Why you should care
Because we forget the power of masquerade.
The young man shocked his fellow marines when, sitting at a London pub, he declared he would cast off his skin “like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was and my real name is Hannah Snell.”
The centuries-long battle for gender equality, a battle fought by women in combat, has been marked by gain, loss and contradiction. Snell, Britain’s first female marine, is a prime example of just how jagged that road can be. When Hannah’s first husband, James Summs, went missing in the mid-1700s, she decided the best way to search for her criminally inclined, philandering spouse was to pass herself off as a man, which would afford her a freedom of movement she couldn’t get while donning a skirt. She took her brother-in-law’s identity — and some of his clothes — and became James Gray.
And if she had to toil, why not get paid a fair wage for her efforts and enjoy the benefits?
Abandoned while heavily pregnant — the baby died months later — Snell took charge of her destiny, setting off after Summs and later managing to control her narrative even after it became a matter of public record. Dr. Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, believes Snell was a “feminist precursor” ahead of her time. Breasts bound and disguised as a man, she traveled to Coventry and signed up for the 6th Regiment of Foot. She trained with them for a time but cut her army career short after suffering 500 lashes for warning a girl about an impending rape planned by a company sergeant.
Undeterred, Snell set off for Portsmouth, where she joined Frazer’s Regiment of Marines, a job that would have required her to be “pretty muscular,” Wheelwright asserts. But women’s work in 1700s England was rigorous and therefore good physical training. And if she had to toil, why not get paid a fair wage for her efforts and enjoy the benefits of “earning a man’s income?” Wheelwright asks. The troops eventually made their way to Pondicherry, India, where Snell fought valiantly for her country. She killed French soldiers and was wounded in the legs and groin, yet somehow kept her gender a secret. And not until her journey home did she meet a man who informed Snell that her wayward husband had been executed for murder.
Back in England, she decided to reveal her true identity and — with the encouragement of her fellow marines — petitioned for and received a military pension from the Duke of Cumberland, as well as an honorable discharge. “Hannah was famous in the age of masquerade — a period when disguise and transgression were a form of entertainment,” Matthew Stephens, author of Hannah Snell: The Secret Life of a Female Marine, 1723–1792, tells OZY. As news of her exploits spread, she cashed in on her fame with what Stephens calls a serialized “potboiler” titled The Female Soldier. She also appeared on stage, performing songs and military drills alongside other actors to celebrate Britain’s military successes.
Ever since she came clean in 1750, Snell’s story has been a source of inspiration and curiosity. “We know that the famous cross-dressing French diplomat Chevalier D’Eon had a copy of Hannah’s biography in his personal library,” Stephens says. An article appearing in a London newspaper in 1783 even asserted that General George Washington was “discovered to be of the female sex,” and cited Snell as another woman who had successfully served in a military post. Poetic license has clearly been around a long time.
But the role of women in combat remains controversial. Lorry Fenner, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and historian who co-authored Women in Combat: Civic Duty or Military Liability?, believes a military, whether at war or during peace, benefits significantly when it is diverse and “reflects the nation and its (democratic) values.” Before physical exams took hold in the 20th century, “women, people of color passing as white, men who were too young or too old all ‘passed’” if it was martially expedient, Fenner explains. When the fecal matter — or shrapnel — hit the proverbial fan, the gender of the armed person watching your back didn’t really matter.
“If she can shoot straight, why not?” asks Fenner.
* Correction: Author Matthew Stephens name was misspelled as Stevens.