Jennie Hodgers: A woman who bravely defied sexist norms

Jennie Hodgers

In a piece at The Guardian, Adam Gabbatt wrote about a “a young man called Albert Cashier” who made history, bravely fighting with the 95th Illinois infantry.

The kicker? According to Gabbatt, “Albert Cashier was assigned female at birth.”

Gabbatt noted that the story of this woman would be retold in “Albert Cashier the Musical,” which runs in Chicago through September, and that this production “is timely, given Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he will not allow transgender individuals to serve in the military.”

But Gabbot makes a pivotal mistake in his retelling — instead of celebrating the accomplishments and courage of a woman forced to fight sexist limitations under patriarchy, he bolsters a current narrative, taking away one of the few pages women have in history books.

Born in 1844, Jennie Hodgers wanted to serve her country. Like many women in those times, she was suffocated by the limitations of patriarchy, which sent the message that the only thing a woman was fit to serve was dinner. So she tossed her sewing needles aside and bid farewell to the restrictive roles offered to women, like becoming a wife and mother. Rather than face a life of poverty, Jennie Hodgers chose a path of independence and adventure, ultimately becoming the bravest soldier in her company.

In 1862, Jennie Hodgers enlisted as an infantryman in the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment as “Albert Cashier.” She was captured at Vicksburg while on a mission, and escaped by attacking a guard, seizing his gun, and outrunning her captors. When her company’s flag was taken down by enemy fire, she brazenly climbed a tree while bullets of enemy snipers surrounded her, and attached the tattered flag to a branch up high.

It wasn’t until decades later, in 1914, when “Albert Cashier” arrived at a psychiatric hospital in Illinois with symptoms of advanced dementia, that Hodgers’ secret was revealed. Unable to read or write, she had passed as Albert in order to survive and work in fields she would not have been permitted to otherwise, as a woman. Hodgers, having been discovered to be female, was forced to wear a long skirt for the first time in over 50 years. In The New York Times, history and women’s studies professor Jean R. Freedman explained the impact of such restrictive clothing:

“Unused to walking in the long, cumbersome garments deemed appropriate for her sex, she tripped and fell, breaking a hip that never properly healed. Bedridden and depressed, her health continued to decline, and she died on Oct. 11, 1915.”

Back in 1862, the physical examination required of recruits to join the army only looked at the face, hands, and feet. From that day on, she would live a life outside the bounds of a sexist society. Hodgers hid who she was in order to become the woman she wanted to be.

Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Jess Righthand explains that “Both the Union and Confederate armies actually forbade the enlistment of women.” Women were “mostly confined to the domestic sphere during the Victorian era.” She adds, “At the time, women weren’t perceived as equals by any stretch of the imagination.”

If women wanted a life beyond confinement to the house, with no autonomy — financial or otherwise — they had to get creative. Women bound their breasts, wore loose, layered clothing, cut their hair short and rubbed dirt on their faces in order to look more like young male soldiers.  

In order to avoid being discovered, she found ways to bathe and dress alone. She avoided sharing a tent with any of the men. She kept her shirt buttoned to the chin, to hide the place where an Adam’s apple was missing.

Women like Jennie chose a life of empowerment, honour, and adventure. Historians have uncovered accounts of hundreds of women who “passed” as men to fight in wars. Freedman notes:

“The female Civil War soldiers were not the first American women to fight on the battlefield… Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts served for nearly two years during the Revolution before her sex was discovered in a military hospital. (After being honorably discharged, Sampson received a veteran’s pension for her Revolutionary service, which went to her children upon her death.) Nor would they be the last. But their service came at a crucial time…”

Some women, like Francis Clayton, who enlisted as “‘Jack Williams”’ to fight alongside her husband, wanted to go to war to be with family members. There were also women who began “passing” prior to enlisting as a practical way to avoid poverty (or, in the case lesbians, psychiatric imprisonment and torture). Oftentimes women who lived as men just wanted the freedom to do the things only males were legally allowed to do. Maggie MacLean writes:

“Some women dressed like men and marched off to war with a relative. Others enlisted because they had no means to support themselves after their loved one left home. More than a few were enticed by the wages promised by the army, because money meant freedom from their old roles and the ability to start a new, more independent life. And some female soldiers of the Civil War were simply patriotic and wanted to serve their country.”

In the town where Hodgers finally settled as Cashier, people wondered why “Albert” never married, but no one really thought it was strange for a man to live alone. No one questioned a single man’s right to make a living. A woman doing the same thing would have been labeled a spinster, and likely subjected to a terrible fate — ostracized, punished, and living in poverty.

Worse than that, even, women who rejected heterosexuality and marriage were often subjected to barbaric “remedies” such as “the application of cocaine solutions, saline cathartics, the surgical ‘liberation’ of adherent clitorises, or even the administration of strychnine by hypodermic.”

Equating a woman’s decision to survive to not being a woman at all, as Gabbat does in his piece, referring to Hodgers as “he” throughout, is about as sexist as it gets. As is equating “womanhood” to a particular set of clothes and interests. These women were not male — they were brave, pioneering women who were willing to do whatever they had to in order to experience and accomplish things only men were able to at the time — women who have been largely erased from history. Freedman writes:

“Their exact number [of female Civil war soldiers] is unknown, because their service had to be clandestine, but the ones whose stories we know offer a fascinating glimpse of women who pushed against the boundaries of their Victorian confinement at a time when American women could not vote, serve on juries, attend most colleges or practice most professions, and who, when they married, lost all property rights in most states.”

After her service was complete, Hodgers kept the identity of “Albert” in order to collect a veteran’s pension. As Albert, she was able to participate in veteran’s gatherings, wear her uniform, and relish in the success and the honour she had earned. As Albert, she voted in elections long before women were allowed to vote. Freedman notes that Hodgers “could not read or write, and the jobs available for an illiterate woman would have sunk her into poverty, or even prostitution.” Living as “Albert” meant she was able to make a living and supplement her income with her veteran’s pension.

In 1977, on Memorial Day, Hodgers’ name was added to a second, larger monument at her gravesite in Saunemin, Illinois, in addition to another that read only “Albert D.J. Cashier.” Hodgers is a symbol of defiance and bravery — a pioneer of womankind, who dreamed bigger than the world would allow. To rewrite her as a man does a great disservice to her legacy, and erases the sexism that led her to make the choices she did.

Jennie Hodgers was a heroine of the best kind — she defied all limitations.

Julia Diana Robertson is an author and journalist living in New York . Learn more about her work at: Follow her on Twitter @JuliaDRobertson.

A different version of this article is published at Huffington Post.

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