The thought of allowing women to serve in combat was considered ridiculous only a few decades ago in most western nations; it was an even more bizarre concept during the American Revolution. Although both the British and Continental armies accepted the presence of female camp followers—usually the wives of soldiers—and issued them rations as compensation for the services they provided as cooks, nurses, and laundresses, there is no evidence that any leaders on either side ever considered putting muskets in the hands of women. There were a few unusual cases, such as that of Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment, and the fabled “Molly Pitcher” taking her wounded husband’s place in the crew of an artillery piece, but these individuals attracted attention because they were so rare. A few British women attempted to enlist but were quickly discovered. However, had the advice of one bold British woman been heeded, Sir Henry Clinton’s army might have alleviated its shortage of manpower by marching into battle against George Washington’s Continentals with several regiments of musket-bearing, bayonet-wielding women.
The unknown woman who proposed this plan in July 1778 did so in a letter to the editor of a London newspaper, the Morning Post. She identified herself as a resident of Sunbury, a town just outside London, but signed her letter with the pseudonym “Thalestris.” The name was significant given the content of her letter, because Thalestris was said to have been the queen of the mythical Amazon nation of warrior women, and according to legend had met with Alexander the Great during the Macedonian leader’s campaign near the Caucasus region, circa 330 B.C. The writer had visited, or was at least familiar with, the British military camp at Coxheath, about thirty miles southeast of London and only a few miles farther from Sunbury, where militia forces were being trained to repel a possible French invasion of England. There were numerous female camp followers at Coxheath, and they had their own section of tents at the back of the encampment. Thalestris conceded that these women “may probably imagine that they are already acting for the common good; whether they are or no is not for me to say: we may suppose them happily, and honourably employed.”
The life of a camp follower did not interest Thalestris, however, nor did she think that such a role should be the only one available for women in a time of national emergency. She described herself as “a young woman of spirit” eager “to exercise the portion of abilities Heaven has allotted to me for some noble end.” Unfortunately, social conventions denied her this opportunity. “My mind is hurt,” she lamented, “whenever I reflect on the insignificant, and no meaning figure our sex cut, at the present alarming crisis, when every loyal, and truly spirited Briton, is bearing arms in defence of his King and Country.” With France’s entry into the war, and a large force already committed to fight in America, Thalestris recognized that “a considerable addition to our troops may be found necessary.” She noted that “every part of the kingdom is in a manner stript [of manpower], and recruits grow scarce,” before offering a solution: “I cannot see why an army of women, well trained and disciplined, should not prove as effectually useful as one of men!”
It was not Thalestris’s intention that women should serve alongside men in the same regiments, but that they “should have a department assigned them, in which they might have as favourable an opportunity of making manifest their zeal for the welfare of the nation” as men had. “Actuated by the same principles of honour, and emulous to excel, numbers (no doubt) would distinguish themselves in a manner that might redound to their fame.” The writer cited the mythical Amazons as “an example worthy imitation,” adding that British women might achieve the same renown as warriors if they could only “convince the world, and its censurers” that they were capable of “some great, and glorious exploits.”
Evidently Thalestris had given a great deal of consideration to the specific elements of her women’s corps. She proposed that the enlisted ranks be recruited from “every stout, well-made woman, measuring six foot, in London, and different parts of the country.” Once “formed in regiments, and habited en militaire, they would make as noble, and formidable an appearance as the Grenadiers.” The officers “of the female army, should consist of persons of all sizes, that every one might be allowed to serve in some capacity or other; a consideration, apparently in favour of myself, being but five feet three and half.” Thalestris did not intend to allow her short stature to deprive her of the opportunity to perform military service.
The women’s corps, the writer declared, might be “equally successful” in battle as the most famous existing regiments. She added facetiously that their enemies might be “struck with wonder and admiration at the dazzling sight” of female soldiers, and that there was no “nation so savage, but would yield their arms, and acknowledge the power of all conquering beauty.” This humorous tone was repeated at the end of the essay, when Thalestris acknowledged herself to be a “spinster,” noting that with so many men serving in the army or navy, she and other unmarried women had no entertainment other than “stupid, and insipid” parties, “for want of beaus.” The self-deprecation and mention of the power of women’s appearance may have been an attempt by the writer to insulate herself from criticism; she could defend herself from accusations of breaking women’s traditional boundaries by claiming her essay was satirical, yet still express her opinion to less judgmental readers.
Thalestris closed with an appeal that women “may be allowed liberty, and opportunity, to display those talents, which are capable of being cultivated for the noblest uses, and which were never intended to lie buried in obscurity, or remain in a state of inactivity.” The forceful statement indicates that even if she did not expect her proposal to receive serious consideration, she was certainly frustrated with the limits imposed on women in eighteenth-century Britain.
The plan to create a British female corps for battlefield service was ignored, but it reflected the desire of women on both sides of the Atlantic for a larger and more important public role. The extraordinary demands and changing conditions during wartime encouraged some women to take advantage of the circumstances to press for change. Abigail Adams urged her husband John to have the Continental Congress “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors” when creating a new government, only to have John reply that “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.” Thalestris’s proposal to arm women and employ them in combat was for more radical than Abigail Adams’ modest request, so it is no surprise that the idea never received serious consideration. It was not until 2018 that the first women were allowed to serve in combat roles in the British army, 240 years after Thalestris offered her plan. Less than forty women were initially assigned to these new duties, indicating that while Thalestris may have been farsighted in formulating her plan, she probably would have been disappointed with the small number of recruits had her proposed “Female Corps” been approved.
Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004); for a thorough examination of the Molly Pitcher legend, see Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 326-330.
“Thalestris, the Amazon Queen,” www.pothos.org/content/index49db.html?page=thalestris-the-amazon-queen, accessed August 20, 2019.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa, accessed Aug. 22, 2019; John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776, ibid., www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760414ja, accessed August 22, 2019.
“A Timeline of Women in the Army,” National Army Museum, London, www.nam.ac.uk/explore/timeline-women-army, accessed August 22, 2019.