Sunday, May 14, 2006

Women in disguise

Women in Martial Art History in disguise

One of my favorite Disney animated films is “Mulan” film is based on a Chinese poem called “The Ballad of Mulan”. You can find the full poem here: which was written in 5 A.D. It is the story of a young girl who finds out that her father has been called to go to war, and she takes his place disguized as his eldest son. This poem ends with the words “Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?" “

That is the basis of why so many women successfully entered the armies of war, and fought side by side with men as soldiers, and were not discovered until they were injured: The fact that when someone is aiming to strike you with a weapon, you really do not worry about whether it’s a girl, or a boy under the soldier’s clothing.

Most recently in history we see an very big example of close to 500 known women being discovered as participating the American Civil war. These numbers are of known women who managed to belong to the armies, far more are assumed to have fought in that war.

A very interesting website is dedicated to that history. I’ll include some quotes here, but I encourage anyone interested to visit the website, because it has pictures of the women, of a deposition of one of the soldiers who fought beside a lady without ever becoming aware of her gender, and of one of the discharge papers for "sexual incompatibility".

“Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men, and hid the fact they were female. ...

It is perhaps hard to imagine how the women soldiers maintained their necessary deception or even how they successfully managed to enlist. It was probably very easy. In assuming the male disguise, women soldiers picked male names. Army recruiters, both Northern and Southern, did not ask for proof of identity. Soldier-women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short. Loreta Velazquez wore a false mustache, developed a masculine gait, learned to smoke cigars, and padded her uniform coat to make herself look more muscular.

Once in the ranks, successful soldier-women probably learned to act and talk like men. With their uniforms loose and ill-fitting and with so many underage boys in the ranks, women, especially due to their lack of facial hair, could pass as young men. Also, Victorian men, by and large, were modest by today's standards. Soldiers slept in their clothes, bathed in their underwear, and went as long as six weeks without changing their underclothes. Many refused to use the odorous and disgusting long, open-trenched latrines of camp. Thus, a woman soldier would not call undue attention to herself if she acted modestly, trekked to the woods to answer the call of nature and attend to other personal matters, or left camp before dawn to privately bathe in a nearby stream.

The women soldiers of the Civil War engaged in combat, were wounded and taken prisoner, and were killed in action. They went to war strictly by choice, knowing the risks involved. Their reasons for doing so varied greatly. Some, like Budwin and Hook, wished to be by the sides of their loved ones. Perhaps others viewed war as excitement and travel. Working class and poor women were probably enticed by the bounties and the promise of a regular paycheck. And of course, patriotism was a primary motive. Sarah Edmonds wrote in 1865, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep." Obviously, other soldier-women did not wish to stay at home weeping, either. “

I personally believe that women disguising themselves as men, and joining into battle happened very frequently for a variety of reasons throughout history. This was far greater an act of risk since revelation of their gender could cause very serious repercussions on them.

My next exploration will be of women who fought openly as Women Warriors, and developed a name for themselves on the battle field.


[Mat] said...

Good post.

keep it up.

supergroup7 said...

Will do! :-)

Oniyagi said...

What an awesome post. I am a civil war and history buff, and I didn't even know that. Thanks giving me new information!