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“Fear was a word I did not know the meaning of,” wrote Loreta Janeta Velazquez in her famous 1876 book The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madam Loreta Janeta Velazquez.

[Photo: Lorena Janita Velazquez as female and as a male soldier.]

Her dramatic life story, found in its entirety in The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta H. Jacobs, continues to be a subject of controversy and discussion, evidenced by a recently released, investigative film "Rebel," which explores her extraordinary life. Cuban-born Velazquez donned the guise of a man, called herself Henry Buford, volunteered to fight in the Confederate States Army, helped to train a battalion, and fought in key battles such as Bull Run and Shiloh, and, at various times, became a spy using both female and male identities. After the war, Velazquez went on to live a peripatetic and vividly unorthodox life, fully detailed in her book.

Loreta Janita Velazquez was one of a long line of women warriors, many of which were cross-dressers in order to engage in formal combat.  An estimated 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War on both sides. Reaching back further into American history, we have the famous Deborah Sampson Gannett, who was a documented soldier of the American Revolutionary War and successfully petitioned the government for a pension for her service (as a male soldier) in the war.  Gannett’s life story is also found in The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta H. Jacobs.

Frank Moore wrote about 40 Civil War women of the North, including a few who fought disguised as men for the Union Army in his popular book, Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-sacrifice, published in 1866. Other stories of women in combat throughout history and across multiple countries are fascinating reads from the many rare books and periodicals in The Gerritsen Collection. One such book, Women Adventurers, by Ménie Muriel Dowie, 1893, includes an account of Hannah Snell, a woman soldier who signed on as sailor and soldier James Gray in 1745 and served in British war expeditions in the East Indies.  

Women in war have been a topic of intense interest throughout history.  With the recent U.S. order to allow women to take an active role in combat units throughout all U.S. military services by January, 2016, this month of celebrating women’s achievements is an optimal time to read more about the history of women in active fighting, whether by cross-dressing as men or by identifying themselves as women soldiers.  

For a more recent perspective, GenderWatch, 1970-current, provides access to contemporary articles about women in combat, from the activism in the Vietnam War era, through the 1994 rule that banned women from infantry units, and on to the January 2013 ruling that rescinded that ban. Follow the unfolding events and debate, as all U.S. service units implement these changes by January 2016. The intriguing and endlessly debatable topic of women in combat is illuminated by a look at historic archives, as well as the latest journal articles and reports.

In addition to The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta H. Jacobs and GenderWatch, we invite you to explore additional great resources during these final days of Women’s History Month and throughout the year.

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25 Mar 2014

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