January 20, 2012

Is it possible for women to do “a man’s work” while maintaining her femininity?

Deborah Sampson lived in Massachusetts from 1760 to 1827.  She was the oldest of six children in a poor family. They were forced into service as indentured servants when they believed their father was drowned on his way to England.  Deborah worked for several families until she turned 18 and was released from servitude, at which point she became a teacher.

In a time when women were not accepted in combat – when women were typically thought to be incapable of doing the same work as men - she wanted to do her part in the Revolutionary War.  At the age of 21, unable to serve as herself, she dressed as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army, using the name of her deceased brother.

During the course of battle she was hit by two musket balls in her leg, and received a serious cut on her forehead.  Wanting to protect her true identity she asked her fellow soldiers to leave her to die on the field.  Unwilling to leave their comrade, they carried her off the field and brought her to a hospital for treatment.  There, she allowed doctors to stitch the wound on her forehead, but left before they could remove her trousers to deal with the musket balls in her thigh.  Deborah was able to dislodge one herself and sewed herself up with her own needle, leaving the other musket ball in her leg as it was too deep for her to reach.  Deborah Sampson was the first woman to take a bullet for her nation.

Her life continued to be difficult, even after the war was over.  She eventually married and had three children of her own as well as adopting an orphaned girl.  They were poor, struggling to make ends meet as farmers.  Deborah’s secret was revealed at the end of the war, and to help provide for her family she would give speeches about her experiences during the war. When even that wasn’t enough, she would sometimes borrow money from friends like Paul Revere.

Throughout her life, she petitioned the government for wages withheld from her because of her sex, and then later to receive the same pension other veterans received.  She eventually succeeded – after many years - with the help of letters of support from Paul Revere, and a character endorsement from John Hancock.
Deborah’s work to bring about equal recognition for the work of all veterans regardless of gender has been memorialized in her home town of Sharon, Massachusetts with a street and a field named in her honour, a statue, and Deborah Sampson House.

The reason I wanted to share her story with you is because of the letter written to verify her service in the war:
“[she] exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex, unsuspected and unblemished.

We know that women are capable of heroism and bravery.  There are stories of women throughout the ages who pretended to be men so they could fulfill their dreams to be doctors, scholars, explorers.  Think of the work of the brave (and sometimes foolhardy) women who fought for women to have the right to vote, to earn an equitable wage for the work they did.  Consider the women among us who sacrifice daily to provide for their loved ones.

What struck me about Deborah’s story is that she didn’t forsake feminine virtue in order to get on in – what was then – a man’s world.  It seems to me that today, when women have the opportunities and means that Deborah Sampson could only dream about, we have neglected the very thing she held on to as being innate to who she was, despite the men’s clothing.



Details taken from the Wikipedia article about Deborah Sampson, and the Meryl Streep interview in the Jan 2012 issue of Vogue magazine.

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What is a woman? What does it mean to be feminine? There is softness and hardness, compassion and ferocity. There is contentment and adventure, freedom and service. We're conundrums, especially to ourselves, but we all, in some way, possess beauty, creativity, intuition and love. We were made for love, and we are loved, cellulite and all. Here we aim to show every woman the richness and beauty of her own femininity and explore current issues relating to women in our world. We also wish to share our own experiences - exploring the joys and challenges of stay-at-home moms and single professionals and everyone in between. Welcome! So glad you're here!

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