By Pamela D. Toler | Cathay Williams (more or less 1844–1892) was the first African American woman known to have served in the United States Army—a two-year stint in which she passed as a man. Born a slave near Independence, Missouri, she was a “house girl” on the Johnson plantation in Cole County, near the Missouri capital of Jefferson City, when the Civil War began. After General Nathaniel Lyons’s troops captured Jefferson City, which had become a rebel stronghold, the Eighth Indiana Volunteer Infantry claimed Williams and other escaped or displaced slaves as “contrabands.” She traveled with the regiment for the rest of the war, working as a laundress.
Where would we be without the leadership of extraordinary women who chose to challenge the societal status quo? This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was Choose to Challenge. As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we’re highlighting books from our catalog to celebrate the inspiring women who saw the need for change, and took action for equality!
By Pamela D. Toler | The Chinese heroine Hua Mulan is one of the oldest and most enduring examples of a woman who becomes a warrior because of her role as a daughter. Scholars have argued for centuries over whether or not Mulan was a historical figure. At some level, it doesn’t matter as far as piecing together her story is concerned. The available information about her life is scarce to nonexistent, even by the often-shaky standard of what we know about other women warriors of the ancient world.
A Q&A with Pamela D. Toler | I’ve been fascinated by the concept of women warriors ever since I was a nerdy kid who read every biography of famous women I could get my hands on and who regularly blew her allowance on comic books with female superheroes. But the real trigger for me came in 1988, when Antonia Fraser published Warrior Queens. Fraser’s book not only introduced me to women I’d never heard of before, but also to a new idea: that women “fought, literally fought, as a normal part of the army in far more epochs and far more civilizations than is generally appreciated.” Once I was aware that women warriors had existed in many times and places, it seemed like I ran across references to them everywhere. I began collecting their stories with no particular purpose in mind. After a couple of decades, that file was pretty fat, and I decided it was time to share.