Mary Beth Writes


What makes a lady a Lady?

In December 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts (50 miles southwest of Boston) Deborah Sampson, descendant of Mayflower pilgrims, was born. Little Deborah’s life was going to be tough but she would prevail with strength and imagination.

When she was still little her father abandoned the family for a wife and family #2 in Maine. This was such a scandal that his seven Massachusetts kids were told he had died in a shipwreck. Their mother had no income so she passed the kids out to local families and then she died. Deborah would spend her childhood in three households. The first was the home of a widow in her 80’s; that woman taught Deborah how to read so that she could read Bible passages to the lady. Her last placement started at age 12 where she became an unpaid servant to a farm family until she was 18. The farmer’s sons let her read their school books. By 18 she knew enough to become a teacher, a weaver, and a carpenter. She built milking stools and pie crimpers, which she sold door to door!

Deborah was 5’7” tall, taller than most men at that time. Reports from people who knew her said she was stout and plain. "Her waist might displease a coquette.”

Here’s where her story begins to astonish. In early 1782 when she was just 21 years old, she bound her breasts and put on men’s clothes and joined an Army unit in Middleborough - until she was recognized. The Baptist church to which she belonged withdrew its fellowship, meaning that it refused to associate with her unless she apologized and asked forgiveness.

Deborah didn’t ask anyone’s forgiveness! Instead in May she enlisted again, this time in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name Robert Shirtliff. She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, whose commander was Captain George Webb. (I mention his name because .. George Webb diners! Sadly, not a relative.)

Light Infantry Companies were elite soldiers who were generally selected because they were taller and stronger than average.They gave flank coverage to advancing regiments, served as rearguards, and they did reconnaissance.People were less likely to recognize a woman among soldiers who had been chosen on the basis of their above average size and superior physical ability.

She fought in several skirmishes. That June she and two others led 30 infantrymen on a mission that ended in a bloody one-on-one fight with the British. Next she led a raid on a Loyalist house where … they captured 15 Tory men. 

During her first battle outside Tarrytown, New York, she was shot twice in the thigh plus received a sword slash to her face. She begged her fellow soldiers to not take her for medical care because she feared her sex would be discovered. But one guy put her on his horse and took her to a doctor to treat her face wound. She left the hospital before the doctor could see to her leg. By herself she removed one of the musket balls with a penknife and sewing needle! The other was too deep; it stayed in her leg the rest of her life, never healing right, causing discomfort.

In April of 1783, she was assigned to serve General John Paterson. That June George Washington sent some of Paterson’s soldiers to Philadelphia to help quell a rebellion of American soldiers who were protesting delays in receiving their pay and discharges. During that summer she became ill and lost consciousness. Doctor Barnabas Binney removed her clothes to treat her. Imagine his surprise! Without telling anyone else what he had discovered, the good doctor took Deborah to his house where his wife, daughters, and a female nurse cared for her.

September of that year was the official end of the war and November 3 was set as the date for soldiers to muster out. Dr. Binney asked Deborah to deliver a note to General Paterson. She understood that note would reveal her sex and she knew other women who had pretended to be men in order to serve in the army were reprimanded. Interestingly, Paterson simply gave her enough money to travel home. She would be honorably discharged at West Point, New York on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.

Two years later she married a nice guy (I hope he was nice; he must have been pretty imaginative himself). They had three kids of their own and, let’s guess why, they adopted a little girl from their community whose parents had died.

Their life would always be difficult. The farm was too small and worked out. She would ask for and eventually be given payment for her service and later, a pension. She toured several years putting on a one-woman act I would have loved to see. First she would come on stage in lovely lady clothes to extoll the virtues of femininity. Then she’d disappear a moment only to return dressed in her military uniform whereupon she would do military drills and perform feats of strength. I guess she showed them!

Deborah Sampson died of yellow fever in 1827.

If you want to know more or see photos of memorials to her, read here.

What makes a lady a Lady?

I don’t think Tucker Carlson would have admired Deborah Sampson, do you? Apparently he was comfortable calling women the C word. It is a marvel how entitled some people feel to trash women because they are woman.

What makes a lady a Lady?

“I now pronounce you man and wife.” Weddings change a man into … a man? And a woman into a wife? Girls used to be told, and too many still are, to “act like a lady.” As if something essential about a woman can be known on the basis of how she sits on a chair or whether or not she swears.

Do you know men routinely described as worthy because they are modest, prudent, and gracious?

Lady is a loaded word. Kids use it frequently. “There was this lady. My teacher is a lady. That lady has rainbow hair, Mom.” Why do kids use lady instead of woman? Is it because they hear it from us? Maybe we should teach them to call men gents. That would be cute.

Today the Montana House is voting to oust a duly elected trans woman from Missoula. They have not allowed her to speak on the floor of their house for several day, since she told them that if they outlaw affirming care for trans kids, they will have the blood of kids on their hands.

I wonder what Deborah Sampson would have to say. I’m sure she would not back down or ask for forgiveness. And she knew how to get Tories out of a house.

What makes a lady a Lady?




It's astounding to me how women (and men) are still being dictated to in regard to how they should "be". I was often told by my mom that I "wasn't very ladylike" when I climbed trees, coming home with skinned knees, or ran up or down the stairs too loudly or fast. She would sarcastically call me "Grace", if she thought I was being too rowdy,or too much of a "tomboy". This article was on NPR's website about a young woman who was not allowed to enter her (christian) high school prom because she wore a pantsuit, and not a dress. She said "who are you to tell us what it means to be a woman". I'd never heard of Deborah Sampson. Thank you - amazing life and story.
Mary Beth's picture

I’m sitting here steaming about Montana and its legislators. How is it possible that in 2023 trans kids will continue to struggle living their lives? I get so angry about guns and judgement (LGBTQ+, etc.), general ignorance, and meanness in this country .. nothing new.

I continue to look around me, and wonder about my fellow humans. I live in Florida: "the freest state in the nation." What does freedom mean to these people? Patricia

I agree with both of your statements here. Especially in the last few months, I feel like we are going backwards in our rights. Deborah Sampson was an amazing woman. I had never heard of her.

If Robert Shirtliff, in soldier’s garb, asked which bathroom to use? I would say, “Any one, soldier. Please wash your hands, and thank you for your service.”

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Three Things / Story, Eclipse, Brando

1. I scheduled my Substack story to go out at 8AM this morning. I just looked to see why it didn’t show up and it says it is going to be sent at 8:49 tonight. I’m going to leave it like that. Maybe 9PM on a weekend night is a good time to send short fiction. Let me know if you have an opinion.

2. I read this quote by Marlon Brando who said this early in his career. “I’m not afraid of anything and I don’t love money.”

Even though this is probably not exactly true of me and you, I do love the bravado.

Peace Like a River / Book Report

4/3/2024 She Writes

I just finished reading Peace Like a River by Leif Enger and I am going to talk about it for a little bit before I forget how profoundly interesting and evocative this book was and is, at least to me.

I get emails from Boswell Bookstore (2559 N Downer Ave in Milwaukee). They host artist events pretty often and Monday evening, April 15th Len and I will be there for the Author Evening with Leif Enger. You can look up more of the details if you are interested. (Tickets are free but you need to reserve them.)

My Grandkids & 'Wandering Stars'


The past month has been jam-packed. The week in Mineral Point. Len’s two-day seminar in Chicago. Last week we had various grandkids here for three overnighters and yesterday our family came to Easter dinner here in our house which was clean after a week with grandkid overnighters so you know that was a piece of cake. Len smoked two hams (yes, hard to keep them lit) and I made the largest amounts of from-scratch scalloped potatoes plus macaroni and cheese that I have ever made. As in, I grated four pounds of cheese Saturday afternoon. “On Wisconsin.”

Ghost on a Post / Poetry with Third Graders


This is what I texted to Len this afternoon after I finished the poetry class with third graders. “I’m done and back. The kids were great and I’m a limp washrag, Teaching forty 8-year-olds for 90 minutes is way more energy than Everest.” I then drank half a beer (I NEVER drink in the afternoon) and fell asleep until the Mineral Point afternoon ‘change of shift siren’ shrieked for several minutes. It’s been a full day.

How 2 Write a Poem (3rd grade edition)


Next week is my Writers Week at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, WI. I won this when my story “How Crow Got Out of Jail” (Read Here) won first prize in the 2023 Wisconsin Writers Association Jade Ring contest for short fiction.

Winning that contest motivated me to open my Substack account. So far I’ve published 17 stories and only published once twice. (Who noticed that?)

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