London Intelligencer.  The advertisements say she will “Sing a New Song made upon that Occasion”—the occasion being the siege at Pondicherry of which she was part (General Advertiser, Issue 4905).  She was so successful that her act continued into November, with it adding “Manual exercise of a soldier in her regimentals” and Walker describes as this resulting in her “regularly dressed in her regimentals from top to toe, with, all the accoutrements requisite for the due performance of her military exercises”  (General Advertiser, Issue 4930, Walker 48).  The long run of performances indicates Snell’s popularity, which Walker credits to her “common dexterity and address in representing the jovial tar and the well disciplined marine, is an incontestable demonstration” (Walker 44).  While it is difficult to determine if Walker’s adulation of her stage performance was a marketing ploy to increase interest in her memoir, Snell benefited as a woman warrior.  Her performance of masculinity in real life, turned into a stage performance, shows how easily she navigated gender roles, and used them to her advantage in an era that was fascinated by her subversiveness, especially since on the surface she re-normalized by only pretending to be a military man on stage.

While Snell used her experiences to gain an income, her popular memoir strengthened national support of war and can be read as a bolster to male masculinity that would encourage men to step up to wartime duties in England.  Walker starts The Female Soldier by identifying the current state of men as corrupt and emasculated, with Snell the only one whose courage puts her in line with “prodigies among men” (1).  The Female Soldier and Snell’s stage time came right after the War of the Austrian Succession, which the British public viewed as a failure.  By examining stories like Snell’s, Scarlet Bowen explains, “we can gain insight into the symbolic richness of the figure of the woman soldier in rallying both men and women’s support for the ensuing war, and sustaining British national pride in the face of the military losses that resulted from the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle” (21).  Snell’s memoir includes descriptions of her soldiering skills, bravery, steadfast work ethic and patriotism even in the roughest and most unsuccessful of battles, meant to inspire a lower-class British nationalism, which “adheres to populist rhetoric by depicting Snell as a ‘deliverer’ of the British nation” even though the outcome of the battles she fought in was not necessarily successful (35 and 37).  Snell’s memoir and stage performances, “illustrate the ways that the laboring-class heroine can bolster nationalist appeals to a wider audience” by inspiring a nationalistic spirit in the class of those who would become fighting soldiers (22).  Snell shows up as a “provocative model of ‘proper’ masculinity” meant to inspire others, specifically men (25).  To ensure British masculinity in wartime activities during this period, masculinity itself had to be “worn” by a woman who blurred gender roles, so that men could find a way to redefine manly masculinity.  Snell’s masquerade was accepted because her presence and comportment as a cross-dressed soldier pushed men into being “real men,” to regain the masculinity Snell temporarily wore and re-stabilize gender categories so Snell, who remarried in 1751, could be feminized once again. [vi]

The American Revolution gave women on the other side of the Atlantic the opportunity to become woman warriors as well.  Deborah Sampson, who put on male clothes and enlisted in the Continental Army as Robert Shurtlieff in 1782, was from a lower-class background.  Almost fifteen years after her time in the army, she collaborated with Herman Mann who published her memoirs, The Female Review; or Life of Deborah Sampson The Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution, in 1797.  The memoir has obvious embellishments and exaggerations, but the most important facts are correct: she did enlist in the army in disguise, and she was wounded in battle during her enlistment.  Ascertaining if the inconsistencies in the narration stem from Sampson’s memory or Mann’s artistic liberties is difficult.  John Adams Vinton, who published a nineteenth-century edition of Sampson’s memoir explains in his introduction to The Female Review that Mann “speaks in her behalf, as her representative and interpreter” and that “Instead of presenting a simple narrative, ‘a round, unvarnished tale,’ the writer made a kind of novel, founded, indeed, on fact, but with additions of his own…” (xiv).  Mann was not able to navigate integrating a laboring-class story into publication as well as Walker, and explains that he will focus on virtue, rather than vice, “where a total sacrifice of truth does not forbid” (Mann 40).  Mann spends most of the narrative focusing on Sampson’s virtues—like the working-class ones of industry and economy—instead of her success in battle and ability to pass as a man.

Mann asserts that Sampson was interested in education and philosophical debates; in fact she was “distinguished, during her minority, only by the unusual propensities for learning, and few opportunities to obtain the inestimable prize” (38).  As a working-class woman, Sampson had few choices for her future, and Mann asserts these factors, combined with her love of liberty, gave her the idea to join the Army dressed as a man.  The pursuit of liberty was seen as masculine during the eighteenth century, so Sampson’s ideals were subversive before she even committed to joining the Army.  Mann explains how she was different from other women: “It seems, her attention was of a different nature from that of many of her sex and youth.  Whilst they were only dreading the consequences, she was exploring the cause of the eruption” (95).  Sampson was concerned by the reasons America was fighting, not the consequences of war on the population.  Her male clothing allowed her to masquerade as a man for her enlistment, and her general appearance of “more than the middle size” at 5’7 and with her appearing, “rather masculine and serene, than effeminate and sillily jocose” (134).  Her movements that were “erect, quick and strong” proved her affectations were masculine enough to pass as a man (134).  Sampson’s enhanced modifications of her appearance and behavior demonstrate how she capitalizes on the performativity of gender, and holds a keen understanding of her potential power as a male.  Mann tries to falsely overplay her status as a maiden youth to make her more desirable and gain her admiration for her sacrifice:  “She is a nymph, scarcely past her teens!” suggesting she had not yet reached full womanhood, marking her gender subversive activities as more of an experiment than a permanent change (137).  The Female Review gets the date and specifics of Sampson’s wounds in battle wrong, but official records and letters prove that at some point she received a head wound and one ball in her leg and another in her groin (Vinton 139).  Like Snell, she had to extract the ball in her groin by herself to avoid detection.  The similarity of these events are uncanny, and scholars like Philip Barnard believe that this might be one of the generic features Mann intermixed in the narrative based on previous woman warrior stories (342).  As a fighter for liberty, Sampson exemplified the newly free and independent America.

Although Sampson returned to the traditionally appropriate feminine occupation of marriage and children after her discharge in 1783, she did occupy and control both gender roles for a time, a feat proving gender roles are theatrical, and that female masculines have shaped masculinity.  Mann says of her discharge, “… our Heroine leaped from the masculine, to the feminine sphere” (227).  As the memoir comes to a close Mann compares Sampson’s achievements to women “battling” men within their own home in domestic disputes:

And may we never have it to lament—that while any females contemplate, with abhorrence, a female, who voluntarily engages in the field of battlethey forget to recoil at the idea of coming off victorious from battles, fought by their own domestic—firesides!  We have now seen the distinction of one female.  May it stimulate others to shine—in the way, that VIRTUE prescribes. (251)

The way that “VIRTUE prescribes” is certainly not the way that Sampson shone—undermining the virtues she extolled in the masculine sphere while in the military, and placing her back in the category she belongs.  Like other woman warriors of the eighteenth century, to be accepted, a cross-dressing soldier must give up their military ways and refashion themselves into the gender category they were born into.  Although Sampson followed Snell’s footsteps to the stage she waited almost twenty years after her time in the army.  In 1802 she toured New England towns giving a dramatized version of her history and then performing a manual of arms exercise (Grant De Pauw 125-126).  Eighteenth-century society was perfectly happy watching cross-dressing on stage because it was theatrical, and a performance—one that ended when the show ended, avoiding the fears that such subversion could be permanent.   Sampson was able to capture the very end of the eighteenth century’s interest with masquerading women before her activities become too abnormal to enthrall the public in a stricter nineteenth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a fascinating woman warrior published the story of her time as a soldier.  Louise Françoise de Houssay de Bannes authored her personal experiences as an upper-class woman cross-dressing as a soldier in A Narrative of Louise Françoise De Houssay, De Bannes, Who Served In The Army As A Volunteer, From 1792, to July 21, 1795; When She Was Made a Prisoner At Quiberon, with Her Examination At Vannes, From whence she made her Escape, the Day before that which was appointed for her Execution (1796) in London.  Her narrative, which was translated to English before it was published, functions as a plea for assistance after her harrowing adventures, constant hardships and state of economic distress following her escape from France.  While Snell and Sampson were defined by the men that wrote their memoirs and who tried to fit these cross-dressing women into terms their biased vantage as a privileged male understood, Bannes’s memoir offers a unique look into the interior of a masquerading woman warrior who tells her own story. The review that came out about A Narrative in the London Monthly Review in 1796 indicated that her story was not fabricated or exaggerated (Barnard 339).  Bannes and her nobleman husband fought on the counter-revolutionary side of the French Revolution.  They joined the princes of France in the war and Bannes, as an upper-class woman, became a rare type of woman warrior of the eighteenth century.

Bannes’s narrative allows unique access to the reasoning behind a woman cross-dressing and fighting in a war.  She recounts that she told her husband that she wanted to fight: “in defense of our Religion; for the restoration of our lawful Sovereign” (Bannes 11).  She proves that emotions of religious and nationalistic fervor are not just reserved for men when she questions her husband: “Can you imagine that such noble motives are not capable of warming a female breast equally with that of one of your sex?” (11).  Bannes does not see a desire to fight for what she believes in as belonging just in the masculine sphere, but does note that her stature and strength must mean that she was destined by God to masquerade as a man to assist in the war (11).   She shows how easily gender roles can be subverted by physical characteristics like height and strength, and demonstrates loyalty usually found between male comrades in war when she vows to fight side-by-side with her husband.  For Bannes, her physicality leads her to question why she would not be able fight, and makes it easier for her to perform as a man and take on the persona of Chevalier de Houssay.

When Bannes reveals her sex to her superior officers after her training, she says that they “paid me very high compliments on my resolution, and promised never to abuse my confidence” and her cross-dressing stayed a secret to the rest of the soldiers (Bannes 18).  Her account supports the desperation of military commanders for competent soldiers, but also provides an important historical example of a woman whose sex was known, and was still viewed as capable in battle.  During her first battle, Bannes found inner courage while she did her part of “warming the ball” and reflected that she was just acting mechanically during the fight (19).  Bannes’s training made her as effective as a man in battle, demonstrating that by subverting gender and appropriating successful masculine behavior, a female masculine is easily created.  She was so inspired to fight for the disenfranchised French upper class, it was she, not her husband, who insisted that they continue to fight in future battles.  To continue her masquerade, Bannes, like other woman warriors, learns that the best way to earn respect as a man is to behave with complete confidence, and an ability to fluidly move between genders when necessary can save one’s life.  The ability to exist between traditionally masculine and feminine spheres highlights the arbitrary construction of gender roles, and the power of women in the eighteenth century who harnessed the bridge.  As the author of her own memoir, Bannes is never incredulous of her abilities and patriotism, and as a woman, does not find it necessary examine herself solely through the lens of virtues that are traditionally feminine—like chastity—which Walker and Mann revisit in a cyclic manner.

How do women in today’s military relate to the cross-dressing woman warriors of the eighteenth century?   Are contemporary “female masculines” still seen as being slightly subversive in a military gender hierarchy that favors men and uniforms that are meant to make individuals look the same, but a “same” that is masculine?  Is the term “female masculines” not subversive and unflattering in its very implication of being women who don masculine traits?  World War I was the first occasion when American women were accepted as women into the military, and only after years of proving themselves were they allowed into most occupations.  Eighteenth-century woman warriors understood the performativity of gender, and under the war conditions of the era successfully cross-dressed in the military because they used the theatrical aspects of masculine appearance and behaviors to their advantage.  Hundreds of years before genders were understood to be a set of socially repeated codes these women figured out the agency and power of manipulating what they saw as unfixed categories.  They were adventurous, courageous, patriotic and determined.  American military women will soon be openly integrated into combat positions if they qualify, without being pigeonholed by archaic gender codes that try to fit all characteristics into two separate categories.  One can imagine that women warriors of the eighteenth century would be proud of society’s progression, but their subversive behavior proves they had valuable military intelligence over 300 years ago: when it comes to the military, gender should never define ability, qualification, or heroism in battle.





Works Cited

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Vinton, John Adams.  “Introduction and Notes.”  The Female Review; or Life of Deborah Sampson The Female Soldiers in the War of the Revolution.  By Herman Mann.  1797.  New York: Arno Press, 1972.  Print.




[i] While some authors thoroughly tackle the woman warrior in a specific genre (Dianne Dugaw focuses on women warriors in balladry, Scarlet Bowen focuses on British memoirs of female soldiers from 1740-1750, Paul Lewis focuses on woman warriors of the 1790s in Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond, etc), the woman warrior’s pervasiveness in the eighteenth century as a whole has not been fully explored, nor her connection to contemporary American military women.

[ii] The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714); The First Jacobite Rebellion (1715); The Anglo-Spanish War (1727-1729); The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748), The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748); The Carnatic Wars (1744-1763);, The Second Jacobite Rebellion (1745); The Seven Years’ War/The French and Indian War (1754-1763); The American Revolution (1775-1783);, and the French Revolution (1789-1799).

[iii] Dianne Dugaw explains in Warrior Women and Popular Balladry that many men and women resorted to disguise to escape danger, but also “masquerading was one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all levels of society…Both women and men attended the masquerades “in masks”…” (Dugaw 136).  Dugaw asserts that in the eighteenth century “masquerade served not simply as a means of reversing roles or suspending authority for a day, but rather as an end in itself, as an experiment with identity” (139).

[iv] Both Snell and Sampson (re)married after their exploits.  Other fictitious examples of marriage at the end of a masquerading adventure include Belvedera in Charles Shadwell’s play The Humours of the Army; or, The Female Officer, Polly in John Gay’s Ballad Opera by the same name, and the daughter in the popular ballad The Bristol Bridegroom.

[v] In 1620 there was enough of a trend of partial-cross dressing to warrant the publishing of the pamphlet Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times, Expressed in a brief Declamation: Non omnes possuus omnes which addresses the concern of women who were morphing to be “Masculine in Case, even from the head to the food; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action…” (Hic Mulier).  The pamphlet refers to these masquerading women as “Female Masculines.”

[vi] In London in 1746 a broadside called The Female Volunteer or, an Attempt to make our Men Stand was published with a header that says, “An EPILOGUE intended to be spoken by Mrs. Woffington in the Habit of a Volunteer, upon reading the Gazette containing an Account of the late Action at FALKIRK.”  The broadside references The Battle of Falkirk Muir, an embarrassing event for the English Army, and “shames the loyalist army for its lack of manliness in erotic terms.” It also features a picture of the famous actress Margaret “Peg” Woffington who is dressed in full military garb (Bowen 39).  Her solution for the cowardly men is to replace them with patriotic women, inspiring men to rise to the challenge, and highlighting the performativity of gendered traits that were supposed to be fixed.