Women’s History: “Passing” in a Man’s World

Overcoming Gender Restrictions in Career Fields

James Barry/Margaret Ann Bulkley (circa 1789-1865), U.K.

James Barry was a physician who achieved the signal honor of being Britain’s Inspector General in charge of military hospitals at a time when Britain was still the world’s reigning colonial power. Except James Barry was actually Margaret Ann Bulkley. Bulkley, who was only five feet tall and had a high pitched voice, passed as male in order to become a medical doctor and make a good salary at a time when the profession was barred to women and her family was in desperate need of money. Not only did her family knew of the ruse and help to perpetuate it, but afterwards many other people claimed to have been aware of the deception, too.

Image via Vagabond.com

Image via Vagabond.com

Why did she get away with it? Probably because of her connections to powerful people willing to protect her, and possibly also because she practiced medicine in India and South Africa, areas where there would have been a desperate need for doctors, even women doctors pretending to be men. Officially, the “bachelor” Bulkley (she is believed to have been in love with the Governor of the Cape Colony) was able to take her secret to the grave and was only outed at her death when her body was prepared for burial. Later, her old traveling trunk was opened and the new owner discovered a collage of fashion plates from women’s magazines showing gowns, bonnets, slippers, and hairstyles glued to the inside of the lid. All the things she could never wear so long as she continued to be Barry.

She was the first doctor to perform a Caesarian.

William Chandler/Mary Lacy (1740-1801), U.K

At the age of 19, Mary Lacy ran away from home and joined the British Navy as an apprentice carpenter named William Chandler. She was discharged in 1763 after having served for four years years, then kept living as a man while apprenticing for her shipwright’s exams, which she passed in 1770. The next year, however, she developed rheumatoid arthritis and applied to the British Navy for a pension as a war veteran, which, surprisingly, she was granted even though she was a woman and legally barred from service. In 1773, she published an account of her life, ‘The History of the Female Shipwright,” publicizing her experience. Lacy married another shipwright in 1772 and they had six children.

Lt. Harry T. Buford/Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842 – circa 1897), U.S.


Loreta Janeta Velazquez (Harry T. Buford), Library of Congress

Loreta Janeta Velazquez was born in Cuba, but she was sent to school in New Orleans and at age 14 eloped with an officer in the Texas army. When the American Civil War broke out, her husband joined the Confederate Army and Velazquez disguised herself as a Confederate lieutenant, “Lieutenant Harry T. Buford,” in order to follow him. Velazquez first went to Arkansas, where she raised a regiment of volunteers, then took it to join her husband in Florida. A few days later, her husband was killed in a shooting accident, so Velazquez headed north and joined a new regiment in time to fight at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. She later traveled to Tennessee and joined another regiment to fight at the Battle of Fort Donnelson and then the Battle of Shiloh. Near the end of the war, she worked as a spy in both the North and South, using both male and female disguises. Or at any rate, Velasquez claimed she did those things in her book, “The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army,” whose accuracy remains hotly contested among historians.