Historians have filled books with the exploits of the men who fought in battles and, often, the women who were left behind to run things in their stead. Less often, we hear about the women who charged into battle despite laws telling them they weren’t allowed to. While some — like Hua Mulan and Joan of Arc — are common knowledge, there have been many more throughout history that get less attention. Here is a list of ten wartime cross-dressing women who made history.
The mid-1700s were a tumultuous time for England. They were battling Scotland in the Second Jacobite Uprising, a brutal fight to decide whose king would sit on the English throne.
In the middle of it was Hannah Snell. An orphan by the age of 17, Hannah was young when she married her husband, James Summs, and fell pregnant . Summs was a sailor and abandoned Hannah and their child. However, Hannah was determined to find him. She left her baby with her sister and disguised herself as a man to join the infantry regiment battling the Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart heir attempting to claim the English throne.
She was shot in the groin but removed the bullet herself so that the surgeon wouldn’t discover her deception. She recovered from the injury and served on two ships, distinguishing herself in action.
Later, she traveled to Europe and learned that her husband had died, so she returned home. Hannah received a pension from the government for her service and wrote a book about her experiences titled The Female Soldier, or the Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell.
For approximately 300 years, Brazil was a colony of Portugal. During those years, Portugal exploited Brazil economically, forced African slaves to labor there, and many natives bore the brunt of the Portuguese occupation. There was growing unrest. Brazil was on the brink of revolt.
Maria Quitéria was one of the heroes of the imminent revolution. Historians do not know much about her life. She was born in 1792 in Bahia, Brazil . When the Brazilian War of Independence broke out, she enlisted against her father’s wishes and fought in several battles in her home state. When he discovered her betrayal, her father outed her as a woman to her superiors. However, they allowed her to continue to serve because of her skill in battle.
She was promoted first to cadet, then to lieutenant, eventually becoming decorated by the Emperor himself. Now, she has achieved status as a national legend and is even sometimes called the “Brazilian Joan of Arc” for her heroics.
Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Edmonds was born in Canada in 1841 but immigrated to the United States in 1857 , just 4 short years before the start of the American Civil War. She joined the Union under an alias to fight, participating in several battles in disguise. In her memoirs, she detailed several instances of being behind enemy lines as an Irish peddler or otherwise disguised, spying for the Union.
After her horse was killed on a mission acting as a courier, she was forced to ride a mule, which she was subsequently thrown from. She suffered internal injuries that plagued her for the rest of her life. Eventually, malaria coupled with a fear of being examined by a doctor pushed her to desert the army. Years later, she published her own account of the events, titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.
Cathay Williams was the first-ever African American woman to enlist in the United States Army and the only known to ever have served posing as a man . Born into slavery, she joined the army as a way to maintain financial independence after the Civil War gave her freedom. After being hospitalized during a long march in the New Mexico heat, the post surgeon discovered she was a woman, and she was discharged from the army. A reporter subsequently interviewed her about her time in the military. The St. Louis Daily Times then published a story about her life and military exploits.
Jane Dieulafoy was a French archeologist, explorer, folklorist, novelist, playwright, and journalist . She began to dress as a man in her travels around Europe, saying that it made things easier because it was less likely that people would disrupt her work. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out the year she married her husband Marcel, she chose to don her disguise again and fight alongside him . After the war, they traveled abroad on archaeological quests, filling the Louvre with artifacts they uncovered. She fiercely championed women’s rights, specifically their right to have a greater role in the military, until her death in 1916.
During World War I, Viktoria Savs followed her father into the war under the name Viktor Savs . They served together in the Austro-Hungarian army, and she was awarded the Silver Medal for Bravery, First Class. She suffered a serious injury that led to her losing her leg and also to the discovery of her gender, resulting in the end of her service. However, she stayed on with the Red Cross for the rest of the war, where people learned of her story, and she was soon hailed as a hero.
Born in Russia to parents who would have preferred a son, Nadezhda Durova was raised in close proximity to the military . Her father was a cavalry captain, and she recalled spending a lot of time around his men as a young girl.
To escape an arranged marriage and the ensuing family problems, she ran off and joined the military under the name Alexander Sokolov. She maintained her secret for more than nine years while serving before she received a state pension and went home.
Twenty years later, she published her memoirs, The Cavalry Maiden, titled after her army nickname. She continually fought for women’s rights and overcoming the social differences between men and women until her death.
As 22-year-old queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai refused to back down when the British general-governor of India attempted to oust her from her position of power . Instead, dressed as a man, she joined a mounting uprising against the British, leading troops into battle. Mutineers flocked to her side in support of her cause. Even as her allies fell, she did not surrender. She fought fiercely until she was killed in combat, but she became a symbol of resistance for those rising against the British.
Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man during the American Revolution to serve in the Continental Army . Enlisted under the name Robert Shurtliff, she fought in many skirmishes in the Hudson Valley. During one such battle, she was shot in the shoulder. Unable to seek proper medical treatment for fear of being discovered, she left the bullet in her arm and continued on.
She served until, due to a high fever, she fell unconscious and was taken to the attending physician who discovered her secret. He revealed her identity to her superiors, and she was honorably discharged. After the war, Sampson petitioned the war for disability, due to the injury in her shoulder and was eventually successful, one of few women of the time placed on the pension list for disabled veterans. She is one of the earliest examples of a woman in the United States serving in the military.
Anna Maria Lane
There is not much information about Anna Maria Lane before the American Revolution. However, when the war broke out, her husband, John Lane, joined the Continental Army, and she decided to follow him . She dressed as a soldier and fought alongside him in the Battle of Germantown in Pennsylvania, during which she was wounded in the leg. The injury left her lame for life.
She and her husband petitioned for pension and received it; John received the typical $40 per year while Anna received $100! She was the only woman in Virginia to receive a pension and one of only three in the whole of the United States to receive one.