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New England American Studies
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Women Fought in the Revolution? A Discussion of Historical Authenticity in New England Reenactments

As my two young girls and I stood behind the stone wall, awaiting the beginning of the battle at Minuteman National Park in Concord, MA, during Patriot's Day weekend last April, we gazed around at the reenactors.  We ended up behind Colonial lines, with Minutemen gently moving us out of their way on their way to their shooting perch.  Approximately one-third of the reenactors was a woman: some attempted to look like men, but most didn't, hair blowing in the breeze, shapely bodies evident beneath their mismatched uniforms.  Women with guns, moving into battle formation against the formidable Red Coats across the park green.  My daughters were mesmerized.

Later that morning, we found ourselves drawn by the smell of pie baking over a hearth.  Wandering over to take a peek, a camp follower-- a woman-- began a historical dialogue with my daughters.  "Now," she said, "If you were alive during the 17th century, since you are a girl, you'd be back here behind the lines, cooking, and sewing, and keeping the soldiers well fed and clothed."  My oldest daughter, who is 7, looked at her like she had two heads.  "No I wouldn't," she argued back, "I'd be out there with the guns, shooting at the bad guys!"

The confusion, of course, emerges from the space of historical authenticity.  Women did not fight as soldiers in the Revolutionary War, unless they secreted themselves into the ranks dressing and acting like men.  There are stories here and there of brave women taking up arms (Deborah Sampson, for example, whose lineage I can trace in my own family tree), but by and large soldiers were men.  And the battleground was a distinctly masculine space.  So, in 2011, when women choose to participate in battle reenactments, our view of history is compromised.

How do we balance the competing histories: one contemporary, women's liberation, which argues that gendered spaces are limiting.  Women have fought hard for access to men's worlds, to all male clubs and communities.  Reenacting is one such space that women have recently claimed.  And two, 17th century, and the desire to "educate" the public, which is the inspiration for most of the reenactors that I've interviewed.  The education they provide to audiences who do not "know how it really was" is altered by the very representations that they present to the public.  Reenactors consider themselves experts in history, and insist upon perfection in historical detail.  And yet, with women in the ranks they are imperfect even before they reach the battlefield.

My paper will address the perspectives of reenactors of the American War of Independence, as well as theoretical foundations of the legitimacy of historical memory in popular commemoration.  Ultimately, this is a story of women's rights versus historical veracity, and re-imagines what public history actually embodies.


Laura D'Amore, Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies , Roger Williams University

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