Ready, Aim, Feminism: When Women Went Off to War

By Annika Jensen ’18

I like to imagine that if Sarah Emma Edmonds were my contemporary she would often sport a t-shirt saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.”

Edmonds was a patriot, a feminist, and, along with an estimated 400 other women, a soldier in the American Civil War. Fed up with her father’s abuse and appalled at the prospect of an arranged marriage Edmonds left her New Brunswick home at the age of fifteen and soon adopted a male identity to become a successful worker. When the war erupted, she was compelled by a sense of patriotism and adventure to join the fight and was soon mustered into Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteers. The newly dubbed Frank Thompson, with her cropped hair and ill-fitting uniform, was able to fit in easily with the other youthful soldiers and soon marched to Manassas where her war story commenced. Throughout the war, Edmonds/Thompson served as a postman, a nurse, and a spy until she contracted malaria and was forced to desert for fear of revealing her true sex.

My queen Sarah Edmonds, alias Frank Thompson, of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Photo via nps.gov
My queen:  Sarah Edmonds, alias Frank Thompson, of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Photo via NPS.

Edmonds’ case is not unique, though not much is known about the other fighting women. Likewise, historians have trouble narrowing down their reasoning for joining the war: some, like Satronia Smith Hunt, could not bear to lose their husbands and decided to fight alongside them, while others enlisted out of a sense of patriotism, duty, adventure, or honor. But there was one incentive that tied each of these women together, from Jennie Hodgers to Loreta Velasquez, one motivation that governed their daring, noble actions: feminism and the desire for equality.

Let’s break down our reasoning.

Edmonds enlisted because of a sense of patriotism, a desire for adventure, and general sick-and-tiredness of being oppressed. Victorian social convention dictated that women stay confined, domestically and contentedly, in their own sphere; they were unable to seek the same sense of adventure, but when disguised as men they were given that opportunity. While many women during the Civil War Era were undoubtedly patriotic, they did not have the same outlet to express such, being unable to enlist. Though some made a tremendous impact on the home front and in hospitals around the country, Edmonds knew her purpose lay on the battlefield and, seeking equality, she took the necessary measures to make a difference in the Northern cause, even if it was forbidden. Bam, feminism.

Florina Budwin and Satrionia Smith Hunt enlisted alongside their husbands, who were both killed throughout the course of the war. While Hunt was never even injured during her undercover service, Budwin and her husband were captured together and sent to Andersonville prison, where Mr. Budwin died. Mrs. Budwin fell sick and her sex was discovered by a Southern doctor, but she was unable to recover from her illness.

Why is it significant, then, that these women enlisted to fight beside their spouses? Obviously it is a huge statement about loyalty, but there is another implication: if these women stayed behind on the home front, they would be at a higher risk of oppression and sexual violence. Single women, even if they had lost their husbands to war, were generally looked down upon and taken advantage of, so escaping to the battlefield was a means of avoiding harmful and sexist social conventions as well as proving defiance in the name of equality. Budwin and Smith would not idle about and wait to be oppressed; they looked misogyny in the eyes and said, “no.” Bam, feminism.

Finally, the desire for independence is another central factor to imply that women went to war for the cause of equality. Some women, like Sarah Edmonds, were escaping patriarchal oppression; others, like Jennie Hodgers (known as Albert DJ Cashier) sought better social treatment, given that Hodgers retained her masculine disguise her entire life. In short, Victorian women were not allowed to be independent: those who tried to do so were looked down upon and sometimes viewed as lower-class or even as prostitutes. Going to war essentially gave these women an outlet to be on their own and form bonds of camaraderie based on friendship and loyalty, not sexism and domination. They broke the rules for the sake of freedom. Bam, feminism.

About 400 women are speculated to have fought in the Civil War, and though a variety of reasons are given as to their enlistments, they all narrow down to the simple idea of equality between the sexes. Compiled Military Service Record files exist to prove the valor of these women, as do first-hand accounts, such as Sarah Emma Edmonds’s Nurse and Spy in the Union Army; grislier evidence includes female skeletons found at Shiloh and Gettysburg, though little is known about these casualties. History insists that we forget these women (for some, not even a name remains), but their cause is greater than the records we have. They simply insist that we remember their creed.

Bam, feminism.


Sources:

Blanton, DeAnne. “Women Soldiers of the Civil War.” Prologue 25, no. 1 (1993). Accessed October 13, 2015. National Archives and Records Administration.

Derreck, Tom. “Soldier Girl: The Emma Edmonds Story.” The Beaver 82, no. 4 (2002). Accessed October 13, 2015. America: History and Life.

“Jennie Hodgers.” Civil War Trust: Saving America’s Civil War Battlefields. Accessed October 13, 2015.

10 thoughts on “Ready, Aim, Feminism: When Women Went Off to War”

  1. Thank you so much for bringing the women soldiers of the Civil War into the daylight. Most historians do not know that a female Confederate was killed at the Angle during the charge on July 3. Many of these brave women were never discovered until they were killed or seriously wounded.
    History has never given women the credit they deserve. Look at how Dr. Mary Walker was treated because of her style of dressing. Her Medal of Honor was revoked by narrow minded sexists!
    Nice job!

  2. I took a Women’s History class in college. When my teacher was asked (by a male student who later dropped the class) why she taught Women’s History, she replied ‘ I got very tired of white, male history being taught and the accomplishments by women and other minorities being overlooked or purposely being withheld.’ That teacher rocked.

  3. I want to start by giving credit to the author as a strong writer and good thinker, but I want to push back a little bit and I’m curious to know the author’s reply. The author does not define feminism, so therefore, the reader is forced to use the 20th century definition of the feminist movement as advocacy for women’s rights and specifically equality with men. Applying this definition in retrospect to Victorian people creates a few problems. Firstly, Victorians didn’t have this cultural understanding. Secondly, donning a uniform, although it breaks gender norms at the time, does not signify these women are part of a wider feminist movement. Hiding their identities as women and assuming male identities is not “sticking it to the patriarchy,” it is actually fitting into the patriarchy and working it to their own personal advantage. Seeking personal liberation is not the same as advocating for women’s rights. Based on the evidence the author suggests, I’d have to disagree that these women promoted feminist ideas. Rather than paste our 21st century understanding of feminism over these women, what would it look like to understand women’s rights as Victorians did? Were these women early suffragettes? Did they promote women’s education or social programs geared towards equality?

    1. Thank you for your comments! I’m glad you bring up these points. The term feminism is written here in retrospect; the concept of social, political, and economic equality for women was hardly an idea in anyone’s mind in the Victorian Era, as given by the idea of separate spheres. Likewise, these women were hindered by societal expectations in pursing this concept of feminism (as we understand it as a contemporary movement) and therefore had to find alternative ways of achieving or experiencing equality. I don’t believe that acting for personal benefit negates the idea of progress for women; instead, it advances each individual toward a higher social standing, thus making a dent in the separate spheres, if only minimal. Additionally, I don’t believe that concealing one’s identity fits into the patriarchy, because it demonstrates the desire for equality otherwise hindered by social and political precedent. There was simply no other way for a woman to take on a role in combat. This defiance alone demonstrates a desire to shatter the separate spheres of the Victorian era and bring the individual woman closer to equality in occupation and society. My concluding argument would thus be that women were indeed acting for the betterment of women beside men, a component of feminism as it is defined today: social equality. That the contemporary word (or signifier, as Saussure would call it) was not used in Victorian America does not negate the determination of the women mentioned to further the female social standing of the time; they acted in whatever discreet defiance they could manage. Once again, I thank you for your comments, and I hope I have sufficiently and effectively conveyed my thoughts! – Annika Jensen

  4. Thanks for carrying the banner for the four hundred women, who wanted a level living field. Your generation will continue the fight.

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