One of the most remarkable messages in a bottle I’ve ever heard of comes from the archives of the The Warnambool Standard in March 1916. It opened a window for me into a particular element of women’s history I knew very little of before–particularly the history of women in the military.
It was written by Private R. Lock of the Australian military, who wrote in the message of a “girl” who had recently been discovered aboard his ship. She had been “masquerading” as a man in order to fight for her country.
Her reward? She was kicked off the boat and prosecuted in Sydney.
Immediately, I thought of the old folk song “Jack-a-Roe”, made somewhat famous by The Grateful Dead. It tells the story of a woman who also “masqueraded” as a man in order to follow her husband into war. She dresses in “men’s array,” calls herself Jack-a-Roe, and follows him aboard ship. They find their way into war where the man, also named Jack, is wounded. Jack-a-Roe finds him lying there wounded, carries him to the doctor where he is healed, and then the two marry.
In looking for more information about the woman mentioned in the message in a bottle, I ran into a dead end–but I stumbled into a bazillion other articles from a century or so ago about women “sneaking” into the militaries of various countries.
It’s okay if you are currently thinking of Disney’s Mulan. I was!
I guess that message in a bottle just reminded me of the fights women have faced throughout history, including fighting for the right to fight for their country–a struggle that is ongoing in the United States (and elsewhere) today!
One article, in Sydney’s The Sun in 1932, tells the story of a woman from Yorkshire, England who ran off and joined the French army. Apparently, she “served for years…without the secret of her sex being known to her fellow-soldiers in barracks”.
Incredibly, this article claims that she “played her part splendidly until one day a simple accident revealed a feminine weakness. She saw a cat run over–and fainted.”
Ah, I don’t know exactly what kind of physical exam was called for in the French army after someone fainted at the time, but apparently, it was invasive enough that her comrades discovered “the secret of her sex”.
Back in 1914, in Quincy, Illinois, yet another “imposter” was discovered. The Lismore, Derrinallum, and Cressy Advertiser, in September 1914, revealed that a retired soldier known as Albert Cashier had been found to be a woman…at age 72. It seems Albert had served valiantly in the Civil War. She had joined Illinois’ 35th Infantry (for the North), and served in some of the Civil War’s “bloodiest battles”.
One of the most famous women to manage military service by posing as a man was England’s Hannah Snell, who lived from 1723 – 1792.
Elements of her story closely parallel the character from Jack-a-Roe: Hannah married a Dutch sailor, but he ran away, so she joined the military to try to find him.
Hannah’s so famous, she has her own Wikipedia page!
Ah, actually–there have been so many notorious women who dressed as men and took on the risks of being “outed” in order to serve in the military, Wikipedia hosts a list of some of the more well-known cases (Wikipedia’s “List of wartime cross-dressers”). Some of these women chose to continue living as men after they left military service; others chose to revert to life as woman. Some were prosecuted for serving as men; some were merely reprimanded. Very few were decorated or rewarded, and in some cases, it’s not clear if the women receiving decoration were known to be women when they were decorated.
So what’s my point?
Well, for me, every message in a bottle I learn about is a step in a personal journey. The first story in this post–the message in a bottle about the woman who was prosecuted for trying to serve in the Australian military–was an eye opener. And the more stories like hers I read, the more I learned, and the more bothered I felt.
The thing about these articles that gets my goat is the skeptical and patronizing attitude they tend to adopt toward women. It may seem subtle or undetectable to you, but look closely, and it’s there.
In these articles, women are often called girls, and many end up facing prosecution for their attempts to serve. At best, they are lauded for their “gallant” service–but they’re still undermined in little ways. The women are described as “playing a part,” or “sneaking” into service, or “hiding” the truth about their sex, or “masquerading” as a soldier. In my mind–if a woman serves in fierce, bloody combat, I would not describe her as “masquerading” as anything. Such a woman is a fighter, a soldier, plain and simple.
These articles, from various sources over the course of decades, show how women have been subtly undermined for, like, ever. If these women were sneaking and hiding and playing a part and masquerading, they simply could not (and would not) be regarded with the same respect as male soldiers. Now I’ll be first to admit that none of these articles attacks the women outright, and some praise the women vocally. But they all make little jabs, use little terms and turns of phrase, to suggest that, however valiantly they may have fought for their countries, their sheer, downright, sneaky-womanly-deceptiveness somehow makes them less than their male counterparts.
Just look back at that message in a bottle. Have you ever heard of a man of legal age being prosecuted like that for trying to serve in his country’s military?
The really fascinating thing is that, despite these stories, many cultures have applauded and decorated women who served in their militaries at unexpected times. So, what gives?
Happily, things are changing all over the world for women who want to serve and fight in their militaries. Israel is one famous example of a military that welcomes women.
There are also some seriously badass women on the front lines of this issue in the United States. I recently listened to Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar on Fresh Air and it was inspiring to say the least. In her new book, Shoot Like a Girl, Hegar recounts her three tours of duty in Afghanistan, including the moment when she took action to save the lives of her fellow soldiers and sustained an injury in the effort, earning her the Purple Heart. Since then, Hegar has taken up the cause of women who want to fight.
According to NPR / Fresh Air:
In 2012, Hegar became a plaintiff in an ACLU suit against the Defense Department, arguing that excluding women from combat was unconstitutional. She says that participating in the lawsuit “wasn’t about women’s rights, it was about military effectiveness.” That same year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff lifted the ban on women serving in combat. But Hegar doesn’t count the case as closed — she says, “The lawsuit remains open as a way for us to monitor integration, especially through a changing administration, and make sure that we don’t take any steps backwards.”
She has also become a mother. She argues that the same things that make her a good soldier make her a good mother: hard work, alertness, dedication to protecting her people.
It’s hard to say what the future holds. But to know what the past holds, we only have to look back to uncover the truth.
The truth is, women have been fighting for the right to fight in this country’s military and in others for centuries. And for centuries, they have been undermined. It took America from 1776 to 2012 to tentatively, tentatively allow women to fight in the military.
I guess there are two ways to think of this. On the one hand, you could throw up your hands and say, “Look at how long that took! Isn’t America silly?” Which, of course, accomplishes nothing except a brief but vain feeling of superiority in passing judgment on the USA.
On the other hand, you could do something. You could consider all of the struggles of women in America over the years, and you could support the women fighting for fair treatment under the law in all kinds of ways today. These struggles have been slow and painful for many. But as long as there are amazing women like Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar out there, insisting on equality–as long as there are women like those in the stories above, like the woman in the message in a bottle, willing to risk everything to insist on having the same opportunities as men–we will move forward, however slowly. Equality will prevail.
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