Women Who Lived As Men
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
This quote by Virginia Woolfe, often misquoted as “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” is one that sticks in my mind.
History is full of interesting women, but their stories are seldom told. Take, for example, the collection of particularly interesting, utterly non-fictional and really quite common (but rarely reported) stories of women who lived as men. As an example, it’s said that Jeanne d’Arc wore men’s clothing and there is even a story of a woman who became Pope Joan (though many people now believe the story to be fictitious).
Women have successfully lived as men in various professions including soldiers, politicians, pirates, journalists and musicians. Some of these women’s stories are a relatively simple case of using a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously as a scholar, writer or some form of professional; some of the stories show women living as men in action and deed, not solely through the means of a name in print.
Women Writers Publishing As Men
Probably the most well-known example of women who pretended to be men is that of the woman writer – and there are many such instances. For example, George Eliot – the famous author – was really Mary Ann Evans and she choose to use a man’s pen name so her work would be taken seriously. The Bronte Sisters originally published their poems and novels under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
The Bronte Sisters
While doing some research on women who lived as men, be it for short periods or for most of their life, I found a lot of interesting stories I wanted to share. Here are just some of them:
Brita Hagberg – Soldier
Brita Hagberg is one of two confirmed women to have been decorated for bravery in battle in Sweden before women were allowed into the military in the 20th century. When a surgeon discovered her to be a woman, she was discharged with a full military pension, and was also honoured with a full military funeral when she died in 1825.
Pope Joan – Maybe-Pope?
Pope Joan is believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church for a short time in the mid-800s. Her existence has been dismissed by the church and modern scholars as a myth. This myth might be behind the alleged tradition throughout the medieval period where Popes were required to sit on a special chair with a hole in the seat. A cardinal would have the task of putting his hand up the hole to check whether the pope had testicles, or by doing a visual examination. This procedure has been dismissed by most historians but it makes for an interesting story.
Nadezhda Durova – Soldier
There are stories of women who pretended to men so they could go off to war and fight alongside the men during the way. Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866) was a woman who, while disguised as a man, became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read – Pirates
Along with Mary Read, Anne Bonny was an 18th century pirate who lived on the high seas as a man. Anne and Mary were loyal friends who kept each other’s identity secret but once they became pregnant there was no more hiding the fact they were cis women.
This last story is of interest for me not only because this woman pretended to be a man, putting herself in the most dangerous place at the time, but also because of her treatment once she was found to be a woman and how she was silenced.
Dorothy Lawrence – Reporter
Dorothy Lawrence (1896– 1964) was a reporter who posed as a man to join the army and report on the first world war:
“I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish”
She travelled to France to volunteer as a nurse but was rejected and in a ballsy move she entered the war zone as a freelance war journalist but was arrested by the French Police. After sleeping rough that night, she realised the only way for her to get what she wanted was to masquerade as a man.
Dorothy talked a couple of soldiers into getting her a uniform and began the transformation to become Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment. Some padding was required and she darkened her skin with a disinfectant made from potassium permanganate, razored the pale skin of her cheeks in the hope of giving herself a shaving rash, and gave herself a shoe polish tan. Finally she asked her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march.
She headed straight for the front lines. The toll of being in the trenches and hiding her true identity made Dorothy ill. After ten days she presented herself as Dorothy to the Sergeant, who immediately arrested her and she became a prisoner of war.
She was interrogated, with her questioners operating on the assumptiont that she was a sex worker rather than a reporter. The army were embarrassed that a woman had breached the ranks and were concerned more women would do the same. Dorothy was ordered to remain in France as it was feared she would spread intelligence. She was sworn to not reveal her experiences with the army or she would be jailed.
Once back in London she tried to write an article for The Wide World Magazine a London-based monthly magazin,e but she was denied on the instructions of the War Office, which invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to silence her.
“In making that promise I sacrificed the chance of earning by newspaper articles written on this escapade, as a girl compelled to earn her livelihood.”
Things got worse for Dorothy; she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. It’s a sad end to a brave tale.
Dorothy’s story later became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war.
From assuming pen names or donning men’s clothes for safety while travelling right through to living a life as another gender, women have consistently refused to let gender and society dictate how a life may be live. These fascinating and brave women have stories to tell, and we will work together to share those tales on their behalf.