by Cynthia Cline
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in her country’s military, who would come to mind? Would you envision Mulan? I would.
Mulan’s name is known internationally, and yet, her story is just that, a story. Mulan is a legendary heroine who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in the conscription for the Chinese Army. But what if I told you that a real-life Mulan actually existed. A few, actually. Women, who disguised themselves as men to serve their country and explore the world, not knowing that they would set a course into motion that would impact the lives of future women in the military for generations to come.
Woman from History – Deborah Sampson
Sometime between 1781 and 1782, Deborah Sampson made the decision to disguise herself as a man and join the Army so she could travel the world. She bound her breast, sewed men’s clothing, and took on the name Robert Shurtleff, enlisting in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment1.
While hiding her true identity, Sampson served in a variety of positions. She was given the hazardous job of scouting territory to gather information on the British Army and their resources. Alongside two sergeants, she led infantrymen that often-resulted in one-on-one conflict with Tories. She dug trenches, endured canon fire and bullet wounds, and even helped storm a strong hold. Let’s not forget, she did all of this while ensuring no one she served alongside uncovered her true identity.
Even after being shot, Sampson was determined to keep her true identity a secret, removing the bullet herself. It wasn’t until Sampson fell ill during an epidemic that a doctor uncovered her secret. Thankfully, he kept her secret and allowed her to heal properly. Once healed, the doctor sent Deborah Sampson to General Patterson to deliver a letter that would reveal her identity and lead to an honorable discharge a few months later in the fall of 1783.
Life after the Army
Deborah Sampson would go on to marry, have children, and have her memoir published, “The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady” by Herman Mann. After the memoir, Deborah was the first woman to travel America for a year-long lecture, even dressing in her full military uniform.
In April of 1827, Deborah Sampson passed away from yellow mountain fever. She would die not realizing she would become a female role model for those who followed in her footsteps. Reflecting on her service to her country a few characteristics stand out that serve as an example for all women in the military.
Characteristics to Model
Deborah Sampson showed much determination. She refused to allow her gender to limit where she went or what she did. When she enlisted, her determination ensured success during reconnaissance missions and even combat. No task was too small or too grand.
Knowing her gender would limit her travel opportunities, Deborah crafted a completely new identity. She sewed her own clothes and persisted despite the challenges she was sure to face on the battlefield.
Imagine the courage it would take to hide your identity and enlist in an army under a fake identity. Not only that, but the courage also to fight and lead. The courage to remove a pistol ball from a wound! Deborah could have easily bowed out after her first and second injury, but she didn’t. That takes true courage.
Lastly, humility. After about a year and a half of service, her secret was out. Sampson could have easily fought with the higher powers that be for her position in the Army, but instead humbly admitted her dishonesty and asked to be spared. And spared she was.
A Woman’s Impact on the Military
At the end of 2020, the Deborah Sampson Act was passed in Congress that would empower women in the military and women veterans. The Deborah Sampson Act eliminates many barriers to VA care to include requiring at least one woman’s health primary care provider and providing millions in additional funding to the VA in direct support of women’s care. It also improved and expanded support for women veterans.
The Deborah Sampson Act was a significant win for women in the military, past, and present. It was Deborah’s decision to enlist and challenge the status quo that made her the perfect model for this Act. It’s encouraging to see the legacy that Deborah left behind. A legacy that started by making one personal decision and would impact millions of women, over 200 years later.
Cynthia Cline is a veteran of the U.S. Military, a Military Spouse, and a momma to two. She has a passion for books, coffee, and Jesus, and a desire to share her story to encourage women. You can read more from her on her blog, A Faithful Step, where she encourages and equips women in the area of Motherhood,Marriage and faith. You can also connect with Cynthia on Facebook or Instagram.