Adventures in Feministory: Cathay Williams (a.k.a. William Cathay)
Imagine, if you will, that you are living in Missouri at the end of the Civil War (1864 or thereabouts). Imagine also that you are a woman without a ton of moneymaking options who is in need of a job ASAP. Oh, and you are also a recently freed slave living in a place and time where people are still getting used to the idea that you aren't a piece of property. (And we thought it was tough to find a job in this economy.) What on earth will you do to support yourself?
Well, if you are a feisty entrepeneuse with a working knowledge of military life like Ms. Cathay Williams, what you will do is dress in drag and join the U.S. Army. Cathay Williams was born into slavery in Independence (oh the irony), Missouri in 1842. She was forced to work as a house slave until her late teens, but as luck would have it, her "master" died right around the time the Civil War broke out and Williams was able to get out of there. She then took a job as a paid servant for the U.S. Army, cooking and doing laundry for the soldiers whilst observing them and learning all sorts of things about military life that the average woman at the time was far from privy to. While all of this was happening, the United States enacted legislation authorizing six all-black units within the U.S. Army (in 1866).
Considering her knowledge of the military and the fact that she was "tall and powerfully built," Cathay Williams cut her hair and changed her name to William Cathay in order to join the "Buffalo Soldiers" (as the all-black units were known) as a man. Sure, Terry Griffith might have tried something similar in Just One of the Guys, as did Viola in She's the Man (and yes, I am more than just an Amanda Bynes fan and I realize that movie was based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night—an inspiration for Cathay, perhaps?) and Velvet Brown in National Velvet, but none of those cross-dressing dames could hold a candle to Cathay-Williams-Cathay's choice to live her life as an army man in the 1860s. She took serious risks in order to support herself during an era when women were not afforded any real options beyond marriage, and she was by all accounts a good soldier whom no one found out was actually dressing in drag for almost two years.
Image via womenscouncil.org
In 1868, fed up with military life, "William Cathay" faked an illness in order to see a military doctor. Surprise! The exam discovered that the cause of illness was female genitalia and Williams received a dishonorable discharge (from the military, not from her vagina). However, this madcap ending to an unusual army career allowed Cathay Williams to live out the rest of her life as what she was—a strong, brave, woman.
Note: This post was originally published on the Bitch blogs on August 17, 2009. Williams' story still kicks ass, so we're re-posting it today for those who didn't see it the first time around.
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