She hid who she was, in order to become the heroine she was meant to be.
Born in 1844, Jennie Hodgers wanted to serve her country. Like many women in those times, she was suffocated by the limitations of patriarchy, which dictated that the only thing a woman was capable of serving, was dinner to her husband. So she tossed her sewing needles aside and bid farewell to the restrictive roles, that nowadays many women can often willfully reject—Like marriage and childbearing. Rather than face a life of certain poverty, Hodgers decided to pursue adventure, and ultimately became one of the most daring warriors to come out of the Civil War.
In 1862, when Hodgers enlisted, the medical examination only required her to show her hands and feet. While serving, she found ways to bathe and dress alone and avoided sharing a tent with any of the men. She kept her shirt buttoned to the chin, to hide the place where an Adam’s apple was missing. Hodgers was known to take on the most dangerous tasks. When she was captured at Vicksburg while on a mission, she escaped by attacking a guard, seizing his gun, and outrunning all of her captors. When her company’s flag was taken down by enemy fire, she brazenly climbed a tree while bullets of enemy snipers surrounded her and she attached the tattered flag to a branch up high. Hodgers was the bravest soldier in her company. She was a real life Wonder Woman.
“At the time, women weren’t perceived as equals by any stretch of the imagination. It was the Victorian era and women were mostly confined to the domestic sphere. Both the Union and Confederate armies actually forbade the enlistment of women.” —Smithsonian Magazine
In those days, an unwed woman was a problem to be ‘fixed’—a woman, especially a poor woman, could be legally institutionalized against her will. Whether hetero or homosexual, women in institutions could be subjected to barbaric treatment—‘Remedies’ such as “the application of cocaine solutions, saline cathartics, the ‘surgical liberation’ of adherent clitorises...the administration of strychnine by hypodermic.”
In 1914, when ‘Albert Cashier’ arrived at a psychiatric hospital with symptoms of advanced dementia, Jennie Hodgers’ secret was revealed. Unable to read or write, she’d ‘passed’ as Albert in order to survive, work in well-paid fields and collect her pension. At the institution, Hodgers was forced to wear a long skirt for the first time in over 50 years.
“Unused to walking in the long, cumbersome garments deemed appropriate for her sex, she tripped and fell, breaking a hip that never properly healed. Bedridden and depressed, her health continued to decline, and she died on Oct. 11, 1915.” —The New York Times
Historians have uncovered accounts of hundreds of women who ‘passed’ as men to fight in wars. Some of whom had begun ‘passing’ before enlisting, as a practical way to avoid poverty, or marriage, or psychiatric imprisonment. Many women—like Francis Clayton, who enlisted as ‘Jack Williams’ to fight alongside her husband—went to be with relatives. Many went because they needed the money to survive. Sometimes women just wanted the freedom to do the things that only men were legally allowed to do.
“The female Civil War soldiers were not the first American women to fight on the battlefield; Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts served for nearly two years during the Revolution before her sex was discovered in a military hospital. (After being honorably discharged, Sampson received a veteran’s pension for her Revolutionary service, which went to her children upon her death.)” —The New York Times
As ‘Albert’ Jennie Hodgers was able to collect her veteran’s pension and vote, long before women were allowed to vote. She was able to participate in veteran gatherings, wear her uniform, and relish in the success and the honor she’d earned. She was able to put food on the table and live in a modest home. Hodgers chose a life of empowerment, honor and adventure—she defied all limitations.
“Some women dressed like men and marched off to war with a relative. Others enlisted because they had no means to support themselves after their loved one left home. More than a few were enticed by the wages promised by the army, because money meant freedom from their old roles and the ability to start a new, more independent life. And some female soldiers of the Civil War were simply patriotic and wanted to serve their country.” —Civil War Women
Women have so few pages in his-story books. But instead of celebrating the accomplishments and courage of women forced to fight sexist limitations under patriarchy, some men are rewriting history and omitting truths in order to bolster a political narrative. Equating a woman’s ‘decision’ to survive, with a rejection of ‘womanhood,’ is about as sexist as it gets. Equating ‘womanhood’ with a particular set of clothes and interests, is damaging to women. These fearless icons were willing to do whatever they had to do to survive, to conquer goals and reach heights of acclaim that were, at that time, only attainable to men.
“ ‘Albert Cashier’ mustered out of the service with the rest of her regiment on Aug. 17, 1865, and went back to Illinois...Hodgers could not read or write, and the jobs available for an illiterate woman would have sunk her into poverty, or even prostitution. But as a man, she could get by as she had in the Army, working steadily and honestly, and she made an adequate...living as a handyman, a farm laborer and a janitor, turning her work-worn hands to whatever came her way, supplementing her income with a veteran’s pension.”—The New York Times
Jennie Hodgers hid who she was, in order to become the heroine she was meant to be. And when Hodgers settled into a small town in Illinois, as Albert Cashier, in 1865, no one thought it was strange for a man to live alone. No one questioned a single man’s right to make a living. As woman doing the same thing, she would’ve been labeled a spinster and subjected to a very different fate.
“Their exact number [of female Civil war soldiers] is unknown, because their service had to be clandestine, but the ones whose stories we know offer a fascinating glimpse of women who pushed against the boundaries of their Victorian confinement at a time when American women could not vote, serve on juries, attend most colleges or practice most professions, and who, when they married, lost all property rights in most states.”—The New York Times
Jennie Hodgers was a protector and a founder. A pioneer, who dreamed bigger than the world would allow. Hodgers, and so many other brave women, didn’t just pull on clothes, they put on armor. There’s a fundamental lesson to be recaptured from the past: Women in tailored uniforms are often warriors— and those warriors are often the best that womankind has to offer.
Julia Diana Robertson—award-winning author and journalist— www.juliadianarobertson.com
*edited to add quote/links, updated with photos & current sources