Celebrity transgender people such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have drawn public attention to the existence of people who feel that their biology does not reflect their essence. In the past, many people have gone through life battling a society that can prevent people from living the way they want simply because of cultural expectations. Many female writers have taken male pen names–Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot and JK Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith. Other women have altered their physical appearance as well as their names.
The following is a list of women past and present who pretended to be men as a way to achieve something that they otherwise could not.The motivations for some of these incognito women may be lost to the passage of time, but in truth most of them had to keep the truth hidden extremely well since their discovery could ruin their lives or even lead to their deaths. If they had been alive today, some of these women might have lived as gay or transgender people. Many of them simply wanted to enter professions that were closed to them because they were not men. Like Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, a few women dressed as men so that they could fight in a war. Some went incognito for a brief time, while others spent much of their lives in disguise. In a few cases, their biological sex was discovered only upon their deaths.
15. Norah Vincent
In the tradition of journalistic undercover investigation, writer Norah Vincent pretended to be a man for eighteen months. She wanted to find out how life as a man differed from life as a woman. To help “pass,” she wore a fake beard and glasses, and she slipped a fake penis into a jockstrap. She also hit the gym so that she could have a more muscular body, and she hired a vocal coach to teach her how to speak. In her new identity as Ned, she walked around New York to gauge men’s reactions to her. She also attended men’s support groups, joined a men’s bowling league, and dated women. She is a lesbian, so that part was not so much of a hardship, though she found dating while a man to be a much different experience. She published her experiences in the 2006 book Self-Made Man. She has concluded that she rather likes being a woman and wouldn’t permanently trade places with the opposite sex.
14. Brenda Perez
This Spanish woman was in disguise only for part of one soccer game, but the fame of this disguised woman has been magnified because of social media. Late in 2015, Spanish television show El Hormiguero decided to draw attention to the neglect of women’s soccer in favor of men’s soccer. Brenda Perez sat in the make-up chair for seven hours to transform into Dani Perez. As the bearded Dani, Perez slid in as a substitute during a match in Madrid in a men’s league. Only the referee and the coach of the cooperating team knew who she was. Her own team thought she was a surprise last-minute addition in the early season game. Needless to say, she kicked everyone’s ass. Video clips of the players’ reactions to her prowess are priceless. Just as Perez was about to take a free kick, Perez ripped off her mask and wig and revealed herself. Score another one for the ladies.
13. Sisa Abu Daooh
This Egyptian woman became a widow at age 22. A couple of months later, she gave birth to her daughter. At a time when scandal followed women who worked outside the home, her options seemed limited to three: remarry, beg on the streets, or starve. She chose a fourth. For 43 years she has dressed and worked as though she were a man. Mostly she did manual labour, from shoe-polishing to brickmaking. When the daughter herself became a widow, Abu Dooah worked to support the grandchildren too. Some people in the neighbourhoods where she worked knew full well she was a woman, but they went along with it. In fact, they admired her. In 2015 this “ideal mother” won a “woman breadwinner” award from Luxor’s local government.
12. Marina the Monk
Many saints named Marina populate the history of the Catholic Church, but only one was a fifth-century female monk who pretended to have fathered someone else’s baby. When Marina was a young woman, her father decided to retire to a monastery near his home in Lebanon. Marina decided she would rather hide in the monastery with her father than get married. She disguised herself as a man named Marinos and lived for several years as her father’s roommate. When her father died, she continued to live as a respected monk. One day, a woman accused Marinos of fathering her child. The monastery punished Marinos and sent her out on the streets. Even though she did not father the child, Marinos went along with the story (out of her goodness and out of the need to stay undercover) and raised the child as her own. Eventually the monastery allowed her back into the monastery, and when she died, the monks preparing her for burial found out that Marinos was a Marina.
11. Joan of Arc
This medieval French woman may be the most famous of the cross-dressing warrior women. Born in Domremy, France, the teenaged Joan began to hear voices telling her that she must save France from its enemies and disguise herself as a man to do so. In 1428 she managed to convince Prince Charles of France to let her lead an army to take back the city of Orleans from the English. Under her leadership, the French won. In a subsequent battle over Paris, however, Joan was wounded, and some Burgundian soldiers captured her and sold her to the English. The English clergy tried her and she was spared from execution if she agreed not to wear men’s clothing. After a short time she told her captors that God had commanded her to dress as a man and that she must obey him. In May 1431 Joan was burned to death in Rouen for being a witch. Today she is considered the holiest of martyrs by the same religion that killed her. She could also be the patron saint of all the incognito women on this list.
10. Mary Lacy
Like many people today, Mary Lacy decided to advance her career by joining the military. Unlike today, though, women in 1759 were not allowed to join the British navy. To achieve her dreams, Lacy took on the identity of William Chandler, apprentice carpenter. She joined the service at the time of the Seven Years’ War, and after sailing the seas with her often drunken shipwright masters, she was discharged at the war’s end in 1765. She decided to go into business in Portsmouth as William Chandler and prepared for her apprenticeship exams. A couple of the men in her profession discovered she was a woman, but rather than snitch, they helped her. She passed her shipwright exam in 1770 and was an accredited shipwright. Soon, however, she came down with rheumatoid arthritis, and she was unable to work. Cheekily, she revealed to the navy that she was William Chandler, war veteran, who, it so happened, was actually Mary Lacy, and under her female name she requested her pension. Interestingly, the navy granted her request, and she got her pension. In 1773, she published an account of her life, ‘The History of the Female Shipwright.’
9. Elisa Bernerström
In nineteenth-century Sweden, young Elisa Bernerström met and married soldier Bernard Servenius in Stockholm. When Russia and Sweden declared war on each other in 1808 over disputed Finnish territory, Servenius was posted to the battlefield. Elisa decided to go along with him, and she dressed as a man to do so. Although a handful of people found her out, she eluded a complete compromise of her scheme for some time. Reports came in that her husband had died, but Bernerström continued to ply her trade as a soldier until she was finally discovered by an authority who successfully kicked her out for good. The queen of Sweden expressed her admiration of Bernerström, however, and so did her fellow soldiers, who told a navy admiral about her heroism in an earlier battle. As a result, the military awarded the warrior-woman the Swedish Medal for Valour in the Field. As well, it turned out that her husband hadn’t been killed after all. When the Finnish War ended in 1809, he was released from a Russian military prison, and in 1810 he was reunited with his wife and comrade-at-arms.
8. James Barry
When she was 20-years-old, Margaret Bulkley enrolled in medical school at the University of Edinburgh. Her family had lost its fortune, but through the encouragement of a friend of her uncle and painter James Barry, and with funds from a small inheritance, she decided to become a doctor. Bulkley had a serious challenge to overcome- she was not a man. In the nineteenth century, women could not attend medical school, In fact, people thought that women weren’t intellectually capable of being doctors. This skepticism about women’s abilities made it impossible, then, for men to believe that the small, effeminate man who called himself James Barry could be a woman. But he was. Bulkley had disguised herself as a man, and she kept this disguise for the rest of her life. As James Barry, she finished medical school and joined the British military as a surgeon. Barry became renowned for her emphasis on surgical hygiene. She also performed the world’s first successful Cesarean section. Her social status and occupation took her around the world, and she rubbed elbows with people like Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria. When she died in 1865, someone ignored her request to be buried in the clothes she died in. A worker stripped her body of its clothes; only through this twist of fate did the world discover her true identity.
7. Sarah Edmonds
Born in New Brunswick in 1841, this transplanted Canadian fled her abusive family and moved to the United States. There she took on a new identity. Now Franklin Thompson, she worked as a travelling bible and book salesman in Hartford, Connecticut, and Flint, Michigan. When the Civil War battle call for recruits sounded in 1861, Edmonds enlisted for the North in a Michigan regiment. Although she tended to perform non-combat duties as a nurse, stretcher-bearer and courier, from time to time she took up arms herself. Her many adventures beyond enemy lines pushed her to layer on additional male disguises as an escaped slave and Irish peddler. Injuries and illness began to plague her, but, like many of the disguised women in this list, she did not want to see a doctor for fear of detection. She deserted, therefore, and returned to her life as a woman. She became a nurse for a charitable society and wrote a book about her life as a soldier, with proceeds going to veterans’ aid groups. In gratitude, the US military gave her a military pension in 1884.
6. Malinda Blalock
A surprising number of women soldiered during the 1861-1865 American Civil War by pretending to be men. When the Confederate Army drafted Keith Blalock of North Carolina in 1862, he was not thrilled. He disagreed with North Carolina’s secession from the United States. His wife Malinda didn’t like the idea, either. Their solution to this moral problem ended up being rather complex. Keith reported to duty, and with him was someone he claimed to be his younger brother Sam. Sam, of course, was Malinda disguised as a man. Keith managed to get discharged for health reasons; he rolled around in some poison oak or sumac and convinced camp medics that had a serious disease. Malinda achieved her discharge by admitting that she was a woman. The couple joined Union fighters in Tennessee and caused havoc as guerrillas and scouts. After the war, the pair stayed together until their deaths.
5. Charlotte Parkhurst
Born in New Hampshire in 1812, Charlotte Parkhurst disguised herself as a boy to escape an orphanage. While in the orphanage, she had acquired a love of horses and stable life, so to support herself, the costumed teenager took jobs working in stables. A stable owner took the orphan under his wing and taught Parkhurst how to drive stagecoaches. When the California Gold Rush began, Parkhurst took her chances and in 1851 headed to San Francisco. There she succeeded in becoming a respected stagecoach driver. At some point Parkhurst lost her left eye to a horse’s kicking hoof, so she travelled the dusty California roads with an eyepatch and became known as One-Eyed Charley. She was discovered to be a man only upon her death.
4. Mary Anderson
When New York politician Murray Hall died in 1901, funeral arrangements became more complicated than previously planned. For one thing, funeral directors had to find a dress for the body. Mary Anderson was an orphan born in Scotland who shipped out to the United States dressed in her dead brother’s clothing. She continued her male disguise to rise in prominence, first as a bail bondsman and later as a politician affiliated with the corrupt Tammany Hall rump of city Democrats. Although Hall was too small and smooth-faced to look masculine, her attitude and behavior made her the quintessential Gotham politician: a cigar-smoking, poker-playing, skirt-chasing rapscallion with clout. Like Charlotte Pankhurst, she was able to vote when women legally could not. Hall fooled her two wives and her adopted daughter as well as the political and media powers of the day. Upon news of her outing, the newspapers must have felt a certain amount of delight at the headlines they could write, such as the New York Tribune‘s “She’s Dead, the Poor Fellow!”
3. Dorothy Lawrence
During the First World War, journalist Dorothy Lawrence wanted to be a war correspondent, but her newspaper would not give her media credentials. Well, “Who needs them?” she decided. She acquired a uniform and made friends with two English soldiers who taught her how to walk like a man. She gave herself a convincing shave burn on her face, strapped herself into a corset, made some fake identity papers, and headed to the Continent as Private Denis Smith. Once at the front, she managed to get hired as an engineer. She confided in a soldier named Tommy Dunn, who admired her courage and helped her evade detection. For two weeks in August she manned the trenches at the Somme. Soon she became ill, and rather than put her friend Dunn at risk, she confessed her true identity to her superiors. The British army was not impressed. They sent her home, forbidding her to tell anyone what had happened. The military hierarchy didn’t want an onslaught of cross-dressing English Amazons crowding the field. (Perhaps they knew about some of the women in this article.) After the war ended, Lawrence was allowed to publish her war memoir, which, though successful initially, soon lost its attractiveness to war-weary readers. An orphan who had been raped by her socially prominent guardian, Lawrence had no one to turn to, and she ended up in an insane asylum, where she died a few decades later.
2. Billy Lee Tipton
In 1989, music agent and jazz pianist Billy Lee Tipton died in his Spokane, Washington, trailer. His son discovered the body and called paramedics. When the paramedics began to work on him, they were shocked to find a woman’s body in male clothing. Almost everyone Tipton knew was shocked, including the son, the members of the Billy Tipton Trio, Billy’s ex-wives, and Billy’s other two children. Tipton had spent most of his life with his breasts taped down and a fake penis in his pants. The music business is a tough business, and in the 1930s, it was even tougher for female jazz instrumentalists. One day, therefore, teenage protege Dorothy Lipton decided to undercut the sexist jazz scene in Kansas City by pretending to be a man. He worked extremely hard to make sure that no one knew Dorothy existed. His secretiveness makes knowing any of his motivations unclear, but he may have deliberately undermined his career to avoid risking detection under the celebrity spotlight. Only a handful of close relatives knew that the talented pianist, saxophonist, and bandleader had been born a woman. His children were all adopted, and when they were interviewed, his ex-wives said they had never seen Billy naked. Tipton’s fascinating life has since been the subject of books, musicals, plays, and documentaries.
1. Rusty Kanokogi
By the time she was a teenager, Rena Glickman ran a Coney Island street gang called the Apaches. Unsurprisingly, fitness and strength training attracted this tough kid. When she couldn’t use the weight room at the YMCA because she was female, she used her brother’s equipment instead. In 1955 a male friend used a judo move that threw her across the room, and she was impressed. She took up judo and became very, very good at it. She chafed at the idea that women’s judo wasn’t taken as seriously as men’s judo. She used a disguise to help her make her case. In 1959 she competed in the men’s division of a judo tournament in New York state and won. When an official draped the medal around Glickman’s neck, the official noticed that this man was not what he seemed. Afterwards, her commitment to popularizing martial arts continued. While in Japan to train, she met her husband, and with him she started judo training centres in Brooklyn. Her lobbying led to the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics in 1988. She continued to champion women’s judo until her death.