Reenactor Reprint: "In Defense of Distaff Soldiers" which itself was reprinted from an earlier post on Szabos. Does that make it a tertiary source?
Written by Michael Schaffner, head of the Scriveners Mess, member of Brady's Sharpshooters and the 16th Michigan.
I first posted the following some two years ago on this site [Szabos CW Reenactors Forum]. Back then I sort of hoped that people would come to some reasonable agreement about standards for females portraying male soldiers. Maybe we will some day, but obviously it hasn't happened yet.
In the mean time, I again present this summary of reasons why women in the ranks with decent impressions don't bug me. If I were to write it over from scratch today I might say a few things differently, but probably not many.
The gist of the argument -- that to have reenactments at all we have to make allowances for contemporary morphology and demographics -- remains the same. A perfect military reenactor would be a male 20-25 years old with a mastery of 19th century culture, language, and current affairs, and a full tool box of obsolete job skills.
I know a couple who come close, but the rest of us are working on what we can work on, and hoping everyone else overlooks our age and weight.
In Defense of Distaff Soldiers
Like most reenactors, I abhor really bad impressions, by which I, like most reenactors, mean those noticeably worse than my own. Everyone has their own list of least favorite transgressions, generally ranging from those most under the control of the reenactor (e.g., smoking cigarettes instead of pipes or stogies; not bothering to read a tactical manual to find the correct commands), to those less amenable to a quick solution (e.g., weight, age). My own pet peeves include non-period writing implements and an inability to distinguish Ordnance from Camp and Garrison Equipage, but I realize others may not share the same view.
But one thing a lot of reenactors do seem to agree on, to a degree that has over the last year seemed at times to have reached the emotional intensity of a fatwa, is that women should not portray soldiers. They say “Galtroops” – like any prejudice this one has developed its own language of derogation – are inherently ahistorical, inauthentic, and buzz-killers. Women soldiers are farbs, they’ll tell you, as are any men who defend them. Some reenactors would make allowances for women who cannot be distinguished from men, and have not previously made the mistake of identifying themselves to other reenactors as women; others will allow women when it can be proven that they took part in a particular engagement, but only as specialty impressions like an occasional Lee or Grant.
While I respect the reenactors who hold these views, I consider bans on women soldiers both wrong and a distraction from more serious historical issues, like getting rid of sharpies and knowing the difference between a voucher and an invoice. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last year, and have come up with five reasons I think we ought to allow women to portray soldiers in Civil War reenactments. I realize that the people most in need of convincing will probably have already stopped reading, but I hope others will display the generosity of the season and hear me out:
1. Women actually served as soldiers during the war.
We will never know how many women enlisted; contemporary estimates began at several hundred. Readers should consult http://www.outlawwomen.com/WomenSold...heCivilWar.htm
for a basic discussion as well as capsule biographies of “Albert Cashier” and “Franklin Thompson” who are perhaps the best documented examples. Note that between the service records of these two women alone, women were present at a large number of the most famous actions of the war.
While women were intrinsically unfit for enlistment (and when found out were discharged for “sexual incompatibility”) they were not the only people who evaded restrictions to join up. Others would include men who lied about their age (including those under 18 and over 45), occasional blacks and native Americans found in white regiments, and, in some cases, entire regiments of Germans, many of whom lacked “a competent knowledge of the English language” (Regulations, para. 929). While the percentage of women in the ranks was small enough to make even one woman “over represented” at most events, we should in fairness consider this in light of other over-represented groups, such as men over 45. These graybeards, according to Bell Irvin Wiley (The Life of Billy Yank, p. 302), constituted no more than .6% of the Union Army – that’s six-tenths of one percent, which I can state from experience would, if applied, eliminate most of the command structure at most events, as well as great swaths of the ranks.
2. Some women can portray Civil War soldiers just as well as most men.
If you can find them, take a look at two “Company B” pictures – the first shows Co. B of the 83rd PVI at the “Berkeley Hundred” event in 2003; the other shows Co. B of the 4th Vermont at this year’s “Engagement at Burkittsville.” Compare the female soldier in the first with her colleagues in that photo, then with the entire company in the second. To my view she looks more like a Civil War soldier than half the men in either company. For many this female soldier may constitute the exception that proves the rule, but no rule that would ban a living historian of that caliber has any merit its authors can take pride in.
Something else to keep in mind is that the restrictions in the Regulations extended beyond sex to include disabilities that we accept as a matter of course at most reenactments, even self-proclaimed “authentic” or “progressive” ones. According to paragraph 1297, a man should have perfect hearing, vision, and speech. Taken as intended, this means that hearing aids are as inherently “farb” as females and the “Authentic Campaigner” should stop all discussions of spectacles in military impressions. The same paragraph prohibits drunkards, which if enforced of which would wreak havoc on many mainstream reenactments.
Granted that some women don’t even try. Pony-tails, mascara, and ludicrous paste-on facial hair are all dreadful offenses against authenticity. But so are pony-tails on men, as well as beer-bellies and Marlboros – it doesn’t mean that a woman who does try can’t do a convincing job. Indeed, it may be that women often stand out because they differ not so much from the boys who fought the war, as from the men who reenact it.
3. Denouncing women soldiers is the cheapest form of authenticity.
Many of the most authentic reenactors I know oppose women portraying soldiers. But so do a lot of other folks I’ve never seen in the field, never see post any original research on line, and don’t in any other way distinguish themselves as anything other than aspiring web warriors.
Do me a favor – if you want to appear authentic, don’t tell me what kind of gear you’ve bought: write a letter with a dip pen. You want to be hard-core? Don’t go camping in wool; hike the Appalachian Trail or run a marathon. It’s too easy to make fun of women and other “farbs” from the safety of your PC. Please try to find some other way to elevate the hobby.
4. I don’t want my a$$ kicked.
As tough as one might think they sound when saying they won’t have anything to do with a unit or an event that tolerates women soldiers, don’t you just know that some day a female veteran of the Iraq War with a bronze or silver star is going to want to play with us? When that happens I want to be on her side, not on that of the fatwa.
5. There are better ways to serve the hobby than blanket prohibitions.
The worst offenses against authenticity tend to occur in clusters. Bagpipes, Indians, boozehounds, and bad female impressions of male soldiers seldom appear individually to ruin an otherwise fine event. No, it seems that first the event itself must degenerate to a degree where they can all spontaneously suppurate together. That being the case, I think it behooves all of us to work the standards of such events or openly boycott them and state why.
For the specific problems that may be presented by female soldiers, I suggest a slight variation on standards already established at some events: no pony-tails, no mascara, and a serious effort to disguise the fact of being a female. I do not go to the extent of suggesting we ban any woman who looks at all effeminate because that would, in fact, apply to some men, and from what I can tell from the photos on the above website, “Albert Cashier” and “Franklin Thompson” as well. Indeed, those two women should be the standard by which we judge any woman wishing to fall in as a soldier. After all, “Albert” and “Franklin” were good enough to pass them, and looked more like actual civil war soldiers than the standard of “maleness” presented by the average (overweight, overaged) male reenactor today.
In fact, from that perspective, the “Cashier/Thompson” standard for women is rather more stringent than the one for the rest of us.
M. A. Schaffner