he controversy over whether women should serve in combat is nothing new in the United States—in fact, for over two hundred and fifty years women’s inability to bear arms in defense of their nation has been used by political leaders as a reason to deny them the benefits of full citizenship. Linda Kerber has traced the long tradition linking military service to the idea of citizenship from the Spartan ideal of the warrior-citizen through the work of Machiavelli. She has highlighted the importance American revolutionaries of the eighteenth century paid to the political theories of eighteenth-century English writer James Burgh, who described the “possession of arms [as] the distinction between a freeman and a slave.” As Kerber writes, in the early American republic, the “connection between the republic and male patriots—who could enlist—was immediate. The connection between the republic and women—however patriotic they might feel themselves to be—was not.” [i] Although not all male citizens would be called on to serve in battle, women were considered physically and mentally unsuitable for combat, and thus for the obligations and rights of full citizenship. Military service was at the heart of arguments for women’s disenfranchisement, for during times of war men’s valor and strength and their service to the nation was given especially great importance.
Although women were forbidden to serve in battle, they were figures of much public fascination. The figure of the female soldier was well-established internationally by the time she became popular in the American colonies. However, early representations focused on these soldiers as lovers, rather than as patriots. As early as the turn of the seventeenth century, ballads featuring female warriors first appeared in print in Britain, where they soon became, and stayed, popular: 100 new female warrior ballads were printed between 1700 and the middle of the nineteenth century. As folklorist Dianne Dugaw notes, one of the earliest of these, Mary Ambree, was “the equivalent in her time of Ain’t She Sweetin the 1920s, Blowin’ in the Windin the 1960s.”[ii]These ballads soon made their way across the Atlantic, where they were equally well-loved: for instance, an imprisoned American sailor’s journal of the Revolutionary War era included hand-written versions of two of these songs.[iii] By the eighteenth century, broadside publishers in Boston, Providence and Philadelphia were issuing American editions of these songs.
These ballads were not concerned with the legal foundations of women’s rights: their protagonists were motivated by romantic considerations to don sailor’s or soldier’s clothing and follow a lover into battle. The early, bawdy ballads, featuring tough women whose imposture was detected only when they became pregnant, gave way to later, more sentimental and romantic ones. The focus of these British ballads was more sexual and romantic than overtly political, more focused on the construction of gender than its relation to citizenship.
While the heroines of these ballads were portrayed as daring and adventurous, an actual woman combatant of the Revolutionary era, negotiating republican unease with the idea of the female soldier, found it necessary to write with a great deal more reserve. Deborah Sampson Gannett was an American woman who cross-dressed and fought in the American Revolution under the name Robert Shurtliff. After the war she made a living giving stage performances, in which, dressed in an infantry uniform, she first delivered a text based on her experiences, then performed manual exercises with a musket. In her performances and in a 1797 memoir she portrayed herself as demure, but compelled by such an overwhelming devotion to liberty that she of necessity overcame her feminine modesty to fight[iv].
It is hard to imagine a more apologetic female warrior than Sampson. When in her stage performances she addressed her wartime experiences of cross-dressing and fighting, she claimed that “I indeed recollect it as a foible, an error and presumption, into which, perhaps, I have too inadvertently and precipately run; but which I now retrospect with anguish and amazement.” However, she continued that “And yet I must frankly confess, I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction, which no one can better conceive and enjoy than him, who, recollecting the good intentionsof a bad deed, lives to see and to correct any indecorum of his life.” Indeed, Sampson anticipates a kind of revulsion on the part of her listeners about her wartime deeds: “They are a breach in the decorum of my sex, unquestionably; and, perhaps, too unfortunately ever irreconcilable with the rigid maxims of the moralist; and a sacrifice, which, while it may seem perfectly incompatible with the requirements of virtue—and which of course must ring discord in the ear, and disgust to the bottom of sensibility and refinement, I must be content to leave to time and the most scrutinizing enquiry to disclose.”[v] Throughout the performance Sampson seems to disarm potential critics by insisting that only the extraordinary oppression suffered by the American colonies led her to consider British tyranny: “Perhaps nothing but the critical juncture of the times could have excused such a philosophical disquisition of politics in woman, notwithstanding it was a theme of universal speculation and concern to man”(10). And, she continues, she proceeded from thought to deed only because “poverty, hunger, nakedness, cold and disease had dwindled the American Armiesto a handful…not merely for the sake of gratifying a facetious curiosity”(12).
After all of these caveats, Sampson ended her performance by reaffirming the importance of distinct gender roles: “as we readily acquiesce in the acknowledgment, that the fieldand the cabinetare the proper spheres assigned for our Masters and our Lords; may we, also, deserve the dignified title and encomium of Mistress and Lady, in our kitchensand in our parlours”(29). Sampson’s wartime service, as well as her years-long battle to win a pension from Congress based on her status as a disabled soldier, certainly took a great deal of perseverance and moxie—but her fighting spirit was the last thing she chose to highlight in her public performances. It is fair to say, though, that she made a radical statement simply by appearing on stage during a period where this was not widely viewed as acceptable for women.
Early representations focused on these [female] soldiers as lovers, rather than as patriots.
The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution attracted a great deal of attention when it appeared. It is not a memoir as much as a moralizing biography, for unlike the most famous self-made man of her era, Ben Franklin, Sampson did not tell her own story. To do so would violate female codes of modesty, and besides, she was far from being a practiced writer. Herman Mann, its “as-told-to” author, who also wrote the text of Sampson’s stage performance, took care to distinguish Sampson’s story from a mere entertainment, as well as to dismiss suggestions that Sampson was a self-promoter. His preface informed readers that “the Female, who is the subject of the following Memoirs, does not only exist in theory and imagination, but in reality.”[vi]However, as Sampson would later do in her stage performance, Mann also stressed Sampson’s reluctance to publicize herself, “Though it has become more fashionable in these days of liberty and liberality, to publish the lives of illustrious persons.”(vii) As Scott Casper notes, biography was not only an enormously popular genre in the nineteenth century, but “biographers and critics and readers alike believed that biography had power: the power to shape individuals’ lives and character and to help define America’s national character.”[vii]So although Mann insists on the authenticity of the narrative, and refers readers to an authenticating appendix, he also adds that “I have taken liberty to intersperse, through the whole, a series of moral reflections, and have attempted some literary and historical information”(ix). He also took the liberty, as Sampson’s biographer, Alfred F. Young, points out, to plagiarize from a number of other works on female warriors, especially The Female Soldier; or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell(London, 1750).[viii]
In implicitly contrasting Sampson to the female warriors of ballads, with which his audience was presumably quite familiar, Mann not only insisted on Sampson’s chastity throughout the memoir, but felt obligated to append a “Resolve of the General Court, January 30, 1798,” commenting on the Sampson’s petition to be granted an army pension, which not only speculated about whether Sampson had sex, but even on her choice of locations: “It is hear-say that Mrs. Gannett refuses her husband the rites of the marriage bed. She must, then, condescend to smile upon him in the silent alcove, or grass plat; as she has a child, that has scarcely left its cradle…For her nearest neighbors assert, there is a mutual harmony between her and her companion; which, by the bye, is generally the reverse of those deprived of this hymenial bliss.”(256-257) In other words, she was neither sexually out of control, nor unnaturally asexual: Sampson’s soldierly duties neither resulted in nor were evidence of an inability to adequately perform her womanly duties. It is possible that Mann felt especially compelled to stress Sampson’s virtue since he spent some time in her memoir detailing the romantic confession made to Robert Shurtliff by a seventeen-year old girl.
Deborah Sampson was packaged by Mann, her publisher and promoter, as an avatar of virtue. Perhaps one mark of her success was the 1792 resolve by the Massachusetts Legislature granting her back pay, on the grounds that “the said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a female soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished, and was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character.”[ix] Thus, Sampson managed to carefully balance her display of patriotism, virtue, and regret for her unwomanly actions.[x]