Mulan in Real Life — 4 Women Who Hid Their Gender to Serve in Combat

December 3, 2021Coffee or Die

Disney’s Mulan is an archetype based on the real phenomenon of women concealing their gender to serve in combat in male-dominated wars. Screenshot from YouTube.

Back in the day, before females were allowed to join the military, they paved their own paths in service. If there wasn’t a role for them (other than staying at home or serving as a nurse, that is), they would make their own work. In theatre.

Women often obtained wartime secrets; they became privy to important information that would help their side. And they did it all by pretending to be a man. According to the National Archives, as many as 400 women fought during the Civil War, all while trying to keep their gender concealed.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc concealed gender coffee or die
Joan captured by the Burgundians at Compiègne. Mural in the Panthéon, Paris, circa 1886–1890. Wikimedia Commons photo.

This practice dates back to the 1700s during the Revolutionary War in the United States. However, it was done far prior to that in other countries. Notably, Joan of Arc, who dressed as a man to put herself in the fight. Joan rose to commander of the French Army during the 100 years war in the 1400s, outlining military strategies and leading France to many victories before she was captured.

Dorothy Lawrence

Lawrence obtained many a secret during World War I. But rather than reporting to a commanding officer, she was reporting it to the entire country of England. She was a reporter who disguised herself as a French soldier.

Lawrence got the idea after she was arrested en route to the front lines; she knew she would have a better chance as a man.

With the help of some French soldiers she had befriended, she obtained a uniform and learned marching drills. She also cut her hair, roughened up her face, and added shoe polish as a self-tanner. She also discarded her underwear and opted to go without, lest they be discovered while she was bathing or changing. Lawrence obtained forged papers as Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment.

With such great lengths to create a male identity, she served for just 10 days before the stress caused her to turn herself in. She was subsequently arrested and held as a prisoner of war. Lawrence wrote a book about the experience in 1919, Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, and eventually died in an insane asylum.

Loretta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, aka Lt. Harry Buford, was a Cuban woman who donned Confederate garb and served as a Confederate officer and spy during the American Civil War. Wikimedia Commons photo.

In the Civil War, Velazquez dressed as a male solider to enter into many battles. It was a job she employed after her husband, a wealthy Cuban aristocrat, left to fight the war. Before he left, she brought up her idea to fight as a male, but he dismissed it.

However, Velazquez was unrelenting. She used their fortune to create an infantry battalion of her own, with the intent of bringing her husband into command. However, Lt. Harry T. Buford, her code name, was outed as a female and discharged from her own battalion.

From then on she served as a spy, re-using her costume, and creating several others, to obtain intel.

Mary Seaberry

Dorothy Lawrence was an English journalist who posed as a male soldier in order to report from the front line during World War I. She managed to obtain a military uniform from a friend. as well as getting a false identity. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Seaberry served happily throughout the Civil War, dressed as a male. None of her fellow soldiers suspected a thing, but when she was injured during a wartime battle, she was sent away from the frontlines. Her gender was found out during treatment.

This article was originally published on We Are The Mighty. Follow @WeAreTheMighty on Twitter. 

Read Next: Inside The OSS’s League of Lonely War Women

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Coffee or Die

Coffee or Die is Black Rifle Coffee Company’s online lifestyle magazine. Launched in June 2018, the magazine covers a variety of topics that generally focus on the people, places, or things that are interesting, entertaining, or informative to America’s coffee drinkers — often going to dangerous or austere locations to report those stories.

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