We’re constantly hearing how we’re on the path towards gender equality, yet when we see the current landscape, it feels like we continue to fall down the same pitfalls as before. There’s the wage gap, the health gap, the constant influx of stereotypes in the media, and gender violence across the world. Everywhere you turn it feels that despite all the progress we continue to have issues rooted in prejudice and ignorance. But despite all this gloomy world stage, we can’t pretend that there haven’t been several brave souls who crossed barriers nobody believed were possible. It was their actions that shaped modernity and have created strides in the path towards equal opportunity.
Despite the connotations our contemporary perception has on historical figures who have assumed the name of another gender, most of them were not actually declarations of sexuality. In fact, for many, it was the only way for them to survive a harsh reality. Here are 7 women who changed the world in their own way by taking on male identities. Some you might be familiar with. Others have stories that even the top screenwriters in Hollywood couldn’t come up with.
While on the outside Mary’s life as a pirate sounds like one full of adventure and excitement, it’s actually rooted in some tragic situations. Born in the seventeenth century, her mother had a son from her marriage to a sailor who was eventually lost at sea. Around this time, Mary was born from an affair and her older brother died. In order to continue making ends meet, her mother dressed her in her brother’s clothes so that her late husband’s family would continue supporting them. Eventually Mary joined the navy and, during a battle, she fell in love with a fellow soldier and revealed herself to him. Sadly, he died shortly after and she was forced to go back to her male alias. She found herself in the West Indies and became part of the Golden Age of Piracy. She then ended up on a ship with another woman in disguise, Anne Bonny. When the crew was captured, both Mary and Anne pleaded to the court to spare them the death sentence since they were pregnant. Mary died in childbirth, but her story of the high seas continues to fascinate storytellers and historians to this day.
This name might not sound familiar at first, but it’s likely you’ve read or heard about this author’s work through her male pseudonym: George Eliot. As a woman living in the nineteenth century in England, Mary Ann had the chance to be well read and educated by her father, who expected her to become a governess. However, she proved to be an exception to every rule of the time. She was raised protestant, yet considered herself to be agnostic. She entered in a relationship with George Lewes, a married man, without ever attempting to hide her affair. When she began sending her work to be published, she chose the name George Eliot, so that her work would not be seen as a romance but a realist sort of fiction. This was also a way for her words to not be sullied by London society who had deemed her relationship to be scandalous.
So this bullet is a three for one. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were also born into this repressive and hypocritical moment from history that is the Victorian era. Taking on the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton, the sisters were able to publish a small book of poems in 1846. From then on, it wasn’t long before they started releasing their novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the latter which wasn’t much of a hit at first. Through this, they were able to support their sick father and drug addicted brother. Despite all their hardships they're among the greatest authors out there.
When Dr. James Barry was found dead at his home in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, the people who handled soon realized that this was not a man but a woman. Margaret had always been known to be a bold young woman who did not want her sex to dictate her future. She enrolled in the medical school at Edinburgh and eventually led a career as a physician. She was a vegetarian, since she recommended her patients to have a healthy diet and lifestyle to prevent disease. She was part of the first few doctors to perform a successful C-section. Had her secret been uncovered prior to her death, we might have never known of all her achievements.
At the turn of the twentieth century women were still fighting as much as they could to have the vote. Susan B. Anthony had been arrested in 1872 for attempting to cast her vote while disguised as a man. However, around this time, a politician was garnering popularity in New York City and becoming a household name. Murray Hall voted several times and was involved in organizing political maneuvers for the Democratic Party at Tammany Hall. Hall appeared in several photographs exercising the citizen’s right to vote. After Hall’s death, it was revealed that she was in fact female but had been living under the guise of her male alias in order to participate in political suffrage for over 25 years. There’s no clue whether discovering the fact that a prominent public figure had actually been a woman helped with the women’s movement that resulted in their right to vote.
So what’s your take on the lives of these women? Do you think it was their drive that made them realize they needed to shed their identity to become the person they wanted to be? Or was it a choice that proved that the social construct was built for men rather than women? Regardless, we’re sure that they influenced a whole generation of young women to look and think outside the frameworks that had been placed on them since their birth. It was a step towards the equality we continue to hope for.