With Disney’s new live-action Mulan eagerly anticipated for post-lockdown cinemas, audiences will again get to marvel at the 4th century village girl who passed herself off as male when all Chinese families had to provide at least one man for their army.
There are many such stories in history, of women disguising themselves to join their compatriots in battle or to be close to their fighting husbands. Some were found out, and some were honoured nonetheless; others continued to dress as men as they returned to civilian life.
By the Second World War, these anomalies were becoming less common, as physical checks became more comprehensive and restrictions on women serving in the Armed Forces were mostly removed.
Here we celebrate a few of the fearless women warriors from across the centuries:
1. Epipole of Carystus
Possibly the first account of cross-dressing to join the military is Epipole, daughter of Trachion. Disguised as a man, she joined the Greeks in their fight against Troy.
Her end was not a happy one though – she was betrayed by her compatriot Palamedes and was stoned to death.
2. Oronata Rondiani (1403-1452)
Working as a painter in Italy, Rondiana bucked the trend on what a woman was or could be.
When she was 20, she killed a man while defending her honour from unwanted advances. She then donned male attire to join a mercenary army – a cut-throat, shambolic outfit that wouldn’t ask too many questions.
She pursued a military career, unmolested, for nearly 30 years, until she died in battle defending her town.
3. Saint Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431)
Joan of Arc has been the subject of some 20 films, ranging from the quasi-historical to the truly bizarre. Many focus on the horrors of Saint Joan’s martyrdom, effectively belittling her life, achievements and legacy.
Suffice it to say, Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing added to a pattern of behaviour and of unorthodox, heretical beliefs which would be used against her at her trial.
Joan’s cross-dressing has left an impression across the centuries. The Japanese writer Mishima reportedly got so excited, confused and repulsed at the age of four, by images of Joan’s cross-dressing, that he blamed it for his sexual confusion in adult life. Writing under a pseudonym, Mark Twain considered her martyrdom only second to Christ’s Crucifixion, in terms of its horror, pain and transcendent grace.
4. Hannah Snell (1723-1792)
Born in Worcester, Hannah Snell had an uneventful young-girl’s upbringing. Married at 21, she gave birth to a daughter two years later but the child died soon afterwards.
Deserted, Snell assumed the identity of her brother-in-law James Gray – borrowing a suit from him – to search for her husband. She discovered that he had been executed for murder.
Snell joined the Duke of Cumberland’s army against Bonnie Prince Charlie but deserted when her sergeant gave her 500 lashes. Moving on to the Royal Marines, she twice saw battle, sustaining groin injuries which must have revealed her gender, at least to whoever removed the bullet.
In 1750, when the unit returned to England, she told the truth to her shipmates. She sold her story to the papers and was granted a military pension.
Snell eventually opened a pub in Wapping called The Female Warrior, before remarrying and having two children.
5. Brita Nilsdotter (1756-1825)
Born in Finnerödja, Sweden, Brita married soldier Anders Peter Hagberg. Anders was called to serve in the Russo-Swedish War in 1788. Hearing nothing from him, Brita disguised herself as a man and joined the army.
She participated in at least two battles, at Svensksund and Vyborg Bay. Reunited with Anders, the two kept her secret until she unwillingly had to receive medical aid when wounded.
Unusually, despite her sex being revealed, she received a pension and medal for bravery. Her story captured the heart of the entire country and, uniquely, she was given a military burial.
6. Chevalier D’Éon (1728-1810)
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont – yes, that’s her genuine name – lived the first half of her life as a man.
She is the only case here where, owing to the details of a will requiring a male heir, a young girl had to assume a male personage.
D’Éon served as a spy under Louis XV of France and fought as a dragoon captain in the Seven Years’ War. Wounded, in poor health and living in exile in London, she was offered a pardon, but only if she lived as a woman, a condition she gladly accepted.
7. Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)
Sampson is the first known example of cross-dressing in American military history.
An initial attempt to enlist in the American Revolutionary force ended quickly when she was recognised. A second try, under the name of Robert Shirtliff, saw 18 months of successful service.
To avoid being discovered after an injury, she removed a musket ball herself from her leg using a pen-knife and sewing needle.
8. Joanna Żubr (1770–1852)
Żubr was another brave woman, following her husband into the Napoleonic wars.
Originally a camp follower, she took part in the Galician campaign, receiving the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award for bravery.
9. Jeanne Louise Antonini (1771-1861)
Jeanne Louise Antonini was born in Corsica, probably making an obsession with Napoleon inevitable.
Orphaned at 10, Jeanne became a camp follower, swayed like many by the romanticism of it all. She joined a frigate’s crew posing as a boy and went on to fight for the French during the Napoleonic Wars.
Wounded nine times, she nevertheless managed to protect her true identity.
10. Sarah Edmonds (1841–1898)
Canadian-born Edmonds fled to the USA, disguised as a man, to escape an arranged marriage.
During the Civil War, she served in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry as Franklin Flint Thompson. A fearless soldier, she abandoned the military after an injury, treatment of which would have revealed all.
Rather than risk execution for desertion, she abandoned her male guise to serve as a nurse in Washington D.C.
11. Malinda Blalock (1839-1901)
Blalock, disguised as her husband’s older brother Samuel ‘Sammy’ Blalock, joined the Confederate States of America’s 26th North Carolina Regiment on 20 March 1862. The date is recorded on her registration and discharge papers, among the few surviving records of a female soldier from North Carolina.
Blalock fought in three battles alongside her husband before they deserted and lived the rest of their lives as farmers.
12. Francis Clayton (c.1830-c.1863)
The original ‘bad ass’, Clayton drank, smoked and cussed. With her powerful physique, she easily passed for a man but little else is known of her.
Signing-up to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War, she fought in 18 battles and allegedly stepped-over her husband’s body at the Battle of Stones River to carry on the charge.
13. Jennie Irene Hodges (1843-1915)
Hodges disguised herself as Albert Cashier and enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The regiment fought in over 40 battles, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. She was never questioned, just seen as small and to prefer her own company to that of other soldiers.
Even during a period of capture and subsequent escape, her secret was kept. After the war, she continued to live quietly as Albert.
In 1910 a benevolent doctor decided to keep her secret when she was badly injured by a car, and then when she was moved to a soldiers’ retirement home. Her secret was finally discovered during a routine bath. She was forced into women’s clothing for her final years, having avoided them for decades.
14. Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916)
Jeanne Henriette Magre married Marcel Dieulafoy in May 1870, at the age of 19. When the Franco-Prussian War began soon after, Marcel volunteered. Jane accompanied him, fighting by his side.
After the war, the Dieulafoys travelled to Egypt, Morocco and Persia for archaeological and exploration work and Jane continued to dress as a man, happily married to Marcel until the end of her life.
15. Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964)
Lawrence was a journalist who donned men’s clothing to become a war reporter on the front line in World War One. She put on a uniform, had a short haircut and even bronzed her skin with shoe polish to become Private Denis Smith of the 1st Batallion Leicestershire Regiment.
Cycling to the front line of the Somme, she undertook extremely hazardous sapper’s work, laying mines. She only revealed her true sex when she felt it compromised the safety of the rest of the platoon.
Her memoirs were censored and she died in an asylum in 1964, another victim of the Great War.