6 women who have secretly posed as men - for survival, adventure and success

James Barry, with his servant. Picture: Wellcome Library
James Barry, with his servant. Picture: Wellcome Library
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From embarking on their career of choice to fighting on the battlefield, there are several accounts of Scots women who went undercover as men in a bid beat the stark inequalities of the 18th and 19th Century.

At a time when civil, legal and political rights for women were virtually non-existent, women disguising themselves as members of the opposite sex was not just the stuff of the music hall stage - it was the stuff of survival.

A broadside report from 1830 on the

A broadside report from 1830 on the

Here we look at six women who posed as the opposite sex, including one far more recent case, and what drove them to adopt a male alter-ego.

Marian McKenzie/Harry Fitzallen

McKenzie, originally from Holytown in Lanarkshire, emigrated across the Atlantic as a young girl and ended up fighting undercover in several different regiments during the American Civil War

The family left Scotland in 1848 following the death of her mother but it is understood her father also died shortly after arriving in New York.

JK Rowling. Picture: AP

JK Rowling. Picture: AP

McKenzie went on to travel extensively in a bid to make a living.

READ MORE: Six forgotten female warriors of Scotland’s past

When war broke out in 1861 she entered the service aged 18 under the name Harry Fitzallen.

She is described in war records as 5ft 3ins tall with blue eyes, a dark complexion, black hair and rounded features. She is also noted as having “coarse features”.

According to research by Indiana-based Larry Eggleston, McKenzie cropped her hair short, wore a bulky vest and put on men’s clothing before enlisting with the 23rd Kentucky Infantry Regiment, There was no physical exam before signing up.

McKenzie’s true identity was discovered just four months into her service. After joining another regiment she was discharged again.

McKenzie was accused of being a Confederate spy and spent time in jail A newspaper of the day quoted her as saying she “went into the army for the love of excitement and from no motive in connection with the war, one way or another.”

She left service in 1865.

Between 500 and 1,000 women were thought to have served as soldiers during the American Civil War. As well as adventure, they joined up for money, patriotism and to stay close to the men they loved, according to researchers.

Margaret Ann Bulkley/Dr James Barry

Margaret Ann Bulkley dressed as a man for more than 50 years to allow her to embark on her career of choice and first posed as a member of the opposite sex to get into medical school at Edinburgh University.

She was first woman in Britain to graduate as a medical doctor in 1812 and it was only when she died in 1865 that her secret was exposed. This was after 46 years of working as an army medical officer.

It is believed that Bulkley’s mother,from Cork, Ireland, and her uncle, the artist James Barry, were in on the plot to get her into medical school.

After six months at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, she joined the army as a surgeon in 1813 and was put in charge of care on the Cape Colony, present day South Africa where she was lauded for her clinical standards.

Bulkley was so successful at maintaining her deception that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. The woman who laid out her body revealed that‘James Barry’ was indeed a woman.

Correspondence between the medic and the family solicitor also later appeared to confirm her true identity.

READ MORE: Great women of Scotland’s past

Catherine Wilson/John Thompson

Following the death of her parents, Wilson, from a good family in Perth, wore male clothing from the age of 14 in order to acquire work, first as a drover, then a footboy and then a bricklayer in Leith.

She found herself at the heart of an elaborate rouse at her lodgings in the capital when she was blackmailed into marrying the landlady’s daughter after her true identity came to light.

Known as John Thompson, Wilson first arrived in Edinburgh with a drove of cattle at Hollow’s Fair around 1815. She went then on to work as a footboy and groom at the home of a J Williams but left after she offended her boss.

Wilson took lodgings with a Mrs Gray in Leith who started to blackmail her after discovering her true sex.

“She terrified the poor wench by telling her she was liable to transportation for having gone about the country in male attire,” a broadside report published in Edinburgh in 1820 said.

Wilson was blackmailed into marrying her landlady’s daughter, who was pregnant with the child of the local butcher, and pose as the child’s father.

Wilson, 20, eventually went through with the marriage but he finally escaped and confided all to a parish officer.

Wilson, described as stout, short and good-looking, “resumed her petticoats and thus divorced herself from matrimonial troubles,” the report said.

It added: “She left this with the intention of going to Glasgow, in search of employment among the factories, which will be more suited to her sex.”

Mary Ralphson

Ralphson was a trooper who fought alongside her husband, a British Army soldier, at several battles in the mid 1700s with several accounts suggesting she was also on the field at Culloden.

She was born Mary Cameron in 1698 at Inverlochy near Fort William and travelled to Europe with her husband Ralph during the Wars of the Austrian Succession, fighting at the Battle of Dettingen in Germany in 1743.

A report in the Scots Magazine, in 1809, said: “In this engagement, being in the heart of the conflict and surrounded with heaps of slain, she observed a wounded dragoon fall by her side, disguised herself in his clothes, mounted his charger and regained the retreating army in which she found her husband.”

It is said she travelled with her husband’s regiment to fight the Jacobites at Penrith, Falkirk and at Culloden in 1746 but experts in final battle of the campaign have recently doubted claims she was there.

Ralphson lived until she was 110.

Jean Murphy/Patrick Murphy

There is an 1830 report about a Jean Murphy, originally from Limerick, who arrived in Scotland in the early 1800s allegedly having led an army of rebels through Ireland disguised as a man called Patrick.

The account, in a broadside newsheet, sounds fairly fantastical and may reflect the comic value - or indeed fascination - that women dressing as men seemed to conjure.

But it is claimed Jean arrived in Glasgow after being injured during a skirmish which left her with a wound on her thigh and a deep scar on her left cheek.

“With her tall stature, being about 5 feet 9 inches high gave her a masculine appearance, so that it

was impossible for any one to discover her sex,” the report said.

In Scotland, she travelled north, still as James, and got involved with smuggling before returning to Glasgow where she worked as a lamplighter.

It is claimed Jean embarked on a plan to marry her landlady, Jenny Water, in order to steal her money. After a drunken wedding feast, Jean fled before exchanging vows and returned to Ireland.

The report said: “Murphy in a few days sent a letter to Jenny, couched in a most affectionate manner, discovering her sex, which nigh hand put Jenny out of her senses.”

And finally......

J.K Rowling

The Harry Potter author was advised to publish using her initials, and not her first name Joanne, to build an audience among young male reader.

In 2013, she published The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, who according to his biography was a former plainclothes military policeman who left the Army in 2003 to work in the private security industry.

Rowling said she used the male pseudonym due to a “desire to fly under the radar.”

She added: “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.”

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