One Iron Lady Salutes Another

“Meryl Streep!”  I know that resonates.

Yes, as an opener I conspicuously just dropped a resounding name.  I don’t ordinarily do that but this is important.  I heard the great actress confirm recently  on the Ellen DeGeneres show that she had bequeathed her ENTIRE salary earned for acting in “The Iron Lady” – to a cause.  

Millions of dollars!

Turned out Ms. Streep gave the money to build a Washington, D.C. museum of notable historic American women.  While the capital city abounds in museums – ranging from the august Smithsonian to the National Museum of Crime – there is none to celebrate heroic American women.  Our own courageous females continue to be notoriously neglected.  

Ms. Streep went on briefly but eloquently to describe her heroine, Deborah Sampson, an Eighteenth Century Massachusetts Bay colonist.  Deborah Sampson!  I have been enthralled by her heroic life for more than a decade and wrote a book, Soldier’s Secret, celebrating her life.   

All during Sampson’s adolescence, there was the Revolutionary War.  Her 13th birthday was on December 17, 1773, the date of the Boston Tea Party.   Intensely patriotic, she longed to be a Minute Woman but there were only Minutemen.  She yearned to enlist.  She read Tom Paine and watched the soldiers drilling on the village green.  

Three times she had the same eerie prophetic dream: she, Deborah, would rise up and smite the enemy; she would lead the troops like her heroine, Joan of Arc.

Deborah Sampson was unusually tall, five feet seven inches.  The average height of colonial women was five feet.  She was strong and able, the result of being an indentured farm laborer from ages eight to eighteen.  The child of an impoverished mother who had been deserted by her husband, Deborah did both indoor and outdoor chores.  She was largely responsible for the care of the five boys in the family; she wove and spun and sewed; she did laundry and tended the animals, chopped wood, and worked in the garden.  She borrowed books from the boys and sat in, when allowed, during their lessons.  Her love of reading and her curiosity about the world was insatiable.

At the age of eighteen, once she was no longer indentured, she worked as a weaver, a spinner, and a teacher. 

Women were not allowed to wear pants in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The penalties were whipping, ridicule, and ostracism.

However, one dark night in May 1782 when Deborah Sampson was twenty-one years old, she sneaked away clad in a coat, a waistcoat, breeches and a tunic fashioned to flatten her chest, all garments made of cloth she’d secretly woven and sewn.  Thus she fled, moving only by night along dangerous dark roads.  When she was far from home and possible recognition, she met a speculator who was recruiting soldiers, and who offered to help her enlist in nearby Bellingham.  He assured her there was no physical examination required. 

She used the name Robert Shurtliff, her dead brother’s name.  No one asked; she didn’t tell.  She wanted to serve and not be limited by her gender.

As Robert Shurtliff, she was inducted into the Continental army, assigned to the Light Infantry Rangers and she served seventeen months of active duty.  She served mostly in Westchester County, New York where much of the time she lived in a tent with four other soldiers. 

The War was over but the Peace Treaty was not signed and there were constant enemy attacks and skirmishes.  Deborah Sampson was wounded three times and decorated for heroism twice.  Using a knife, with no anesthetic she removed a musket ball from her own thigh because she feared going to a doctor who might discover her secret.

Her singular story has an even more incredible end. She caught a highly contagious fever and was declared dead. 

When a thorough doctor sought a pulse one final time before burial, he could not get his hand into her tunic for her heartbeat.  Ripping her shirt at the neck, he discovered she was female but kept her secret, took charge of her and nursed her back to health.  Then he returned her to West Point with a sealed letter to her commanding officer testifying that she was brave and creditable, and had served her cause with distinction, but she was female. 

The General at West Point honoring her service

to her country and her courage,  awarded Robert Shurtliff (aka Deborah Sampson) an Honorable Discharge. 

Sampson’s life continued to be extraordinary.  Returning home, she stayed in male clothing; her mother would not have her in the house so she worked as a farm laborer.  A townsman became a friend; when he discovered she was female, he married her.  Years of poverty and toil followed as they tried to raise their family on a small rocky farm.  Ill, but denied a pension because she had no medical proof of her war wounds,  Sampson  resolved to become  a FEMALE PUBLIC  LECTURER.  (No woman had ever appeared alone on a public platform in the colonies!  Even in church, men spoke for their wives.)  She left home, and traveled alone by stage coach and spoke in theaters and church halls.  First, modestly dressed in female clothing, she apologized meekly to her audience for her unladylike history and told of her war adventures.  Then she went backstage, donned her uniform and came back to perform the entire manual of arms.  She was a sensation.

There is much more to Deborah Sampson’s saga, which Meryl Streep recalled simply and beautifully.   In 1983 Governor Michael J. Dukakis proclaimed Sampson the state heroine for the Commonwealth of   Massachusetts.  It was a beginning. 

Alas, Washington, D.C. still lacks a Museum of American Heroines!  Meryl Streep has nominated Deborah Sampson, our own Iron Lady; surely her fellow-citizens will elevate her to her rightful place.   



About blogginggrandma

I'm 86. Legally blind. But a force to be reckoned with!
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1 Response to One Iron Lady Salutes Another

  1. Martha Gershun says:

    I loved being reminded again of Deborah Sampson’s great story! Just recently I had an astounding find about my heroine – another female public lecturer – Emma Goldman. Turns out there are recordings preserved of some of her speeches, and there are bits posted on Youtube. It was extraordinary to hear her voice after all these years of adoration!

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