The New York City temperature is soaring in the nineties and I own no lightweight summer skirts! Nor winter skirts, for that matter. I miss them, but I shall never own a skirted garmented again!
I forswore skirts about seven years ago.
At the time, I was researching American colonial history for my thirteenth Young Adult novel. I read that in the colonies it was illegal for females to wear publicly or even try on trousers, and the few young women caught doing it were severely punished, jailed or whipped, and harshly ridiculed.
Several days after learning this, on impulse, I gathered all my skirts, woolens, cottons, summer wraparounds and dirndls and carted them off to the Good Will Thrift Shop.
In 1782, when she was twenty-one, my heroine, Deborah Sampson, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, bravely disguised in a man’s suit she had woven, and fled at night along dark, dangerous, war-ravaged roads to a recruiting station 30 miles away where she was not known. She enlisted in George Washington’s Continental Army. (There was no physical exam at enlistment.)
Other young women had tried this before, but the punishments when they were found out were dire. “One young recruit was serving her commanding officer at table, and courteseyied (curtseyed). An officer, pretending to be a doctor, examined her and soon made the discovery by pulling out the teats of a plump young girl…. Her commanding officer ordered “that the drums should beat her threw the town with the whores’ march.”*
Deborah Sampson was luckier. She fought bravely; she was twice wounded, once extracting a bullet from her own thigh using a knife, without anesthetic. She served seventeen months and was honorably discharged.
My Young Adult novel, SOLDIER’S SECRET: The Story of Deborah Sampson (Henry Holt 2009) won a Library Association’s Flicker Tale Award, and gave me much joy.
Often, since then, I’ve thought about Deborah Sampson who managed for more than a year to live in tents beside fellow soldiers, using streams and lakes for her secret baths and the forest for her toilet, thus cleverly concealing her female identity.
She was courageous and amazing and inspiring. We owe her. That’s why — though I know all this happened long ago – that’s why I wear slacks instead of skirts.
Honor must be paid!
*MASQUERADE: Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier by Alfred F. Young; Alfred A. Knopf, publisher, 2004