When the Battle of Gettysburg started in July 1863, five women counted themselves among the throngs of soldiers entering into battle, echoing the presence of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of other women serving in other areas at the time. But to see it from a re-enactment perspective, you’d think no women were involved with the Civil War at all.
So says a recent piece from Slate, which chronicles the injustices and discrimination female Civil War re-enactors suffer regularly while trying to practice their historical hobby. Take, for example, the case of Kim Hopfer, a re-enactor playing a soldier from the 138th Pennsylvania, a volunteer infantry unit:
“Kim Hopfer, a mother of two, lives on a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She works as a truck driver, and each year spends her one week of vacation re-enacting the Civil War—not in a hoop skirt and bonnet, knitting socks, but in a pair of Union blue trousers, among the ranks of the 138th Pennsylvania. The re-enacting community often derides wannabe re-enactors whose personas are historically inaccurate as “farbish,” but in fact Kim is far from farbish. She represents one of as many as a thousand women who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the war, cross-dressed as men.”
The result of that cross-dressing now, as then, is a bit of “gender performance” that has women trying to look like one of the boys, lest they be removed from the field of battle for their “farbish” errors. But, still, even if a female re-enactor gets the entire getup right, they’re still likely to face a fair amount of discrimination—presuming, of course, they can get onto the field at all.
Slate writer Leigh Stein recounts a re-enactment gone wrong:
In 1989, a woman named Lauren Cook Burgess was “caught” coming out of the ladies’ room dressed as a field musician during a re-enactment at Antietam National Battlefield Park. The National Park Service, citing “authenticity,” banned her from the re-enactment, and Burgess went on to successfully sue the NPS for sex discrimination. After the suit, she faced a great deal of backlash from the re-enacting community, including hate mail, and hostility from male re-enactors.
Burgess subsequently filed a lawsuit for gender discrimination and won, but that hasn’t changed the re-enactment rulebook any. As Stein quotes from the Official Gettysburg Anniversary Committee site:
“Women portraying soldiers in the ranks should make every reasonable effort to hide their gender. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women passed themselves off as men in order to serve as soldiers during the war—on both sides, and we will never know exactly how many did so because their disguises were so good. Honor them. If any Army or event volunteer (as above) determines the female gender at not less than 15 feet, that individual will be asked to leave the field/ranks.”
The result of that particular set of rules, of course, has been the proliferation of a mindset that renders any disagreement with the gender roles as at least as “inauthentic” as the women who are making the perceived error in the first place. Essentially, you cannot disagree with the rulebook without being seen as someone who just doesn’t “get it.”
Which is interesting, considering that “getting it” would seem to constitute recognizing that female re-enactors today want to pay homage to a group of women who had to hide their identities to serve their countries 150 years ago in the first place. Or, put another way:
The women who’d fought in the Union and Confederate armies 150 years ago had the challenge of forsaking their female identities and assimilating into a completely male culture. But female re-enactors today aren’t trying to disappear into the ranks—they’re fighting for recognition as a subculture within a subculture.
Whether that recognition will come depends upon one thing: an acceptance among re-enactors that their hobby is as much performance as it is history. Authenticity, in that sense, can only go so far, and enforcing it’s ghost after a certain point more or less amounts to the discrimination we’re seeing in Gettysburg and elsewhere. And, worse, allowing that discrimination seems to miss the entire philosophical point of the Civil War in the first place.
So, perhaps what’s necessary here is the most counter-intuitive thing for any historical re-enactment buff: moving on. Sometimes stories cannot be told otherwise.