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The Female Warrior: Cross-Dressing Naval Women

Queer: a controversial term steeped in prejudice. For many, it remains an uncomfortable, even unacceptable term. But in recent years has been reclaimed within the LGBTQ+ community, even becoming an academic term when referring to the history and study of sexuality and gender.

Queering the past becomes a problematic concept when assigning modern terms to people who we cannot ask, and for whom such vocabulary did not exist. Describing a woman as a “lesbian” who pursued an intimate female friendship during the 1800s, at a time when such friendships were encouraged in preparation for marriage, may not suit who she was as a person. Similarly, one cannot assume that a cross-dressing female sailor was transgender if we can no longer ask her motive.

But the fact remains that these occurrences still happened. It is therefore not about definitive labels but about the fact that living outside of expected sexuality or gender expressions is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. People have lived beyond the binary (male, female, heterosexual) for centuries. What these accounts do offer is a beacon of existence to contemporary LGBTQ+ people – they suggest someone is not alone in cross-dressing, or being gay, or pansexual, or trans; you have a history. It may not fit a modern definition, but people have always explored different ways of living, dressing and being.

Evidence of women cross-dressing is traceable as far back as ancient folklore, usually as a means of accessing privileges denied to their sex. Disney’s Mulan, for example, takes its inspiration from ancient Chinese folklore. We do not necessarily question Mulan’s sexuality or her gender identity, but her potential impact is huge.

Cross-dressing is not an expression of one’s sexuality; it is not necessarily an expression of gender identity. It is one strand of the expanding LGBTQ+ acronym. One can be gay and cross-dress, one can be heterosexual and cross-dress; Grayson Perry, Turner-Prize winning artist, makes many public appearances as his alter-ego, Claire, often accompanied by his wife and daughter. It may be about flouting convention, experiencing another side of one’s personality, reducing anxiety, or none of these reasons.

Historical cross-dressing was a precursor to Perry, to drag and ball culture (a competitive LGBTQ+ performance subculture) of the 1980s, as seen most recently in Ryan Murphy’s hit Netflix series, Pose. It happened on board ships and in the music halls frequented by the likes of Vesta Tilley. It may have been about flirting with convention, or gender; most likely it afforded women in particular the fluidity to move in circles usually closed off to them because of their gender. A life at sea, as these three women attest, offered an income, global travel and the freedom to explore one’s identity. Undeniably, these women experienced things other women could only dream of, simply because of the way they chose to pass themselves.

Hannah Snell

A Royal Marine from 1746, under the alias James Gray, Snell saw action in Pondicherry where she was wounded upwards of eleven times.
She forbade a surgeon from removing a bullet from her groin, doing so herself to conceal her sex. Leaving the Marines, she pursued a music hall career and in 1750 was granted a full naval pension after revealing her identity.

Engraving of Hannah Snell by T Maddocks. National Museum of the Royal Navy

Mary Lacy

In 1759, Mary Lacy joined the HMS Sandwich as William Chandler.

After four years at sea, she studied as an apprentice at Portsmouth dockyard where she developed a relationship with a local girl so intimate her colleagues believed they would marry. Whether she was just playing the role or exploring her sexuality we will never know.

In 1770 she became arguably the first woman to sit the shipwright exam, before arthritis forced her to apply for her naval pension the following year.

William Brown

William Brown became the first black woman to serve the Royal Navy after she was reported in the 1815 Annual Register:
“Amongst the crew of the Queen Charlotte…it is now discovered, was a female African, who had served as a seaman in the Royal Navy for upwards of 11 years.”

From the record it appears that Brown joined the Queen Charlotte after a quarrel with her husband; perhaps she saw it as a chance for a fresh start and financial independence.

HMS Queen Charlotte muster list, credit: The National Archives, ref. ADM37/5039

It is incorrect to assume that these women, without doubt, were exploring their gender or sexuality. But, they are representative of a way of life that offered some women who loved other women, or who did not relate to their female body, a chance to live a life more true to who they were.

They forged the way for the male impersonators of the music halls, and the Drag Kings yet to come. There was not the luxury of accurate representation in film and TV; there was no Gentleman Jack on BBC One, celebrating the life of gender non-conforming lesbian, Anne Lister, no Mulan on Disney+.

In fact, even today, these women would struggle to find much of themselves reflected in the mainstream.

There was only chance, circumstance, and perhaps a brief scandal in the papers that suggested somewhere out there were other women like them.

White BG