12 Times Women Disguised As Men Made History

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!  

Photo: Adolf Alexander Dillens / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • Joan of Arc Was Just A Teenager When She Helped Lead The French Army To Victory
    Photo: Jean-Jacques Scherrer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Before she was a legend, Joan of Arc was just your average 15th-century French peasant girl. 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 – 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.

  • Hua Mulan, Disguised As Her Father, Became A Kung-Fu Master
    Photo: British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Hua Mulan, Disguised As Her Father, Became A Kung-Fu Master

    The classic Disney animated film Mulan 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.

  • Hatshepsut Built Egypt's Greatest Trade Routes While Wearing A Beard

    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.

  • Rusty Kanokogi Disguised Herself And Won A Judo Championship
    Video: YouTube

    Rusty Kanokogi Disguised Herself And Won A Judo Championship

    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.

  • Hannah Snell Traveled The World And Skirted Death As 'James Gray'

    Hannah Snell was born in England in 1723 but spent her life disguised as a male soldier named James Gray. During her stint with the Marines, Snell was wounded in battle 12 times, including a hit to the groin. How she managed to recover from injury and mask her true identity is still unknown.

    Eventually, though, Snell revealed her gender, was honorably discharged, was granted a pension, and opened a pub called The Female Warrior.

  • George Eliot Wrote As A Man And A Woman, Proving Great Literature Knows No Gender
    Photo: Frederic William Burton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    British-born Mary Ann Evans was already a distinguished writer and editor when, in the mid-1850s, she wrote her first full-length novel under the pen name George Eliot. Her foremost reason for doing so was an attempt to be taken seriously as a writer because most of the fiction being published by women at the time was regarded as “silly.” Her plot worked, of course, as Middlemarch and her many other works are regarded as some of the finest Victorian literature ever written.