Sunday, June 9, 2013

Comparing Deborah to Molly

The question at hand... Why did Molly Pitcher gain a national reputation as a heroine while Deborah Samson did not?

The last two posts have looked at the general role of a camp follower (women who joined their husbands through their army service) and then at the specific person of Mary Hays (the most likely historical personage thought of as "Molly Pitcher").  

At first glance, there are several similarities: both women left home and took to the field of battle; both are from lower-class backgrounds; both assumed a role that was decidedly male; both were proud of their military legacy (Mary Hays was said to be called Sergeant Molly well into her later years... while Deborah was called "The Old Soldier"); both received military pensions.

But Molly Pitcher is celebrated and much-written about, while Deborah Samson has languished.  

Don't get me wrong... she has her fans!  But they are few and far between (and delightfully devoted).  I have known Deborah's story since I was a young child because she is part of my family tree and my grandmother loved to tell her story to me.  But if a young person is likely to associate a woman with the American Revolution, that woman is more likely to be Molly Pitcher than Deborah Samson.

The answer to why this is, I fear, is a simple one.  Molly Pitcher stepped out of social expectations, crossing from the male realm to the female realm, only briefly.  Only under duress.  Deborah Samson did so willingly and for a prolonged period.  Molly Pitcher fought not only in the name of her country but also in the name of her husband.  Deborah Samson fought under an assumed name.

On an overly simplistic level (perhaps), Deborah Samson deceived.  She transgressed.  She said she was someone (Robert Shurtliff) that she was not.  (Perhaps this is where my bias as a transgender person comes in: too often, people have a negative response when I come out because they feel “tricked.”) 

Take note of those pictures of Molly Pitcher – one of the engravings has her wearing what seems to be a military cut of jacket.  It also shows a fair amount of cleavage.  Molly Pitcher could inhabit both realms – she could be a wife, a mother, and a woman… and be a fighter.  Deborah Samson was a soldier.  Her service (like the service of camp followers) was not glamorous.  She fought in little skirmishes.  She worked the tedious labors of a soldier not on the field of battle.  There aren’t any heroics (no cannon balls through her petticoats) that can be attributed to her.  Her valor was no more remarkable than the hundreds of other men who signed on (many for the money) at the tail end of the Revolution. 

What makes her remarkable is that she was a woman and defied all expectations that society had for her – not just once, but for a year and a half.  To celebrate this is to celebrate the fact that women are capable of much more than society dictates. Molly Pitcher’s masculinity is momentary; it is safe and fleeting.  She can be a heroine.  Deborah Samson’s is much more problematic.  It is much more Revolutionary.

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