10 Famous Women Who Dressed as Men to Get Ahead
Women have been dressing as men for thousands of years for a variety of reasons. Some women did it to go to war. Others did it to further their careers. Still others, like George Sand, challenged the rigid societal norms of the day.
Meet 10 women who dressed as men and are seen as trailblazers today.
Writer Norah Vincent is best known for her 2006 book "Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again." For 18 months, Norah adopted the male persona of Ned. She became a salesman and immersed herself in male-dominated group — a bowling league, a monastery, and a men's awareness group among them.
While living as Ned, she went to strip clubs and even dated women, but the persona wore her down, and she soon fell into a deep depression.
She said of the experience, "But my experience was one that made me feel very vulnerable and made me feel a lot of pain and difficulty. While all of us in the post-feminist movement are convinced that women have always had it worse and men have always had it better, it took me stepping into their shoes to realize that that’s not true at all. Men are suffering.They have different problems than women have, but they don't have it better."
The mental strain of being Ned led Vincent to eventually admit herself into a psychiatric facility, but she could never overcome her depression. She died via assisted suicide at a clinic in Switzerland on July 6, 2022, at 53.
Mary Read posed as pirate Mark Read in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but even before she became Mark, her mother disguised her as her deceased brother so she could keep getting financial support from her grandmother.
While still a teen, she found work as a foot-boy and was employed on a ship. Later, she journeyed to Flanders to serve in the military but met another male soldier, and after revealing her truth to him, they married. Together, the couple happily ran an inn in the Netherlands, but not long after, her husband died.
She once again disguised herself as a man and started a new chapter as a sailor. By the early 18th century, she had joined a group of pirates led by Calico Jack (Captain Jack Rackham.)
While pillaging in the Bahamas in 1720, Mary and her fellow pirates were captured by the British navy. She was tried and convicted of piracy, and sentenced to hang. Mary claimed to be pregnant, which delayed the sentence, but she died from fever before it could be carried out.
British writer Dorothy Lawrence is best known for posing as a male soldier on the front lines on World War I.
In 1915, she Lawrence left her job as a domestic servant and became Private Denis Smith in the British Army with the hopes of going to France to report on the war. She was repeatedly turned away from the British army due to her true gender, so she decided to get to the front lines on her own.
She was successful and lived among British troops, writing about their experiences. But she faced many obstacles, including enemy fire and the suspicion that she was a spy. She also struggled with her physical health and became sick with a lung condition.
She was found out and arrested by military authorities. After being sent back to England, she wrote "Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier," which was published in 1919 and is still in print today.
Sarah Emma Edmonds
Canadian-born Sarah Emma Edmonds is best known for her service as a soldier and spy during the U.S. Civil War.
At 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and began living as Franklin Flint Thompson. When the Civil War broke out, she joined the Union Army's 2nd Michigan Infantry as a male nurse, and later worked as a field hospital orderly.
She also served as a spy for the Union Army. She shaved her head and wore a Confederate soldier's uniform, and infiltrated enemy lines to gather information. She left the army in 1863, fearing that her true gender would eventually be discovered.
Edmonds married and settled in Texas, where she became a nurse and wrote "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army," which was published in 1865. In 1884, she was granted a military pension for her service, the only woman in the Civil War to do so. When she died in 1898, she was buried with full military honors.
Margaret Anne Bulkley
In the early 19th century, Margaret Anne Bulkley lived as a doctor named James Barry and became a military surgeon in the British Army. Unlike many of the other women on this list, she never gave up the persona.
After studying medicine in Edinburgh and London, she became a surgeon, serving in various locations around the world, including South Africa, Canada, and Jamaica. She was known for her skills in the area of obstetrics and was an advocate for better hygiene and sanitation in military hospitals.
Barry died in 1865, at 76. Her true gender was not discovered until after her death.
St. Marina the Monk
St. Marina the Monk (aka St. Pelagia) lived during the fourth century in Antioch, now part of modern-day Turkey. Marina's father is said to have wanted a son and raised her as a boy.
Marina was drawn to religion and joined a monastery where she lived for several years, practicing her faith. She was known for her humility, wisdom and miracles.
After her true gender was discovered, she was forced to leave the monastery. Although she became a hermit, she continued her spiritual practice and attracted many devotees.
Swiss explorer and author Isabelle Eberhardt lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was always fascinated by the Middle East and northern Africa and, at just 20 years old, traveled to Algeria to explore and document the region.
To better assimilate into the culture, she converted to Islam, donned men's clothing and became Si Mahmoud Saadi, living among the community for several years.
Eberhardt wrote extensively about her experiences in the region to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, her life was cut short. She died in a flash flood at just 27 years old while traveling in Algeria. Her story became a 1991 movie starring Peter O'Toole.
French novelist and memoirist George Sand was born as Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin in 1804 in Paris. Sand never pretended to be a man, but by dressing as one, she asserted her independence and challenged traditional gender roles of the day.
As a man, she could move more freely in 19th-century society and engage in activities reserved for men, such as smoking and drinking public.
While she often received criticism and ridicule for dressing as man, she stayed the course and continued to challenge societal and cultural norms throughout her life.
Malinda Blalock fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Her husband, Keith, joined the Confederates, so could defect to the Union Army once it reached Virginia.
Unbeknownst to her husband, she disguised herself as a man named Sam and lived and trained alongside the men in her regimen. Just a month in, she was wounded, and her true identity was discovered while receiving medical care. After she recovered, she was discharged.
Keith's plan wasn't working out either, so he rolled around in poison ivy and — with a new fever and blisters — was discharged, as doctors thought he suffered an outbreak.
The Blalocks returned to their North Carolina home. After the war, she wrote "A Woman's Life and Adventures in the Army of Tennessee," detailing her experiences as a soldier.
Billy Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City in 1914 to a family of musicians. This talented piano player and saxophonist became a jazz musician. He adopted the name Billy, began wearing men's clothes and binding his chest to conceal his breasts. He became successful in the jazz world, releasing albums and touring with his band throughout the United States.
Tipton kept his true gender a secret from everyone, including his wives and children. After his passing in 1989, it was revealed he was female.
His son, Scott, said after his death: "I think he probably never told us because he was afraid we might have rejected him. I could have accepted it. He did a helluva good job with us. That’s what mattered. He was my dad."