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.
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.
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.
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 post is the second in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. Also check out the introduction of this series.
I was thirteen years old when I joined the 5th Kentucky Orphan Brigade, a Confederate reenactment group based out of south-central Kentucky. At fourteen, I “saw the elephant”—a Civil War term for seeing battle—for the first time as a soldier. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but seven years later I credit that decision to go through with it as bringing me to where I am now, writing for the Compiler here at Gettysburg College. In those seven years, however, I have faced my fair share of scrutiny for portraying a soldier rather than a civilian. I didn’t become aware of the scrutiny until more recently, however, as I became more conscious both of historical and modern views about women portraying soldiers at Civil War reenactments.
I’ve been lucky. Only once have I ever been in a situation where I thought I would not be able to participate in the event because I am a woman, but that one time when I was sixteen was quickly fixed by my first sergeant convincing the board of that particular reenactment to amend the rules that had said no women were allowed to portray soldiers. In seven years, never once has anyone directly questioned whether or not I should be allowed to take the field. I’ve been complimented on my authenticity, encouraged to continue to be as accurate as possible, and never had a negative comment directed at my portrayal of a woman soldier.
Although I haven’t had anything said to my face, I have received nasty glances that clearly say “She doesn’t belong.” Though the reenacting community has become far more open to women soldiers since 1989, there are some who do not believe it is a woman’s place to be on the battlefield. I’ll discuss this more in depth in the next post, but for now it is safe to say that there are some who believe no women should portray soldiers. Continue reading “A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: Then and Now”
The year was 1989. The place, a Civil War reenactment at Antietam National Battlefield. Lauren Cook (then Burgess) had been participating in reenactments for two years. Her portrayal of a fifer required her to wear a soldier’s uniform rather than in a civilian woman’s dress. She did her best to portray a soldier, disguising her sex so she could pass the “fifteen yard” rule, which meant that at fifteen yards she could not be identified as a woman. The call of nature proved to be her undoing, however, when an NPS official “caught” her coming out of the women’s restroom. Asked to wear a dress and portray a civilian, Cook refused and was told to leave the event. Cook perceived this as sex discrimination and filed a law suit against the federal government. Four years later, in 1993, she would win her court case.
Though dramatic in nature, Cook’s experience is echoed through the many stories of women who attempt to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments. Times have changed since 1989, and women are now allowed to portray soldiers, but the stigma remains. Women who wish to portray soldiers are expected to not only have an accurate uniform, but to pass the “fifteen yard rule.” For some, this is what they strive to do and many go above and beyond in accomplishing this. Others, however, do not even attempt to disguise their sex. This is where the controversy begins and people start to question whether or not women should be allowed to portray soldiers at all.