Camp Chase Gazette

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Women in the Ranks

Posted on Friday, December 12, 2014 at 8:11 am

The “Ten Questions” posed to two female soldier reenactors in the July/August 2014 Camp Chase Gazette left even more questions unanswered. So, to take the bull by the horns, this article ventures further into the topic.

THE HISTORICAL RECORD

Although women appeared in camp in various roles (nurses, officer wives, laundresses), most were as civilians. There were two and only two military roles:

1. Disguised soldier. History imposes a number of limitations on this role:

a) Any combatant revealed to be a woman was instantly removed from a combat role, if not dismissed from the service entirely. This means that a woman combatant recognizable as a woman (RFC for short) is not merely a rare impression: it is a nonexistent one.

b) Female combatants were extremely rare: Slightly over 100 for over three million men under arms. This means that, if there are fewer than 30,000 troops at a reenactment, even one disguised female soldier over-represents the genre. Of course, if they are truly disguised, one would not know how many female combatants are present, rendering any over-representation moot.

2. Vivandiere. Here again, history defines the limits of this role:

a) If a uniform was worn, it would have included a skirt. Women wearing only trowsers were considered cross-dressers, which would not have been tolerated in the male-dominated army.

b) While vivandieres might carry a firearm for self-protection, they were not combatants and were not permitted to take part in combat.

c) Vivandieres might sport honorary rank, but they were not enrolled, had no official office, and so had no place in the battle line (though, like chaplains, they might stand on the flank to get their picture taken).

d) Vivandieres were rare: fewer than one in 3,000 troops. Since over-representing the atypical can be as farby as portraying the nonexistent, vivandieres should be rare among reenactment troops.

In short, an RFC is not rendered any less farby by calling her a vivandiere.

There really is no doubt as to the historical role of women in the ranks. The only question is, how far should we depart from history in order to accommodate women who want to reenact as combatants? The following continuum might help clarify the question.

1. SECRET WOMEN

During the Civil War, the only women who served as combatants were able to do so by disguising their sex from their comrades. If the same were done today, there would be no problem with women in the ranks: no reenactor is going to object to the presence of a woman in the ranks, if he does not know she is a woman. If there is any female reenactor pulling that off, I say more power to her. It is the woman who does not maintain as deep a cover (i.e., the RFC) that promotes controversy among reenactors.

2. KNOWN ONLY WITHIN THE UNIT

Some women disguise themselves well enough that only others who know them personally are aware of their true sex. This again is a largely unproblematic situation: if the unit to which the woman belongs doesn’t mind having a woman in the ranks, and other units don’t know she is a woman, then her presence is not going to “ruin anyone’s weekend” (1). However, because reenactors often brigade with other units, it doesn’t take long for a reenactor’s sex to become known to other units. Consequently, the disguised reenactor whose sex is known only to her own unit is rare.

3. APPARENT TO OTHER UNITS

It is when a female combat reenactor’s sex is known or apparent to reenactors outside her host unit (which is usually the case) that issues start to arise:

a) Authenticity.

Since (as noted) RFCs did not exist during the Civil War, the presence of such a woman in the ranks automatically spoils any possibility of time travel to other reenactors within view. Since time travel is why many reenactors reenact in the first place, RFCs are a big problem to anyone who values authenticity.

That other anachronisms infest reenacting hardly justifies RFCs. Two wrongs don’t make a right. There are way too many overweight reenactors, and much too high a proportion of aged men in reenactor ranks. This is an argument for reducing those inauthenticisms (by losing weight, or dyeing one’s hair to look younger), not for compounding the inauthenticity by adding a nonexistent impression (the RFC) to the mix.

b) Privacy.

Like it or not, the fringes of reenactment camps and staging areas are public toilets. So, if anyone has a right to object to being in view of the opposite sex while urinating (some might view such objections passé in this age of sexual equality and unconcern about privacy), male reenactors have reason to object to females in the vicinity of “piss lines.” Admittedly, this is no reason for banning female reenactors from other areas. And, in practice, urinating men are circumspect enough that the odd woman in the ranks is not going to constitute an intolerable invasion of privacy.

c) Inhibitions.

As with those they portray, military reenactors tend to be rude and profane in camp and on the line. The presence of women in camp or on the line is going to cause men to censor themselves. Telling one’s comrades, “Don’t mind me, be as rude as you want to be” overlooks the fact that, in the period we portray, men did not use profanity in front of women. So asking them not to censor themselves in the presence of women is asking them to go against their nineteenth-century impression.

d) Sexual dynamics.

At Spring Hill one year I was assigned to overnight guard duty. As I made my way along the sunken road toward the picket fire, I was having a “magic moment.” Then I got to the picket fire. I found an imperfectly disguised female sitting there, with two males doing their best to impress her with their clever repartée. Moment spoiled. Men being men, if there is a recognizable female present, there is going to be flirting (I’ve also seen this occur on the line when a woman is in it). To say it’s the man’s fault for being a man misses the point that, regardless of whose fault it is, the presence of a recognizable woman is going to deprive the reenacting experience of much of the comraderie and authenticity that makes it attractive to reenactors. Before condemning this concern as sexist, consider the changed dynamics if men are guests at a baby shower or bachelorette party.

e) Sexism.

Some men use the foregoing concerns as a smokescreen for their real concerns: they want a reenactment to be a “guys’ weekend out,” where they can be as raunchy and uninhibited as they like. Apart from being sexist, this attitude is ahistorical: since there were some women in camp, and officers generally did not tolerate carousing (or even cursing in some cases), Civil War camps were not one long beer bash. Those who value history find such revelers as offensive as RFCs. However, that some who voice the foregoing concerns have ulterior motives does not make the concerns any less real or valid.

4. APPARENT TO SPECTATORS

In the previous part, we saw that RFCs are problematic even when it is only reenactors who know the RFC’s sex. But ignoring the concerns of fellow reenactors still leaves problems that arise from RFCs being apparent to the viewing public. Spectators who see RFCs at a reenactment will assume that women served openly as combatants in Civil War armies. Such a false portrayal of history whitewashes the plight of nineteenth-century women. RFCs make it look like women enjoyed equality in the nineteenth century, when in fact women were treated like chattels by the male-dominated culture. One of the best questions I ever heard from a student at a classroom presentation was, “Why didn’t women fight in Civil War armies?” The question would never occur to a public misled by attending Civil War reenactments where recognizable women are allowed to fight.

The claim that RFCs are not that apparent to the public is wishful thinking. For one thing, some RFCs have such wide hips and ample bosoms that they can be identified as women from 50 yards away. Moreover, at various times during reenactments (especially during march-pasts that precede or follow battle reenactments), the reenactors brush by within 10 feet of spectator lines. So if one portraying a combat soldier can be identified as a woman from 10 feet away, then the problem of misleading the public exists.

Nor are many female combatants hiding their sex as well as they think or claim. If you wear makeup, pluck your eyebrows, or sweep your hair up into your headgear, you are not fooling anybody.

There are some reenactors who say, “So what if the public can tell there are women combatants? This is just a hobby after all.” But if misleading the public by falsifying history doesn’t matter, why not just set up a nylon tent in camp and march out to battle in your blue jeans and baseball cap? What distinguishes reenacting from paint ball games or cowboys and Indians is that we are trying to experience and portray history. If you don’t care about historical accuracy, why bother reenacting at all?

CONCLUSION

While some are comfortable at the less authentic end of the continuum, personal preference is not the only consideration. What one person does at a reenactment affects the experience of everyone around him. Consequently, to say, “I’m not bothered by RFCs” overlooks that fact that others who are bothered by RFCs aren’t going to want to attend, which will make the event smaller, less enjoyable and less authentic (most reenactments already offering inauthentically small detachments of troops).

In my view, the correct balance lies between the extremes. Women combatants whose sex is not apparent are authentic, making objections thereto more sexist than anything else. And if only the unit to which the female soldier belongs knows she is a woman, that’s not going to spoil my weekend. But if spectators or reenactors not belonging to the same unit can see that a combatant is a woman, that misrepresents history, thus defeating the purpose of reenacting.

ENDNOTES

(1) “You’re ruinin’ my weekend” is the stock comment in my unit when someone pulls out an anachronism such as a beverage can or plastic-wrapped food.

-By John A. Braden