Dressing The Part: Women Who Have Posed As Men

During the most recent Democratic primary, I found myself wondering how things might have turned out differently if Hillary Clinton had spent less time with the glass ceiling and more time campaigning for President. For that matter, would Sarah Palin have been chosen as John McCain’s ticket mate if she had not been female? Even today, women carry the heavy burden of constantly needing to assert themselves in the workplace while still maintaining their femininity. Though I love being a woman, and probably wouldn’t give it up if I had the choice, I have always been curious if my life would be different if my shirts buttoned on the other side and I wrote under a male name. Would I find more opportunities opening up for me? What kind of different challenges would I face as a man?

I’m not the only woman to have such fantasies, or to feel at times that the social pressures placed on women are just not worth the effort. Inspired by the story of Deborah Sampson, who posed as a man to join the army during the American Revolution, I went searching for other women who decided to make a go of it as men, and why.

Hannah Snell
At loose ends after the death of her daughter in 1747 and the subsequent desertion by her husband of three years, Hannah Snell borrowed a suit from her brother-in-law, James Gray, and assumed his name. She moved to Portsmouth and joined the Royal Marines, sailing to Lisbon and then India aboard the ship Swallow. Throughout her career as a soldier, Snell was wounded eleven times in her legs and once in her groin. She either managed to treat her groin wound without revealing her sex or she may have used the services of a sympathetic Indian nurse.

In 1750, when Snell returned to London, she revealed her sex. Rather than be vilified, she was honorably discharged and granted a pension, which was rare even for male soldiers at that time. Showing an entrepreneurial spirit, Snell sold her story to London publisher Robert Walker who published her account, The Female Soldier, in two different editions. She also began to appear on stage in her uniform presenting military drills and singing songs. Snell even started a pub in Wapping, England, called the Female Warrior, but it did not last long. Upon her death in 1792, she had married twice and had two children.

George Sand
George Sand is the pseudonym of Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin. Sand was a French novelist in the early 19th century who challenged conventional distinctions of male and female, fact and fiction, and public and private, in both her work and her life (which she saw as one and the same). At nineteen, Sand married Baron Casimir Dudevant and had two children with him. Bored with her marriage, however, Sand left Dudevant in early 1831 claiming “romantic rebellion,” and was legally separated from him in 1835. This rebellion included such daring acts as smoking in public and carrying on a string of love affairs. Most scandalous was Sand’s habit of wearing men’s clothing in public. She was called every name in the book, from nymphomaniac to lesbian to slut (by Baudelaire), but Sand argued that men’s clothes were more comfortable and less expensive than dresses, and enabled her to circulate more freely in Paris than most women could.

Dorothy Lawrence
Dorothy Lawrence was an English reporter who posed as a man to become a soldier during WWI. When the war began in 1914, Lawrence was nineteen and living in Paris. She wanted to be a war reporter, but was unable to get a post on the front lines because she was a woman. Lawrence met two English soldiers in a café who helped her smuggle a uniform into her apartment. She bound her chest, cut her hair, padded her back with sacking and cotton, and learned to drill and march. She even dyed her skin with furniture polish to make her look like she’d been working out in the sun. Lawrence arrived at the Somme on a bicycle with forged identity papers as Private Denis Smith of the First Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment.

The stress of her position, and of having to hide her identity, proved too much for Lawrence. After serving for only ten days, she confessed to her commanding sergeant, who promptly placed her under military arrest. Lawrence was declared a prisoner of war and charged with being a spy. The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security and was fearful of more women taking on male roles during the war if her story got out. She was released to London only after signing an affidavit that she would not write about her experiences. Her story is now part of an exhibition on women at war in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Billy Lee Tipton
It wasn’t until her death in 1989 that Billy Lee Tipton, the notable jazz pianist and saxophonist of the 1930s, was discovered to be Dorothy Lucille Tipton. When she was in high school in Kansas City, Missouri, Tipton wanted to join the band but learned that girls were not allowed. She began dressing as a man in 1933 in order to play in jazz bands around Oklahoma, where she moved for her senior year of high school. When her career began to take off, Tipton assumed her father’s nickname, Billy, and began binding her breasts and “packing” — padding the front of her pants to give the appearance of male genitalia. Throughout her life, Tipton had relationships with women. She lived with one woman, Betty Cox, for seven years. According to Betty, Tipton guarded her biological sex with the story that he had been in a serious car accident which required her to bind her chest to protect broken ribs, and which had badly damaged her (male) genitals. In 1989, at the age of seventy-four, she suffered a hemorrhaging ulcer. While paramedics were trying to save her life, Tipton’s adopted son (with wife Kitty Oakes), William, learned for the first time that his father was biologically female.

Though there are undoubtedly transgender and transsexual males who choose life as a man for its own sake, these women all disguised themselves because they could not achieve their goals as women. They sacrificed their gender identities in pursuit of higher priorities. Since reading their stories, every time I hear about women facing discrimination at the workplace or breaking that glass ceiling, I appreciate how good we really have it compared to these great (wo)men.

By Molly Mann. Want to read more articles like this one? Visit DivineCaroline.com.