A Plan for a British “Female Corps”

"Nancy (Miss Walpole)," by Henry William Bunbury, 1790. (Brown University Library)

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]

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!”[5]

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.”[6]

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.[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]

 

[1]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.

[2]“Thalestris, the Amazon Queen,” www.pothos.org/content/index49db.html?page=thalestris-the-amazon-queen, accessed August 20, 2019.

[3]Roy and Lesley Adkins, “Coxheath Camp,” https://blog.adkinshistory.com/coxheath-camp/ accessed August 15, 2019.

[4]Thalestris, “Female Corps,” originally published in the London Morning Post, reprinted in the New-Hampshire Gazette, or, State Journal and General Advertiser, August 24, 1779.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]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.

[10]“A Timeline of Women in the Army,” National Army Museum, London, www.nam.ac.uk/explore/timeline-women-army, accessed August 22, 2019.

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5 Comments

  • Isn’t it equally possible that the letter was written by a man trying to be “clever” and “funny”?

    Where can we read the letter in full?

    Thank you for calling attention to this.

    • I have to concur with the questioning of this as satire. How many women of six feet tall were to be found in England at all in the 18th century? The average height of a soldier in the late 1700’s was 5 feet 8 inches. That means there were certainly taller and shorter men across the spectrum but most tall women in the era were noteworthy for being so in their communities. My quick search shows women in England averaging 5’1″ if the statistics are to be believed.

    • Thanks for your comment and sorry for the late reply. The full text of the letter appeared in the New Hampshire Gazette of August 24, 1779. I found it by accident while searching through the Readex Early American Newspaper Database. Since I left my teaching position in May, I no longer have access to it, and it’s only available through academic and some large public libraries, unless you can get the actual newspaper on microfilm.

  • I first came across this letter some years ago when I was researching a paper on female involvement in politics during the Georgian and Regency era. At first glance it seemed a remarkable find. Unfortunately after consideration I concluded it was more a fine example of the British sense of humour than it was an early example of sexual liberation. Some context is needed I think in reaching a conclusion on its seriousness. The “Morning Post” was the foremost Whig newspaper of its day. Highly critical of the war it was particularly caustic of Lord Germain and Lord Howe. Its editors and principal contributors were two satirical playwrights Henry Dudley and William Jackson (not coincidentally known as “the Viper” for his sarcastic quips and skits at Lord North’s ministries expense). It was also published only weeks after a controversial bill in parliament, which the Whigs and the Post both opposed, for doubling the militia in Britain fearful of a French invasion. Is this a sarcastic solution to the manpower shortage? In my view probably. Finally it needs to be remembered that female involvement in politics in Georgian Britain was not just frowned upon it was considered scandalous. Few examples of active political involvement exist from this period – the most famous and scurrilous being the Duchess of Devonshire’s “Kisses for Votes” impropriety in election of Charles James Fox in 1784. Taken at face value it would be a letter of remarkable sexual liberation – not just for the audacity of the author, but as importantly, from the editors for publishing it. Sadly I fear it is a lampoon at the inadequate running of the war by Germain. Thanks to Jim for bringing it to our attention.

  • When I first saw the title of this article, I did not believe it. I did not think any such thing could have been proposed so early as the War for Independence. Apparently I underestimated, again, the surprising facets of reality.

    I am so surprised, but I think the men who read this letter—unless they did indeed take it as a satire written by a man—were very much more surprised. There was something, perhaps a great something, still left of chivalry at that time. Women were regarded—and, ideally, respected—as separate from men, as the charges men were bound by their duty as men to protect. Frederika Charlotte Louise Riedesel, wife of Brunswick major general Friedrich Adolph Riedesel who accompanied him to America, wrote in her diary that, during the Saratoga Campaign, she along with the wounded and other soldiers’ wives were holed up in a house that the American forces, having mistaken it for a headquarters (or some similar important station; I’m sorry I don’t quite remember exactly what), were cannonading. They ran out of water (the wounded inside must have especially had a need for it), but were unable to venture outside to draw water from the well because the Americans were firing upon all who left the building. One of the women finally had had enough of it, and went out to draw water; she was not fired upon—because she was a woman.

    With this mindset towards women, can you imagine the horror an army of men would have felt upon facing an army of women? A woman army would have been, in my opinion, a crushing, a shattering blow to the morale of the opposing army. So not only would it have been thought preposterous for a woman to be able to fill a soldier’s lot (as the “weaker sex”), but it would have inspired horror.

    I just wanted to mention this viewpoint and this aspect of this issue, to suggest that perhaps all of the contempt and astonishment with which such a proposal may have been received was not all due to “misogynism”, but was due, at least in part, to this cultural view of women. I am a woman, which I mention in hopes that it may alleviate any offense this comment may possibly inspire.

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