It seems like every year there is an article highlighting some battle that ends up, instead, focusing on women who dress as male soldiers. As a woman, and a reenactor, I cringe every time this subject comes up. Partly because the topic inevitably brings out the fringe “he-man woman haters” among reenactors & frankly, I would rather they stay under whatever rock they live under the rest of the year. But I also cringe because I too disagree with women portraying men at reenactments.
Hear me out before you go lumping me in with the previously mentioned neanderthals though. My reasons might surprise you.
Reasons why women should NOT portray men at historical reenactments.
1. The number of women who actually dressed & passed as soldiers or sailors historically was so minuscule that portraying a man at a reenactment distorts historic numbers.
Most of the time our events will never even come close to the actual number of people present historically. Why skew the public’s perception of history even further by having significantly more women dressed as men than are actually documentable? Look at it this way, it’s estimated that 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight during the American civil war, along with 2.75 million actual men. Mathematically that means .014% of the soldiers were likely women. One reenacting woman wearing a men’s sock is as close to those percents as we can get at a modern event!
Too often we assume that all women did historically was cook, clean & raise children. While that was a large portion of their job, they weren’t limited to just those tasks. To paraphrase my friend F, “if it weren’t for the women, the world would have stopped”. If all the men are are off at war or at sea, who is making sure everything else gets done? Tending the crops, milking the cows & making sure there is food to send to the front? Working in the factory producing all that ammunition, building those airplanes and rolling those bandages ? Who is shearing the sheep, weaving the fabric, dyeing the cloth & sewing the uniforms? There is almost no job that can’t be done while also portraying a woman. Show the public (and those nay-saying male reenactors) the breadth of women’s contribution to history by doing those vital jobs.
3. Men’s clothes are kind of boring.
Seriously. Especially military uniforms. Oh they are pretty enough with their gold braid & ribbons & funny hats. But they are all the same. No variety, no uniqueness. One man looks just the same as every other man out there. Which works just fine in the military sense, but why dress like everyone else when you can express yourself with all the historical variety offered to women? Shorter skirt or long & flowing, bright mis-matched patterns or somber colors, silly flower covered bonnet or flat straw hat that blocks the sun? Not only do women get the most choice, we have the option of changing what we wear each day. That means when it’s 90 degrees and the men are out there sweating in their matching wool uniforms, we can choose a sheer, light colored gown. When it’s freezing, we can add as many layers as we want while they are still stuck in that same (smelly) uniform.
4. Good female reenactors are needed!
As anyone who has ever attended a big event knows, there is no shortage of eager men willing to grab a gun & play soldier for the weekend. But a genuinely well researched, well thought out female impression is a rarity. Women are needed at events. Not just for the historical accuracy, not just to share the lives of women who would be forgotten by history books otherwise, but for the women in the audience who love history but are intimidated. They need to see that it’s not just the men having fun, that there is a place for women in reenacting too. They want to ask us questions the men can’t answer, to see that historic women dealt with some of the same struggles they do and to see themselves as valuable to history as well.
So you see, there are some very good reasons that women should not be portraying men at historical reenactments. We female historical reenactors, owe it to ourselves, to history and to the public to represent women.
Let the men be the soldiers, we ladies have more fun anyway!
“It is fatal to be a man or woman pure & simple: One must be a woman manly or a man womanly”. Virginia Woolf. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2016. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/v/virginiawo132195.html.
Wheatley, Frances. The Encampment at Brighton. 1788. Brighton and Hove Museums & Art Galleries, United Kingdom.