By J.G. Noll
For over half of America’s history, women could not serve their country openly in the military. It was only until the last two years of World War I that the government officially allowed women to serve. In the past 100 years, women have made incredible strides in the military– although the fight for equality is still far from over. It’s important to remember that the very fabric of the U.S. military is woven with stories of women who defied societal norms to fight for what they believed was right.
Here are seven women from three different eras who hid their identities to help advance the cause of freedom:
1. Margaret Corbin
Want to talk about badass military spouses? Margaret was the original. Wife to an artillery soldier in the Revolutionary War, Margaret filled in at the cannon when her husband was killed in the battle of Fort Washington. (She had dressed as a man to accompany him into battle and fight.) Wounded in the arm and chest, she was disabled and subsequently became an original member of the Invalid Regiment in 1777. Two years later, she became the first American woman to receive a disabled veteran pension when Congress gave her a $30 stipend and lifelong pension (at the rate of half a male soldier’s pay). In 1926, her remains were exhumed and she was buried at West Point with full military honors.
2. Deborah Sampson Gannet
Gannet was 22 when she passed herself off as Robert Shurtleff and enlisted to avenge colonists killed by the British with the 4th Massachusetts in 1782. Eventually, she became a corporal and was injured twice. During her second injury, it was discovered that she was a woman. Remarkably, she was discharged honorably and received a pension.
3. Sally St. Clair
Sally St. Clair, a Creole woman, who enlisted in South Carolina as a man, died in the Battle of Savannah. She reportedly enlisted to stay with her lover, also a Revolutionary soldier. Legend has it that she died protecting him.
4. Jennie Irene Hodgers
An Irish immigrant, Hodgers’ story seems to have holes as she was interviewed about her Civil War experiences when she was an ailing, elderly person. At 17, she enlisted with the 95th Illinois Infantry, Company G and spent approximately three years as a Union soldier. As Albert Cashier, she fought in about 40 battles under Ulysses S. Grant and was a veteran of Vicksburg, the Red River Campaign, and Guntown, Mississippi. Captured by Confederates, she executed her own escape by overpowering a guard and making a run for it. She returned to Illinois after the war and kept her identity as Albert, never returning to Jennie. As a man, she was able to vote and claim a military pension. It was discovered that she was a woman at the end of her life and, although she was forced to wear a dress in her remaining years, she was buried in her Union uniform and laid to rest under a tombstone bearing her male name and unit. Some historians believe that Jennie may have been a trans man.
5. Sarah Emma Edmonds
Famous for her novel and exploits during the Civil War, Edmonds is one of the more famous female soldiers of the Civil War. As a child, Edmonds was intrigued by the concept of dressing as a man to enjoy adventures after reading Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain. Edmonds enlisted in tn the 2nd Michigan Infantry as Franklin Flint Thompson. She served as a field nurse and then–reportedly– became a spy (although there is recorded military proof). When she contracted malaria, she deserted and went to a non-military hospital, afraid that she would be discovered as a woman at a military one. While she intended to go back to the military, she discovered that her alter ego was considered a deserter and, instead, he pent the rest of the Civil War as a female nurse at a hospital for wounded soldiers. She later wrote a wildly popular memoir of her escapades.
6. Mollie Bean
A Confederate, Bean joined the 47th North Carolina and was captured outside of Richmond by Union soldiers. It is possible that she fought at Gettysburg. She was accused of being mentally ill and a spy and was sentenced to prison. What happened after that is anyone’s guess– she doesn’t reappear in records. In fact, there is serious doubt if “Mollie Bean” was her real name.
7. Cathay Williams
When the world wanted her to shut up and keep to herself, Williams fought back. She is the only documented African American woman who served in the Civil War as a male Union soldier. She is also the first African American woman to enlist in the US Army. Despite being a free woman, Williams was pressed into service for the Union as “contraband”– a term used to describe captured slaves forced to work menial tasks. In 1866, she enlisted in the army as a man and was assigned to the 38th Infantry. She was discharged two years later after a doctor discovered her secret. While a precedent had been set by white women who served as men, Williams’ application for a disability pension was rejected– despite missing all of her toes from amputation. A bronze bust of her likeness has been erected in Leavenworth, Kansas.