Though women in history haven’t always been able (read: allowed) to fight in wars, publish books, or live adventurous lives, that has never stopped women disguised as men from stepping up to the plate and taking care of business. Women who pretended to be men have helped win wars, shape nations, and set precedents for everything women are capable of.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re here to celebrate some daring women who weren’t afraid to break barriers and don men’s clothing to seek their fortunes and serve their countries!
Jeanne Baret/Jean Baret (1740-1807)
Baret is recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe, which she did via maritime. In the 1700s women were banned from being aboard French Navy Ships, but that didn’t stop Jeanne Baret from doing what she dreamed of—exploring the world in search of new plants. When Jeanne’s lover Philibert Commerçon, a Royal Botanist and Naturalist, was recruited by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville for his round-the-world expedition, the pair came up with a plan to get her on-board. She disguised herself as a man and showed up on the docks to offer “his” services the day the Etoile was set to depart. Philibert hired “him” on the spot as his valet and assistant. Their plot worked, and from 1766–1769 Jeanne Baret was a part of Bougainville’s colonial expedition.
Jeanne was involved with collecting more than 6,000 plant specimens on the voyage, including her greatest find in Brazil: Bougainvillea, the spectacular pink vine she named in honor of their captain. According to Bougainville’s account, Baret was herself an expert botanist and convinced the French Navy to award her an annual pension for her work gathering plants. In 2012, Jeanne finally received well-deserved recognition when a new South American plant species was named in her honor.
Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)
Mary Ann Evans (1819 –1880), known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She wrote seven novels, Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–63), Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871–72) and Daniel Deronda (1876). Her novels (most famously ‘Middlemarch’) are celebrated for their realism and psychological insights, as well as sense of place and detailed depictions of the countryside.
Although female authors were published under their own names during her lifetime, she used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with “silly” romantic novels.
Mary Anderson (Murray Hall)
At the turn of the twentieth century (a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote) a politician was garnering popularity in New York City and becoming a household name. His name was Murray Hall, and he was known as a poker-playing, cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking, “man about town.” Hall was a leader of New York City’s General Committee of Tammany Hall, a member of the Iroquois Club, a personal friend of State Senator “Barney” Martin and other officials, and one of the most active Tammany workers in the district… However, after Hall’s death, it was revealed that she was in fact female, born as Mary Anderson (1841 − 1901), but had been living under the guise of her male alias in order to participate in political suffrage for over 25 years. Hall managed to vote and serve as a political leader in an era when women were denied the franchise.
Hannah Snell/James Gray
‘Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell.’
Hannah Snell (1723-1792) spent five years of her life disguised as a male soldier named James Gray. She enlisted in the Marines, traveling as far as India, and fighting in multiple battles including the siege of Pondicherry where she was severely wounded; including a hit to the groin, but managed to still mask her true identity until returning to London. After revealing herself, Snell was honorably discharged, granted a lifetime army pension from Royal Chelsea Hospital, and opened a pub called The Female Warrior. She lived for another forty years, marrying twice and raising two sons.
Margaret Ann Bulkley /Dr. James Barry
James Miranda Steuart Barry (1789–July 1865) was an Irish-born military surgeon in the British Army. Barry obtained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, then served first in Cape Town, South Africa, and subsequently in many parts of the British Empire. Before retirement, Barry had risen to the rank of Inspector General, the second highest medical office in the British Army, which put him in charge of all military hospitals. Barry not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions of the native inhabitants, and performed the first recorded caesarean section in which both the mother and child survived the operation… The catch? Dr. James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley. Barry’s was able to hide his real identity until his passing when a maid preparing his body for the funeral got quite a shock!
Sarah Edmondson/Frank Thompson
Desperate to escape an abusive father and a forced marriage, New Brunswick-born Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds fled home at age 15. Knowing a woman traveling alone wouldn’t make it very far, (not to mention her father was undoubtedly looking for her) Sarah cropped her hair, tanned her face with stain, and donned a suit of men’s clothing; and so Frank Thompson was born.
In May of 1861, posing as Thompson, Edmonds joined a regiment called the Flint Union Grays, which became Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Edmonds’s duties as a soldier ranged from that of a male nurse to the regiment’s postmaster, and finally a mail carrier. In addition to duties as a nurse, which included burying the dead soldiers, she picked up a gun and participated in the Battle of Williamsburg and the Seven Days’ Battles. Edmonds witnessed some of the most infamous battles of the war, including First Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
In 1882, Frank Thompson revealed her true identity to the utter amazement of the veterans of her regiment. Edmonds is the only known women to receive a regular army pension from the Civil War and the first women to be inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization.
In times when a woman’s role was fixed and certain, these women were brave enough to live on their own terms, no matter what it cost them!