It’s a man’s world, or so the old saying goes. Though women in history haven’t always been able to fight in wars, publish books, or live adventurous lives, that has never stopped women disguised as men from stepping up to the plate and taking care of business. Women who pretended to be men have helped win wars, shape nations, and set precedents for everything women are capable of.
Cross-dressing has a long list of historical purposes. Though the public opinion and legality of cross-dressing has fluctuated throughout history, men and women have both been documented switching up their genders for a variety of purposes, including romance, espionage, or just pure fun. Though, more often than not, the women who disguised themselves as men, including many on this list, swapped genders in order to avoid persecution while going about their game-changing business. Some of these women disguised themselves as men for a single battle, while others practically lived out their entire lives as the opposite sex. Whatever their reason, we should just be thankful for the power of the pixie cut and the fake mustache. As RuPaul has so wisely taught us, gender is but a construct, baby!
Before she was a legend, Joan of Arc was just your average 15th-century French peasant girl - worried about boys, her hair, the plague - you know, teen stuff. But one day, a handful of saints came to her in a vision, saying it was her duty to help lead France to victory over the English. Somehow, Joan found her way to court and was granted a military appointment, a.k.a. armor, a horse, and instructions to pretend she was a man. She was an exceptional military leader and King Charles VII was a great champion of her, but the Burgundians and the English saw her as a threat. She was captured by Burgundian forces in 1430 and rushed through a religious trial in 1431 which culminated in her execution. In 1456, she was exonerated, a decision which paved the way to her eventual sainthood.
The classic Disney animated film Mulan (with a live-action reboot in the works) is actually based on an ancient Chinese ballad. In this tale, dated around 500 CE, China is invaded and Mulan joins the army in place of her elderly father. Mulan spends more than 10 years fighting and rising through the ranks. She travels far, meets many new friends, and develops a mastery of kung fu. Yet, when the war is over, she retires to her hometown and lives simply. Unfortunately, no historical evidence suggests the presence of a small, Eddie Murphy-esque dragon.
Though Hatshepsut never falsified her identity as a woman, she still certainly took matters of gender into her own hands. Hatshepsut was the second female pharaoh to rule Egypt, and is regarded as one of the kingdom’s greatest rulers of all time - male or female. While it was no secret she was a woman, Hatshepsut asserted her authority by decking herself out in full traditional pharaoh attire, including a Khat head cloth, kilt, and even a false beard. Why don’t more female politicians do this?
Rusty Kanokogi is best known for pioneering women's judo in the United States. Kanokogi, born Rena Glickman in Brooklyn in 1935, began practicing judo in the 1950s - but found she was often discouraged from learning because she was a woman. In 1959, Kanokogi entered a judo championship disguised as a man and won the whole shebang. Unfortunately, she was forced to return her medal after her identity was revealed. Kanokogi then left the United States for Japan, where she became the first woman to train with the men of the Kodokan - the judo world headquarters. Later, she was instrumental in making women's judo an Olympic sport. She coached the first women's judo Olympic team at the 1988 Olympics.