FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kansas (March 18, 2021) -- On June 12, 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which legally permitted women to serve in any of the four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces in several official capacities.
But for years before that, women were already serving under the guise as men.
This is the focus of the latest exhibit at the Frontier Army Museum, which was installed March 11 in honor of Women’s History Month.
Fayelee Overman, FAM museum technician, found evidence of women disguising themselves as men at the times of the Revolutionary, Mexican-American and Civil Wars.
“A lot of people don’t realize women were disguising themselves, and I don’t think a lot of people were thinking about why they were disguising themselves,” Overman said. “The main reason was independence and to financially sustain themselves.
“A lot of times, they were following their lovers or family members into service,” she said.
Additional research information on the main panel in the exhibit offered another possibility that has only recently become acceptable in today’s military.
“Other (women) may have simply wanted to be soldiers or to identify as men. Transgender, gender fluid and androgynous are words now common in today’s society,” the panel reads. “Before our time words like these did not exist, but that does not mean the people who identified with them did not.”
The exhibit also includes information on Elizabeth Newcom, who disguised herself as Bill Newcomb and enlisted at Fort Leavenworth in 1847; what women had to do to keep up their disguises, and women who, instead of disguising themselves, provided aid to regiments as vivandieres.
It also includes artifacts such as a pipe to represent how women would take up smoking to further make their disguise believable; a foot artillery sword; an M1837 powder flask; and a percussion cap pouch.
There is also a composite image of Frances L. Clalin Clayton who, disguised as Jack Williams, fought in the Civil War.
Overman said some women were discovered.
“A lot of time they weren’t found out until their bodies were recovered on the battlefield or if they got injured and were discovered by the medic,” Overman said. “I did read some accounts where they just moved in too feminine of a way or sometimes, they even got pregnant. ... So, there were some patterns of them being discovered.
“I have not been able to find anything about the consequences (when they were discovered),” she said. “I honestly think they were just kicked out. … That’s something I’m hoping to explore further.”
Overman said she hopes the exhibit inspires a conversation, especially in light of Women’s History Month.
“I hope it surprises (people); I hope it encourages them to look into this topic further and maybe try to research some of the women that I talk about,” Overman said. “I mention six different names, but there are many more. … It’s just about getting the word spread a little bit more about these women and what they were doing and their struggle.”
FAM is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.