The Twelfth Night Factor

The Twelfth Night Factor

By Bella Kiser


Ever heard of the Disney movie Mulan? A movie in which, a brave young woman pretends to be a man in order to take her fathers place in the ongoing war. Or maybe the Amanda Bynes movie She’s the Man, a teenage girl dresses up as her brother in order to play soccer, her devotion is undeniable. But even She’s the Man is a popular spin off of the Shakespearean play Twelfth Night, where a young Viola, looking for work, decides to dress as the opposite sex to work where she wants to. I know you’re thinking that this whole idea, of women dressing as men is “out there,” but I implore you to reconsider because when you really think about it the whole “women dressing up as men in order to do what they want” is not as far fetched as it appears to be. It was actually very popularly used during the American Civil War. This tactic, of pretending to be a man, helped women to join the cause. It was not uncommon for women both in the North and the South – they fought on whichever side they believed in standing up for. Hundreds of women essentially “pulled a Mulan” in order to fight in the Civil War alongside the hundreds of thousands of men. (

Now, I know you must be asking yourself: these women didn’t just dress as men to fight in a war for fun, right? Of course not! Well at least not all of the women did it for thrill and adventure, but I mean everyone needs to spice up their lives once in a while.  Yet, these women were cunning, they knew that this opportunity could benefit them in more than one-way. A popular theme amongst the women fighting was the economic benefits that they could potentially gain from posing as a male soldier. You see soldiers, who were supposed to be male, gained about $13 dollars a month as salary. ( This, what we now consider, mere $13 a month was nearly double what a woman could make doing any profession during this time period.

How did they do it you ask? Well, you see, the official draft cut off of the union was 18 years of age, yet a lot of young men lied about their age and the confederacy never established an age limit. So these boys’ voices still hadn’t changed, they had smooth faces and skin and they weren’t as broad as other men. And women could typically pass for these type of “men.” Yet, in most cases women in disguise just weren’t seen as “any less manly.” Not to mention, the qualifications to enlist in the army were not very extensive,  “If you had enough teeth in your head and could hold a musket, you were fine.” ( The women bound their breasts, if need be, layered on loose clothing, rubbed dirt on their faces, cut their hair short and kept to themselves. (

A Union soldier by day and a mother of three by night. This outstanding union cavalryman, Jack Williams, “fought in 18 battles and was wounded three times and taken prisoner once. He was later revealed to be Frances Clalin a mother-of-three from Illinois” ( Frances enlisted in the union army in 1861 alongside her husband, Elmer. They fought together through the perilous battles of the Civil War, until December 31, 1862 at the battle of Stones River, something tragic happened. Elmer was killed only feet away from Frances, and even then she was not found out. Instead of breaking down as fragile women are supposed to in times of sorrow (sarcasm), she did not stop fighting…”but stepped over his body and charged forward when the order to advance was given.” (

She tried hard to hide her true identity by becoming one of the soldiers, she would smoke, gamble and chew tobacco. Frances was seen by her peers as a model soldier, but eventually she was found out and multiple accounts suggest she was wounded and that caused her to reveal her true gender to her fellow soldiers.

There are hundreds of accounts of women dressing as men to fight in the Civil War and each of them has its own twist. For just a slight moment in time, women were men’s equals. These women, proved that during this time period the female gender was not inferior to the male gender. They proved that women can be just as tough as men and perhaps even a little bit tougher.

(It won’t let me post pictures so links to them are below)

Jack Williams

Frances Clalin


Works Cited  (pictures can also be found here!)


6 thoughts on “The Twelfth Night Factor

  1. I really, really liked this post! I don’t have so many words after this, because you did such a great job covering it. But, this is something I have ALWAYS thought about, especially when I was old enough to actually watch Mulan as a movie rather than “omg, Disneyyy”. It was so strange to me how as a “man”, Mulan was respected and had a voice and say but as soon as she was found out she was suddenly shunned. Even though she repeatedly proved herself to be more militarily capable than many of the other men there. The same thing has happened in history so many times over, and when I read narratives or novels from that perspective the women always marvel at how differently and openly they’re being treated. It’s a funny thing. And, what I would most like to know is WHERE this all stemmed from? The idea that, okay, as a “guy” you can “technically” pick up a heavier box than me, so that somehow makes you more important? I like to think that many strong women had a place and honor in where their countries are militarily ^.^ I can’t stress how much I love this post!

  2. Bellaaaaa. This post was interesting in an academic and personal way. Obviously there are many untold stories in history, and those of women are especially intriguing to me. Even though time has done a shotty job of healing these sexist wounds, hopefully stories like these ignite the passion of those working towards equality without sacrifice. The connection to Mulan was brilliant, and this post was written really well.
    Probably the most interesting facet of this continual struggle for any demographic discriminated against is the different forms in which the struggle is manifested.
    These examples involve war, but women’s struggles have adapted and now include media, politics, and workplace discrimination. This post makes me want to find more examples of strong women opposing these unfair distinctions made based on gender.
    Thanks Bella!

  3. Bella, this was a really great post. While studying US History, the roles of gender are constantly brought up. It’s awful that the women who wanted to fight for their country, or even just wanted to make a decent amount of money, had to pretend to be someone else. But at the same time, its great that they overcame the gender boundaries and fought against them. It shows that women can do things just as well as men can and gender shouldn’t play such a large role in things like this. Gender equality has definitely improved from then to today, however, there are still a lot of cases like this out there and they shouldn’t go unheard of. I really enjoyed reading your post, it was grand.

  4. Bella, this is an incredible post by an incredible author. So far, through our APUSH careers, we haven’t really talked about women or how they were involved in many conflicts. Another topic rarely touched upon is the impact that certain events had on women at the time. Additionally, I was wondering about the casualty rate of men vs. women in combat. Do you have any stats on those figures? If you do, I would love to see them.

  5. Frances’ story was fascinating! The subject of women taking on a man’s role should be more talked about. It would be a hard thing to do, to risk so much and go into a world and take on a personality completely different from the original.Your reference to the Twelfth Night reminds me of another Shakespeare story,

    • Frances’ story was fascinating! The subject of women taking on a man’s role should be more talked about. It would be a hard thing to do, to risk so much and go into a world and take on a personality completely different from the original.Your reference to the Twelfth Night reminds me of another Shakespeare story. In The Merchant Of Venice, a woman dresses like a young law clerk, and goes to help her husbands friend to win a trial. She outsmarts all the men.
      Many cases of women acting as men must have occurred, but we haven’t heard of many. They are really captivating!

      Sorry I didn’t mean to post the unfinished one.

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