A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: To Wear the Uniform

By Elizabeth Smith ’17

This post is the last in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. You can also check out the first and second parts of this series.

At Civil War reenactments such as the one in Cedar Creek, Virginia, women are permitted to take the field as soldiers. Photograph by author.
At Civil War reenactments such as the one in Cedar Creek, Virginia, women are permitted to take the field as soldiers. Photograph by author.

Civil War reenacting has come a long way in the years since Lauren Cook was asked to leave the Antietam reenactment. Now women who aspire to portray soldiers have a far easier time of joining a unit that will allow them to take to the field. This does not, however, mean that the controversy surrounding women soldiers has vanished. Women may not be directly approached about their persona, but the disapproving glares like the ones I myself have received are all too prevalent.

Women who wish to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments face a multitude of challenges. First, they must get past the physical limitations. “How serious are you at disguising yourself and presenting yourself as a ‘man?’” writes one reenactor on an online chatroom specifically dealing with women portraying soldiers.

Would you cut your hair? Trim your nails? Go without any makeup and perhaps smear your face with dirt? Wear restraints to hide your feminine features? The reason most reenacting units will not permit a female in the ranks is because, 1. It is more historically accurate. 2. Most women trying to act like a male soldiers do a rotten job of it.

This is the largest problem facing women soldiers. Authenticity is a double-edged sword and while many units preach to be as authentic as possible, others are far more relaxed. Each unit is different, but most have what is called the “fifteen yard rule,” which means that if at fifteen yards someone is able to recognize the soldiers as female, she will be asked to leave the field/ranks. This rule goes beyond simple unit laws all the way up to events like the annual event held in Gettysburg.

For the most part, the women who choose to portray soldiers have no problem with this rule. Speaking personally, when I take the field I am very aware of the fact that I am portraying a small minority of brave women who broke social standards to be there and as such, I do my very best to honor them through the way I portray them. The difficulty in this comes when people begin to question how strictly the fifteen yard rule—and any rule concerning female soldiers— should be.

A simple Google search will turn up all types of tips for women soldiers to perfect their impression. Many of these tips are very detailed and range from cutting hair short to binding breasts to smearing charcoal on the face to form a five o’clock shadow. These tips can be extremely helpful for women dedicated to portraying a female soldier, but for many these tips can also serve as a deterrent not only to portraying a soldier, but to reenacting in general. The tips are not bad, and are a good goal, but sometimes it feels as if people get carried away.

Chatrooms are a good place to find examples of this phenomenon. In one chatroom, commenters have compared the authenticity of women portraying soldiers to that of older men who also portray soldiers. The average age of a Civil War soldier was only about twenty-five, they argue, so why allow men of fifty-plus years portray soldiers without forcing them to try and look twenty-five? If women are held to such high standards, so should men, some claim.

In the end, controversy surrounding women portraying soldiers in Civil War reenacting will never be over. Just like 150 years ago, there will always be people who wish to keep the hobby “pure” and as authentic as possible and that requires a strict no-female soldier rule. The hypocrisy of this ultimate goal of authenticity is obvious to see when one takes a step back.

The hobby of Civil War reenacting is just that, a hobby. It’s a reenactment, not the actual war. When you visit one of these events, whether it be a small town living history or the full sized Gettysburg reenactment, what you see is not what the Civil War veteran would have seen. There are no bullets firing, no cannon shells exploding. No one is having a limb amputated or dying of diarrhea. When the final battle is over and the tent is packed away, each and every person at these events will climb into their cars and return home for a nice hot shower and a good night’s sleep in their soft bed.

This is 2015, not 1865. As much as reenactors would like to bring a slice of history to the world today, the best we can hope to do is show a small glimpse of what it might have looked like. For women, this means that they will be able to portray soldiers without fear of being sent to an asylum or being drummed out of the army for real. The past is over and we can’t bring it back, no matter how accurate the stitching of our frock coat. We do the best we can, but in the end, it is just a reenactment.


Sources:

Atwater, G. M. and W. A. King. “Women Reenacting Military Roles: 21st Century Ideals and 19th Century Fact.” Accessed October 27, 2015.

Civil War Logowear. “Why Are You Here?: Some suggestions for the appropriate female reenactor.” Accessed October 27, 2015.

Civil War Talk. “How can women get involved in reenactments?” Last modified July 23, 2011. Accessed October 27, 2015.

Delcamp, Janine. “What It Takes To Be a Man: Women Portraying Soldiers.” Signal Corps Association. Accessed October 27, 2015.

1 thought on “A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: To Wear the Uniform”

  1. Everyone has their stop point of accuracy in any re-enactment. How many times have you see women in modified ’80’s prom dresses calling themselves Victorian? As stated above – this is a hobby. Striving for accuracy ought to be the goal, but there is a point to stop. I would not cut my hair off for a weekend hobby, but I would hide it. The fact that a lot of men has longer hair not withstanding. 😉

    I enjoyed your articles. They make some very good points. There are a lot of Civil War groups who refuse to acknowledge the female soldier. And that is a very sad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *