The transgender men and cross-dressing women at war

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:14 pm on 24 April 2019

Soldiers who were assigned female at birth and passed as men in order to go to war is often an invisible history.

Their motivations and stories are varied, from women who dressed in drag to join the military to people who in today’s language may have identified as transgender.

A portrait of Hannah Snell, circa 1750

A portrait of Hannah Snell, circa 1750 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Research fellow at the University of Sydney Olivia Murphy is interested in 18th and 19th Century literature and culture - when stories like these are common.

“One of the things that’s really interesting about these people is that they make us realise how narrow and restrictive our ideas about sex and gender might be,” she says.

Researchers have recently discovered that the bones of 18th Century Polish-American nobleman, soldier and military commander Casimir Pulaski, are actually much smaller than what a cisgender man’s bones would be. They’ve come to the conclusion that Pulaski may have been intersex, with non-binary characteristics, but Murphy thinks that trying to find answers in genetics overlooks a whole group of people.

“They believe Pulaski couldn’t possibly have known this, that Pulaski must have assumed that he was a man, that he looked enough like a man that he would never have questioned his sex or his gender.”

Murphy says this is entirely possible, and that obviously intersex people have existed throughout history, however there were a number of people assigned female at birth that wanted to go off and join the war.

“I think there’s just a strong of a possibility that Pulaski did know that he was born as a woman, physically he had female characteristics but that he decided instead to live as a man. In Pulaski’s case, he went to a boys boarding school and if that’s true there would have been some sort of family collaboration.”

There was also a famous and highly successful military physician in the 19th Century, James Barry, who was assigned female at birth and who researchers believe transitioned in his late teens, thanks to help from his family.

“I tend to find in the 18th Century, instances where people are acting outside of what we now think should be gender norms, often there’s this assumption that they must be genetically different, they must be intersex in some way, they must be not quite male or not quite female.”

However not all of these people may identify as transgender in today's language, just as some may wrongly be assumed to have been intersex. Some were women who dressed in drag.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t know a lot about these [people], so sometimes we know the names that they went by, sometimes we know the names that they were christened with, but we don’t always know both of those things.”

It is assumed that Queen Christina of Sweden, who had sex with women and liked to ride horses as the men did, may have been intersex, says Murphy.

“In fact we know women do like to have sex with women, women ride horses and all kinds of things, so it’s entirely possible that we have misattributed intersex characteristics to these people and given that we can’t know, we can really make it up, which is what we do in English.”

Hannah Snell, who was a married woman that dressed as a man to join the army, participating in the violent colonisation effort of India, decided on her way back the the UK from India that she didn’t want to live as a man anymore, but as a woman.

“Technically she’d been breaking the law, cross dressing was illegal and passing yourself off as a solider was illegal, but she wasn’t prosecuted, instead she was given a pension from the King, which was a really big deal, hardly anybody managed to get demobbed with money.. and then she used to go on stage and kind of exhibit herself as a women solider.”

Snell made a career out of the experience she had.

“To say that she wanted to be a man doesn’t seem to really fit, she doesn’t necessarily seem to inhabit the category of transgender as we might think of today, but at the same time she’s obviously someone who was very interested in playing with gender."

Murphy says that as law dictated that only men could serve in the military and in the navy - women weren’t even allowed on ships until the late 1790s - people came up with ways to get around these rules.

“We have a lot of stories of women doing just that, dressing up as men, stealing their brother’s clothes or their uncle's or the neighbours off the washing line and heading out to the sea or joining the army and going off to fight.”

Murphy says some of these people were really brave, taking great risks.

“They were also greatly at risk of sexual violence, they’re surrounded by men and a common punishment for these [people] would have been to be raped or just murdered - everybody’s armed.”

There were also ballads sung in the streets in the 18th Century, particularly in the lower classes, of women dressing up as men, going to war and fighting and then returning home to be married, she says.

“They have quite heteronormative endings to these ballads but they all celebrate the same thing, they celebrate this idea of the girl going off to become a solider, to disguise herself - it’s basically the plot of Mulan - but that was a really popular series of ballads.”

It took quite a lot of gumption for these people to participate in gender rebellion, she says. It was technically illegal and the people risked social sanction as well. Murphy says though, if they could carry it off they usually got away with it.

“The ones that went sour tend to be later in the 19th Century, when people were getting much more rigid and oppressive about gender roles, starting to say things like ‘women’s brains are like this, men’s brains are like that’. In the earlier 18th Century you don’t get so much of that and it’s not quite so persuasive for people.”

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