Our class discussion on Tuesday sparked several different trains of thought for me regarding women, the military and the acceptable outlets for women’s violence. Last semester I wrote a term paper on Deborah Sampson Gannett, a woman who fought during the Revolutionary War in America. She served, dressed as a man, undetected for not quite two years. Despite being shot several times, it was only after she contracted “brain fever” that her sex was discovered by a doctor and she was honorably discharged. Following the end of the war, she was granted a pension and toured the newly formed United States demonstrating her skills as a soldier.
I bring her up because I think she is telling of not only women’s capabilities, but also that her military services were admired by both men and women. When I initially began researching her, I was not expecting to find positive reviews about her gender transgressions. By all accounts though, Sampson was an excellent soldier and her peers and superiors readily acknowledged this. According to her contemporary biographer, Alfred Mann, she was honorably discharged by a general, who thanked her for her service. John Hancock, the very same man who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote a letter arguing for her pension. I think it is fascinating that during a time when women were regulated to the home and denied any formal space in the public sphere, Sampson was honored for her military service, a clear violation of her role. I think she illustrates nicely that war time creates a space for women to change their social role.
I also found it incredibly interesting that Sampson was not alone. While I did not come across any other women that dressed in male clothing to fight, there were several instances of women stepping in to take their husbands’ places when they died. For example, Margaret Corbin fired a cannon when her husband was killed during battle. She too was given a pension. Again, war time creates a space for women to act out beyond the sphere they are normally delegated to, and allows them the opportunity to contribute in a more physical way in nation building. For both of these women following the war, however, they returned to domestic life. It was only in the instance of war that they escaped the home.
Our discussion of acceptable instances of female violence (e.g. defending her children, fighting an attacker or as the result of an emotion) immediately reminded me of the Oxygen television series Snapped. Each episode of this documentary-style show follows the story of a woman who “snapped” and commits a violent crime. Usually the woman is accused of murdering a husband or lover. This show demonstrates very clearly though how our society views female violence. The title itself is revealing–it indicates that violence is not the norm for women, and it is only under extreme pressure or extreme circumstances that a woman responds violently. Of the episodes I have seen, the woman’s actions are also explained as the result of intense emotions as opposed to her natural disposition; it is presented as a shock. This demonstrates that violence is not expected of women, and when it does occur, it has to be rationalized in some way.