15 Fearless Women Who Posed As Men To Pursue Their Dreams

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Throughout history, many women have defied societal norms and disguised themselves as men to break barriers and seize otherwise inaccessible opportunities. From joining the military to exploring new worlds, these courageous women took bold steps to forge their own paths and leave their mark on the world. Here are 15 famous women who had to dress as men to get ahead.

Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc, a peasant girl from Domrémy, France, claimed to have received visions from saints instructing her to support Charles VII and liberate France from English domination. In 1429, she approached Charles and convinced him to let her lead an army to lift the Siege of Orléans. Donning male armor and adopting a short haircut, Joan gained the respect and confidence of her troops through her charismatic leadership and unyielding faith. Captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English, she was tried and burned at the stake in 1431.

Cathay Williams

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Born in 1844, Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to enlist in the United States Army by disguising herself as a man. Enlisting under the name William Cathay in 1866, she served in the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Williams managed to keep her true identity hidden for nearly two years despite facing the harsh conditions of military life and the challenges of combat. Her ruse was discovered when she sought medical treatment, leading to her discharge in 1868.

Deborah Sampson


Under the name Robert Shurtliff, Deborah Sampson served in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, participating in dangerous missions and skirmishes. Born in Massachusetts in 1760, she posed as a man and joined the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Sampson was wounded multiple times, including a severe leg injury, which she treated herself to avoid detection. Her identity was eventually discovered when she fell ill and required medical attention, leading to her honorable discharge in 1783. After the war, she married and had children.

Margaret Ann Bulkley

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Having never been found out until her death, Margaret Ann Bulkley died as a Dr. James Barry. Born in Ireland around 1789, she adopted the identity of Dr. James Barry to pursue a career in medicine at a time when women were barred from the profession. Barry enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, earning a medical degree, and subsequently joined the British Army as a surgeon. Over a distinguished career spanning more than 40 years, she performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections. Barry maintained her male persona until her death in 1865, when her secret was discovered during post-mortem preparations.

Hannah Snell


In search of her missing husband, Hannah Snell, born in Worcester, England, in 1723, assumed the identity of James Gray. Enlisting in the British Royal Marines in 1745, she served aboard the ship Swallow and later fought in battles in India, including the siege of Pondicherry. Snell sustained multiple injuries in combat, including eleven gunshot wounds, which she treated herself to keep her secret. After three years of service, she revealed her true identity to her shipmates, who supported her claim for a military pension. The Royal Hospital Chelsea granted her a pension, recognizing her bravery and service.

Catalina de Erauso (The Lieutenant Nun)

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Escaping the convent at 15, Catalina de Erauso, a Basque noblewoman born in 1592, began dressing as a man. She adopted the name Francisco de Loyola and went on a series of adventures across Spain and the Americas. Catalina served as a soldier in various campaigns, demonstrating remarkable bravery and skill in battle. Her exploits included participating in duels and eventually rising to lieutenant. After years of military service, she revealed her true identity and received a special papal dispensation to continue dressing as a man, making her a legendary figure in Spanish history.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

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Excelling so much as a man, Sarah Emma Edmonds gained veteran recognition from the U.S. government even after being found out. Sarah Emma Edmonds, born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1841, fled an abusive home and camouflaged herself as a man to live freely. Under Franklin Thompson’s alias, she enlisted in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Edmonds served as a field nurse, participated in espionage missions behind Confederate lines, and even conducted dangerous reconnaissance operations. After contracting malaria, she left the army, later writing a memoir about her experiences.

Dorothy Lawrence

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Unable to obtain accreditation as a female journalist, Dorothy Lawrence became Denis Smith and joined the British Expeditionary Force to report on World War I from the front lines. She managed to infiltrate the Somme battlefield, where she lived and worked as a soldier for ten days, sneaking with the help of Tom Dunn to sleep in a cabin at night. Eventually giving herself up after ten days for fear of implicating her helpers, she was arrested and sent back to England. After the war, she published her memoir, “Sapper Dorothy Lawrence,” detailing her extraordinary experience as a female war correspondent in disguise.

Nadezhda Durova

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Serving with distinction during the Napoleonic wars, Nadezhda Durova, born in Russia in 1783, left home undercover as a man to escape an unhappy family life. She joined the Russian cavalry under the name Alexander Durov and participated in numerous battles, displaying exceptional bravery and earning several commendations, including the Cross of St. George. Her true gender was eventually revealed, but Tsar Alexander I allowed her to continue serving. After her military career, she wrote popular memoirs in Russia, celebrating her adventures and contributions to the war effort.

Malinda Blalock

Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill Libraries/Wikipedia

When Keith Balock was conscripted into the Confederate Army, his wife, Malinda, cut her hair, donned male clothing, and enlisted under the name Samuel Blalock to stay and fight by his side. The couple quickly realized their anti-Confederate sentiments and defected, joining a Unionist guerrilla group in the Appalachian Mountains. Malinda proved herself a capable and courageous fighter, participating in numerous raids and skirmishes. After the war, she returned to her female identity and lived out her days with her husband.

Charlotte Parkhurst

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Popular for being the “best whip in California,” Charley Parkhurst was a renowned stagecoach driver during the Gold Rush, famous for handling six-horse teams. This perilous job involved transporting gold through deserts and mountains, facing threats from outlaws and harsh weather. Parkhurst, recognizable by a black eyepatch, whiskey, and cigars, was revealed to be a woman upon her death in 1879. Born Charlotte Parkhurst in 1812 in New Hampshire and abandoned by her parents, she fled an orphanage dressed as a boy and learned to handle horses in Massachusetts.

Isabelle Eberhardt

French-Algerian photographer Louis David/Wikipedia

Isabelle Eberhardt was a Swiss explorer who traveled extensively in North Africa. Educated and multilingual, she often dressed as a man to navigate freely. Eberhardt and her mother moved to North Africa in 1897, where they converted to Islam; after her mother’s death, Eberhardt settled in northern Algeria. Under the male alias Si Mahmoud Essadi, she traveled widely within Arabic society and married Algerian soldier Slimane Ehnni in 1901. Eberhardt documented her journeys in several books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes (1905) and Dans l’Ombre Chaude de l’Islam (1906).

Frances L. Clayton

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In 1863, Frances Clayton traveled across the Midwest seeking back pay owed to her late husband, who died in the Civil War. She spoke to reporters about her past as a Union soldier, having enlisted alongside her husband, posing as a man named Jack Williams. They fought together until he was killed at the Battle of Stones River, where she had to step over his body. After revealing her true identity, she was discharged. Newspapers reported her story between 1863 and 1865, and photos of her in uniform became famous. However, historians question her story due to inconsistent reports and lack of pension records.

Kit Cavanaugh

Scottish Military Historical Society/Wikipedia

Disguising as Christian Davies, Kit was an Irish woman who disguised herself as a man to join the British army in 1693, aiming to find her drafted husband. Serving under the Duke of Marlborough, she fought the French for a decade and eventually found her husband, who kept her secret so she could continue serving. Her identity was revealed in 1706 after a battle injury required surgery. Though discharged, she stayed with the dragoons as the officers’ cook. After her husband died in battle, she remarried twice, retired in 1712, and opened an inn. Queen Anne granted her a lifetime pension, and she received a military burial.

Milunka Savić


At 24, Milunka Savić joined the Serbian army disguised as a man, either impersonating or accompanying her brother. During the nine-day Battle of Bregalnica, she earned a medal and promotion for her bravery. Her gender was revealed after a grenade wounded her, but she insisted on continuing as a combatant, and her commanding officer relented. In World War I, she received the Karađorđe Star with Swords twice for her heroism, including capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers single-handedly. She also earned medals from France, Russia, and Britain, becoming the most decorated female combatant in history.


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