December 12, 2018

Professor Yoriko Ishida from Japan’s Oshima College shares the remarkable story of Hannah Snell, a woman who managed to successfully pass herself off as a man while serving as a marine on a Royal Navy vessels for four years.

Hannah Snell is arguably the most famous woman who embarked on warships as a marine in men’s clothing. Astonishingly, she was involved with missions as a seaman for more than four years without her true identity being discovered. An account of her adventure appears in Robert Walker’s The Female Soldier or the Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell (hereafter The Female Soldier), and while the record might overdramatise Shell’s adventures, later works based on Hanna Snell’s testimony suggest Walker’s record may be interpreted as a valid version of the truth as it was based on Snell’s testimony. Therefore, it is possible to examine the significance of female cross-dressing aboard male-dominated naval ships by analysing the body of this work.

Cross-dressing in Feminist Thought

Cross-dressing indicates that a person clothes him- or herself in the clothes of the opposite sex as generally understood in a given culture. Most cultures determine clothing rules depending on gender, and if a person fails to conform to these rules, he or she may be called a “cross-dresser” (sometimes confused with a sexual perversion). From the viewpoint of fetishism, cross-dressing may be broadly interpreted as a sexual perversion because some might find this sexually arousing. Yet this paper argues that cross-dressing may be seen not only as a sexual perversion nor a personal preference, but also a phenomenon resulting from social, economic, and cultural environments.

The tradition of women’s cross-dressing can be traced back as far as medieval times, but it was in the 16th century that there appeared a definitive notion of cross-dressing (Dekker & Pol, 1989). Dekker and Pol point out that it was not uncommon for women to disguise themselves as men in the 17th and 18th centuries and as many as 119 women lived as men in Holland.

The sexual discrimination during the 17th and 18th centuries may have led to cross-dressers to pass themselves off as the opposite sex. To understand the advantages gained by women disguised as men, it is necessary to examine how women were restricted at that time. Whatever their class, women were confined to a domestic setting and were not permitted to be educated other than being trained in domestic duties. Women were not permitted to conduct trade, and, if they held jobs, their wage could be substantially lower than men’s. Suzanne J. Stark (1998) declares that “it was beyond the imagination of most eighteenth-century men to think of a woman as a responsible adult, capable of managing her own life”. For women, taking on a masculine role by cross-dressing meant some improvement of their economic situation. Cross-dressing and going to sea would mean women freeing themselves from constraints; taking on such a manly role was challenging, but those women were able to live on an equal footing with men. For women at that time, cross-dressing was a sort of experiential policy to escape from social constraints, and it was an effective option to liberate them from being females.

Cross Dressing on Naval Vessels

Hannah Snell was born in Worcester, England, on April 23, 1723. She met James Summs, a Dutchman, and they married in 1744. Their marriage ended when she became pregnant, and subsequently their daughter, Susanna, died just seven months after birth. After her daughter’s death, woman though she was, Snell went to sea as a marine in men’s clothing in 1745. The reasoning behind this manly role could have been some kind of revenge on the husband who had made her life miserable. It was impossible for women to join the crew of naval vessels, which meant that she had to rid herself of the cultural signals of her womanhood in order to be a “man”. Referring to herself as James Gray, her brother-in-law, Hannah Snell joined Colonel Guise’s 6th Regiment of Foot in Coventry in 1745, the year after her husband died. In 1747, she enlisted in Colonel Fraser’s regiment of marines in Portsmouth and boarded the sloop Swallow.

“The heightened risk of discovery would occur in extreme situations. These include floggings or being injured in combat, situations leading to their true identity being discovered.”

Beyond doubt, cross-dressed women were not always able board warships and qualify as marines. “Cross-dressing”, interpreted as women pretending to be men, in this environment, was always accompanied by risks of discovery. Their physical features exerted a significant influence on the effect that they were able to achieve. Dekker and Pol point out that, while boarding ships was considered a perfect method of escape for women clad in men’s clothes and performing manly jobs, at the same time, the risk of discovery was ever-present.

Arguing against this, Stark sees crowded conditions in ships as advantageous for the disguised women. While the latter argue that one’s privacy in crowded places is virtually non-existent, the former insists that the very fact that a ship was so crowded meant that the men tended to keep a psychological distance from one another. This could keep disguised women safe from discovery.

Although we can grasp from the existing historical documents – those examples of cross-dressed women who were discovered – we have no means of determining whether the number is large or small. Yet considering judicial records or newspaper accounts of those many women in men’s clothes that went to sea, it is logical to think that Dekker and Pol’s interpretation must be rational: In modern times, we could not have known that many disguised women had been aboard warships if their true identities were not discovered during their duties.

It was not only daily activities, such as menstruation or urination, or carelessness, that expose disguised women’s true identities, most agree the heightened risk of discovery would occur in extreme situations. These include floggings or being injured in combat, situations leading to their true identity being discovered. A number women were wounded in combat which led to discovery, (Dekker & Pol, 1989; Stark, 1998). That is, it matters little whether the odds were high or low that they might be discovered to be a woman in daily onboard life; discovery in emergency situations was more likely.

It could be important the extent to which they mentally identified with manly characters rather than the appearance of men’s clothes. When women were aboard warships in men’s clothes in the hope of avoiding disadvantage ashore, such as gender discrimination and poverty, it was requisite for them to have substantial qualifications for success as a marine: That is, to be equal to men in strength and bravery. In this sense, it was indeed extraordinary for Hannah Snell who risked death to show her strength and bravery.

The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell. First edition. Frontispiece portrait of the author. London, R. Walker, Image | MAGGS BROS. LTD.

There are two interesting episodes in The Female Soldier by Robert Walker which underscore Snell’s masculinity: Her experiences of flogging and of being wounded in combat, in both of which cases most cross-dressed women marines could not have avoided being discovered. In 1746, a sergeant, who belonged to the same regiment as Snell’s, tried to make sexual advances on a young woman during his embarkation, for which he ordered Snell to help him (unaware of her sex). However, she warned the woman of his plot, and Snell’s action became known to him. The sergeant made a false charge by accusing her of neglect of duty as his revenge against Snell which resulted in her being sentenced to receive 500 lashes (Walker, 1989).

Lashed and Wounded

According to The Female Soldier, an example was made of her, with her arm extended and tied to the city gates and the lashes administered on her bare. David Cordingly suggests that it would normally be fatal to receive around 200 or 300 lashes even for a strong man. Snell endured 500 lashes and she avoided discovery of her sex, which means that she possessed extraordinary strength equal of in excess of a man. Similarly, Snell’s masculine persona would be further tested by her wounds in combat.

In 1747, she joined the sloop Swallow as a marine and set off for India. In 1748, she took part in the siege of Pondicherry, where “she received six shot in her right leg, five shot in her left, and another shot in the groin” (Cordingly, 2007). Not only did she bear these dreadful wounds, but, more amazingly, while the male wounded would have seen doctors, she did not allow them to treat the wound in her groin because she wished to avoid discovery of her sex, incredibly, she managed to extract the musket ball by herself. At a time when medicine was basic, Snell could recover sufficiently to return to the ship as a marine in only three months.

The account of her wound should be considered as true because the Royal Hospital admission book contains a brief entry on the November 21, 1750, from which we can grasp the fact that Hannah Snell was “Wounded at Pondicherry in the thigh of both legs” (Cordingly, 2007). According to Reverend Woodford’s diary, Snell was not only wounded by musket balls but also lost her right forefinger. Since his diary is recognised as a well-authenticated historical document, we should be able to determine that the amputation of her forefinger was not fictitious.

“Accounts of injuries show Snell possessed a remarkably strong body and emotional strength.”

These accounts of injuries show Snell possessed a remarkably strong body and emotional strength. For many disguised women onboard, these incidents might have exposed their true identities, yet in the case of Hannah Snell, the musket ball injury and the finger amputation rather highlight her masculinity. However, this leads on to another interesting question: Whether she could be a man through her cross-dressing and her strength and bravery.

Naturally, cross-dressing cannot enable an individual to transcend biological barriers of gender, but it seems that Hannah Snell was able to maintain a masculine persona, and in her avoidance of her original identity made her masculinity appear genuine. There is more to it than this however. A careful scrutiny of her strength and bravery leads to the conclusion that, behind her masculinity, we catch a glimpse of the secret background of purpose in concealing her true sex.

We can see a paradox behind Snell’s strength and bravery that Wilson points out. Wilson insists that no woman could have success in breaking into the male-dominant world through their cross-dressing, emphasizing that they had no choice but to receive masculine values. Furthermore, Ackroyd (1979) also suggests that “female cross-dressing actually enhances the putative superiority of male culture” .

The important point to note here concerns Hannah Snell’s body expressed in The Female Soldier, where we should not overlook the paradox that she could never escape her true sex however strong and brave she could be. She made many efforts to avoid her sex being discovered other than through her appearance, efforts described as punishing and torturing her body to its utmost limits. The more she showed her strength and bravery, the more her true sex became prominent. Herein lies a paradox, which is, as mentioned above, her masculinity as means to conceal her true sex should be rather considered to be highlighting it.

The Sameness and Difference of the Sexes

Although the principles of all feminist thought have the same goal, complete equality between men and women, feminists have evolved into webs tracing two contradictory attitudes: The sameness and difference of the sexes. In feminist thought, while it is orthodox attitudes that claim absolute sameness between men and women as a prerequisite to attain complete gender equality, there is another stance that strongly stresses the characteristics of each sex – the difference between men and women – for gender equality. These attitudes, seemingly in contrast with each other, might be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Hannah Snell’s cross-dressing onboard shows the two attitudes contained in feminism thought. Projecting “sameness attitudes,” Snell was disguised as a man, behaved with bravery, and rejected all of her feminine characteristics in order to serve on naval ships, a male-dominated world, which can symbolise an assertion of the sameness between men and women in feminist thought. This sameness thus becomes an ideological ground for minimizing sexual difference. On the other hand, no matter how masculine she seemed to be, she is only masqueraded as a man through cross-dressing, so that it is self-evident that she was not the same as a man, which can symbolise an assertion of the difference between men and women. That is, cross-dressing to eliminate gender difference resulted in highlighting it. Therefore, while cross-dressing for women was used as a means to acquire advantages permitted only to men, it simultaneously illuminates cross-dressers as females. This contradiction is embodied in Snell’s cross-dressing, serving as a reminder of the two attitudes in feminist thought.

Gentleman’s Magazine article about Snell. Wood engraving, 1750. Image | Wikipedia

Her True Gender after Disembarkation

Interestingly, women disguised as men were judged completely differently from men passing as women. While men dressing as women were often subjected to criminal action, viewed as outrageous conduct demeaning a man’s dignity, women disguised as men were looked on with tolerance up to a point. This was true on naval ships. Above all, in England, the public tended to ignore women joining the navy in men’s clothes in the 17th and 18th centuries with some exceptions, and, even when the women were discovered, most of them were not found guilty of criminal action. Even if it was unavoidable for them to leave a ship after their discovery, they might be reported in newspapers so as to be praised for their courage after their disembarkation (Stark, 1998).

As already mentioned in the previous section, Hannah Snell’s cross-dressed identity was not discovered for more than four years. According to The Female Soldier, she voluntarily revealed her secret to a fellow marine around 1750. Additionally, The Penny London Post in June, 1750, reported that she appealed to the Duke of Cumberland, her Naval Commander, for her pension as a marine, which was granted at £30 per month (Cordingly, 2007).

It is recorded that Snell was admitted as a veteran receiving a pension in an account of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. It seems strange that Snell was permitted to receive a pension rather than punishment since she cheated her superiors and colleague marines by assuming a false name and misrepresented her gender to be aboard the naval ships.

However, her case supports Stark’s position that disguised women onboard were not charged even if they were discovered. Furthermore, some newspapers reported that Hannah Snell appeared in theatres, commencing with the New Wells Theatre in London, as a singer after her retirement, through which she was catapulted into fame, especially by her sales point – “a woman marine in men’s clothes” – and her fame spread throughout London (Cordingly, 2007).

“They saw disguised women as unequal to men, believing that the inferior were just imitating the superior.”

However, what we should notice here is that even if she was met with applause from the public, it does not always mean that she was welcomed as a hero or not seriously respected. They saw disguised women as unequal to men, believing that the inferior were just imitating the superior (Stark, 1998). We can notice a sense of security behind the notion that the public did not feel threatened by disguised women. In other words, they liked to believe that disguised women would revert to their “true” gender in the end. Indeed, almost all disguised women had no choice but to revert to their biological sex despite whether they had exposed their identity by choice, like Snell, or were discovered against their will.

Snell reverted to her true gender after her retirement, which is indicated via two of her marriages. According to The Universal Chronicle, of 1759, she married Richard Elyse, a carpenter, and had sons George and Thomas with him. It was rumoured that she was widowed by his death, but there is no historical record. After that, she re-married Richard Habgood in 1772. Her second marriage can be recognised because Reverend James Woodforde was an observer, noting it in his diary (Cordingly, 2007). Even if Hannah Snell temporarily identified with males onboard, it is arguable that her two, later marriages suggest that she embraced her “natural” gender as female. As mentioned in the previous section, we notice her purpose in concealing her femininity behind her cross-dressing, strength, and bravery, which became more apparent when she only signalled as female through her marriages. Her temporary admiration as a marine can function as an analogy for her temporary male identity. The scene where the public applaud a temporarily disguised women reminds us of an audience clapping a monkey’s performance. Because of the lack of threat to social norms, cross-dressed women were not abominated as were cross-dressed men, who were to be harshly punished as a threat to men’s dignity.

Image of Bethlehem Hospital in 1739. Hannah Snell would see out her her days as in inmate at this notorious lunatic asylum. Image | Wikipedia

A Miserable Twilight

It was to prove to be a miserable twilight for Hannah Snell. She was taken to the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a notorious lunatic asylum, in August of 1791. We have no way to know exactly what affliction led to her being committed, but, undoubtedly, she suffered from a psychiatric disorder. It was there that she ended her eventful life on February 8, 1792. Considering her spectacular life as a cross-dressed woman marine, it was a miserable end. Perhaps there is a causal relationship between her cross-dressing and her psychiatric disease in her later years. Other cross-dressers also suffered. Christian Davis, who disguised as a soldier to search for her missing husband, also was taken with illnesses such as scurvy and rheumatism through straining herself body and soul and died with her maladies. Dekker and Pol’s (1989) research states that, in the Netherlands, not a few disguised women suffered from mental diseases or committed suicide, they mentioned Maria van Antwerpen as the most eminent example. It seems that Maria suffered from neurasthenia, also known as melancholia.

It is easy to imagine that cross-dressed women experienced stress from fear of discovery, and the longer they were disguised as men, the stress along with needed their strength, bravery, and acting skills would take a toll. Moreover, no matter how well they could play the role of a man, they could never be a man. As far as Hannah Snell’s later years are concerned, the abuse of her body, mentally and physically, made it difficult for her to spend her life as a woman in her later years.

A longer more scholarly version of this article can be found in the “IAFOR Journal of Literature and Librarianship”: Volume 7 Issue 1.


Ackroyd, P. (1979). Dressing up: Transvestism and drag: History of obsession. Norwich: Thames and Hudson.

Cordingly, D. (2007). Seafaring women: Adventures of pirate queens, female stowaways, and sailors’ wives. New York: Random Houses.

Dekker, R. M., & van de Pol, L. C. (1989). The tradition of female in early modern Europe. London: Macmillan, Press.

Snell, H., Lacy, M., & Talbot, M. A. (2010). The lady tars: The autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy, and Mary Anne Talbot. London: Fireship Press, Kindle edition.

Stark, S. J. (1998). Female tars: Women aboard ship in the age of sail. London: Pimlico.

Walker, R. (1989). The female soldier; or, The surprising life and adventures of Hannah Snell. London: The Augustan Reprint Society, Kindle edition.

Wilson, E. (2003). Adorned in dreams: Fashion and modernity. New York: Virago.

Woodforde, J. (1981). The diary of a Country Parson. London: Oxford edition.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. A fascinating article.

Comments are closed.

IAFOR Think Head Logo

About Yoriko Ishida

Yoriko Ishida, PhD Professor National Institute of Technology, Oshima College, Japan

Latest Posts By Yoriko Ishida


    History, In Depth


    , , , , ,