The Case of the Disappearing Woman: Part Two

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While I was researching potential topics for this blog post, I figured I would find some interesting piece of information about war and medicine, hammer out a blog post with copious amputation details, and call it a day.

But then, the siren called. The urge to write about women always seems to be there for me (If you happen to have read my last blog post, you know what I’m talking about). I tried to tell myself that somebody else would write a post about women in history. After all, write too many high-minded rants about The Underrepresentation of Women in History, Life, the Universe, and Everything, and people will start to think you’ve got a screw loose.

But but but, said the righteous little voice in my head. If you ignore the women, you’re no better than the old windbags who write epic manifestos about battles and guns and relegate women to a stupid little paragraph.

Okay. Righteous Little Voice has a point. So, here we go:

Even amidst the cannons and generals, there are women to be found in war. The obvious ones are nurses – totally awesome ladies who turned nursing into a serious profession and contributed greatly to the war effort.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

In a time period dominated by things that seem to be entirely men’s domain, daring women made names for themselves. Quite literally, perhaps: the women I’m going to talk about for these next few paragraphs all had pseudonyms.

Historians estimate that about 400 women enlisted during the Civil War. They created new male identities for themselves. They performed all the tasks and duties of any ordinary soldier at the time.

There’s something puzzling about this: as the war progressed, men lost interest in fighting. Many deserted, and drafts were instituted. So what could possibly have motivated these women to volunteer for an unpleasant job that they were not even allowed to do in the first place?

A number of them were probably determined to fight for whatever side they were on. Men joined the army for the same reason, so it’s entirely possible that women felt the same way.

If you ask me, though, there’s another possible explanation. Even now, life as a woman is defined by an endless litany of “Have-to’s.” We’re told that we have to be pretty. We have to be nice. We have to be smart, but not too smart. Men, on the other hand, don’t live within nearly as many restrictions. The existence of a man is primarily that of privilege, a proud list of “Get-to’s.” Men get to be powerful. Men get to have high-paying jobs (Have you seen the wage gap? It’s a tiny bit horrible: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Male–female_income_disparity_in_the_United_States). Men get to express sexual desire without experiencing shame or repercussions.

Maybe that came off pretty harsh, but it is what I know to be the truth. I’m not some crazy man-hater, but I’m not blind, either.

If that’s the way things are now, they were definitely worse over a century ago. For some women, living within such narrow boundaries was simply not an option. Living as a man, and, in particular, a soldier, afforded many otherwise unavailable opportunities. Adventure, independence, escape, money – it sounds pretty appealing.

One woman in particular seems to fit into this mold. Originally Jennie Hodgers, she went by the name of Albert Cashier and survived the war. Afterwards, she maintained her identity as Albert for many years. She held various jobs, voted in elections, and collected a veteran’s pension. Without her new name and appearance, she would have lived a very different life.

This all goes to show that, even in the most unlikely situations, we can find super cool ladies who contributed to the history of the world just as much as anybody else. What I took away from this exploration is this: The study of history is important not just because we learn about important events and when they happened. None of the women who enlisted as men were responsible for important battles or strategies that altered the course of the war. To suggest that things are important just because they immediately caused other things to happen is simplistic. The real reason we study history is to gain a deeper understanding of society, and of humanity. The only way to truly accomplish that is to take a broad view of history. No analysis is particularly insightful unless it is inclusive. I hope I’ve gotten a little closer to that goal.

Sources:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Women-Who-Fought-in-the-Civil-War.html

http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/jennie-hodgers.html

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