Women who lived as men
These women took risks, defied convention and flouted gender roles of their time in acts of tremendous bravery to achieve their goals, regardless of their gender. In dressing and living as men, these women succeeded in working as soldiers, surgeons, pirates and pimps, occupying a world previously forbidden to them.
Read their amazing stories:
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431)
Joan of Arc or Jeanne d'Arc, aka the Maid of Orléans is a French national hero who was burned at the stake for 'heresy' aged 19. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan of Arc to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission after she said she received visions from god instruction her to support Charles VII. The siege ended after eight days, causing Joan of Arc to gain prominence. Charles VII was crowned following several further swift victories. In May 1430, she was captured by the English-allied Burgundian faction, put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais and burned at the stake for heresy. 25 years later Pop Callixtus III allowed an inquisitorial court to examine the trial, which found her innocent. Declared a martyr, she was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920.
Mary Frith (1584 – 1659)
Mary Frith was also known as Moll Cutpurse. An infamous fence and a pimp; Moll wore men's clothing, frequented tobacco shops and caroused in taverns. A notorious pickpocket, Moll wore a doublet and loose breeches, and is said to be the first woman in England to have smoked tobacco. A regular performer on stage at the Fortune Playhouse, Moll would sing obscene songs and play the lute. In 1600, Moll was arrested for stealing purses and, as a punishment, was burned on her hand four times. She was arrested on 25 December 1611 for being dressed 'indecently' and was charged with immodest behaviour.
Image caption: Mary Frith
Anne Bonny (1689 – 1782) and Mary Read (1708-1720)
Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two of the most famous female pirates of all time. They were the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy during the early 18th century, at the height of the golden age of piracy. Born out of wedlock to the widow of a sea captain, Mary Read's mother began to disguise her as a boy after the death of her older legitimate brother in an effort to hoodwink his paternal grandmother into providing financial support. The grandmother was convinced by her disguise, and Read and her mother lived on the inheritance into her teenage years. Continuing to dress in male attire, Read found work on a ship. She joined the British military and excelled in battle, later allying with Dutch forces against the French.
Image caption: Anne Bonny and Mary Read (left – right)
Mary Ann Talbot (1778 – 1808)
Mary Ann Talbot was an Englishwoman who became a sailor during the Napoleonic wars. Alleged to be one of Lord William Talbot's 16 illegitimate children, she became the mistress of Captain Essex Bowen at age 14, and was enlisted as his footboy under the name 'John Taylor' during a voyage to Santo Domingo. Talbot served as a drummer-boy in the Siege of Valenciennes, where Captain Bowen was killed. Talbot decided to continue working as a sailor, but later deserted and became a cabin boy for a French ship. She was wounded during a battle against the French fleet, when grapeshot almost severed her leg and never recovered full use of it. Talbot later spent 18 months in a Dunkirk dungeon after being captured by the French, and upon her return to London in 1796, she was seized by a press-gang and forced to reveal her gender.
James Barry (c1789 – 1865)
Assigned female at birth and named Margaret Ann Bulkley, James Barry was a military surgeon in the British Army. Born into a poor family, James chose to transition to live as a man in order to get into the University of Edinburgh Medical School to pursue a career as a surgeon. Said to have served in the Battle of Waterloo, Barry served in India and Cape Town, South Africa. His greatest achievements include being the first British surgeon to perform a caesarean section in Africa in which the mother and child survived. He improved conditions for wounded soldiers and native inhabitants alike, and is alleged to have fought several duels when anyone commented on his voice, appearance or professional integrity. He is also reputed to have had an argument with Florence Nightingale.
Image caption: James Barry (left)
Charley Parkhurst (1812 – 1879)
Born Mary Parkhurst, Charley Parkhurst was an eminent American stage coach driver, who was assigned female at birth but lived as a man for most of his life. Nicknamed One-Eyed Charley and Six-Horse Charley, Parkhurst lost the use of one eye after a kick from a horse, and had reputation as one of the finest stage coach drivers in the West. Upon his death in 1879, neighbours came to lay out Parkhurst's body for burial, and noticed that his body looked surprisingly female. An examining doctor determined that Parkhurst had given birth, and a trunk in the house contained a baby's dress.
Rachilde (1860 – 1953)
Rachilde was the pseudonym of Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, a French female writer. Rachilde relinquished her real name and insisted on being referred to publically by her pen name, which carried neither male nor female associations. In addition to adopting an androgynous alias, Rachilde also applied for permission from the authorities in 1878 to dress as a man in public and also insisted upon calling herself 'a man of letters'. Contrary to what it may seem, Rachilde was not a feminist, and wrote an essay in 1928 entitiled 'why I'm not a feminist'.
Image caption: Rachilde
Vesta Tilley (1864 – 1952)
Born in Worcester, Matilda Alice Powles was an English drag king. She performed her first role in male clothing at age six. At age 11, she adopted the stage name, Vesta Tilley, and later became the most famous and well-paid music hall male impersonator of her day. A star in Britain and the US for over 30 years, she preferred playing exclusively male roles, stating 'I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.' Vesta was successful from the outset, and by age 11 she was able to support her parents and siblings on her salary. With her plethora of military characters, Vesta was extremely well-liked by working class men and her popularity reached an all-time high during the First World War. Wildly popular amongst women, Vesta was considered a symbol of independence.
Image caption: Vesta Tilley
Dorothy Lawrence (1896 – 1964)
Dorothy Lawrence was a journalist who, at the age of 19, travelled to the front unaccompanied to make her name as a war correspondent. Rejected by every Fleet Street newspaper and the War Office due to her gender, Lawrence decided to travel to Paris as a tourist and then, with the assistance of several soldiers, she procured a military uniform along with forged document. Wearing a homemade corset, she hid her female form and used Condy's Fluid – a disinfectant made from potassium permanganate – to darken her complexion. Lawrence reached Albert on the Somme and joined a night patrol of Royal Engineers and worked to strengthen trenches. She was discovered after twelve nights, and was interrogated to ensure she was not a German spy before being held in a French convent. Forced to swear an affidavit promising to never reveal her circumvention of the military, she later breached this by publishing an account of her experience entitled Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier, which turned out to be a post-First World War bestseller.
Image Caption: Dorothy Lawrence
Billy Lee Tipton (1914 – 1989)
Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, Billy Lee Tipton developed an interest in music from an early age, playing piano and saxophone. Adopting his father's nickname from an early age, he wore male attire during performances in order to be accepted in the jazz scene. He transitioned to live full-time as a man, touring with other musicians and eventually forming the Billy Tipton Trio. His sex wasn't revealed until his death, 50 years later, when his story was published by mass media.