Women who went to war by pretending to be men

Hannah Snell (1723–1792) was an Englishwoman who entered military service under the name "James Gray"
Numerous women haven't let rules and regulations get in the way of them fighting for their country | Image: Hannah Snell (1723–1792) was an Englishwoman who entered military service

Despite ground combat roles not being open to women in the British Army until 2018, women have played an integral and fierce role in warfare throughout history. From the land girls of WWII that kept the home fires burning and ammunitions factories churning, to the front-line nurses of the Crimean war: women have subverted the stereotypical expectations and stepped into roles that would have previously been considered unsuitable.

While active combat duty has remained a firmly male occupation until recent decades, this hasn’t stopped women from standing up and fighting for what they believe in. Here are four examples of kickass women that defied the rules and went to war.

Brita Olofsdotter

A Finnish soldier in the Swedish Cavalry, Brita Olofsdotter was the first confirmed woman to serve in the Swedish Army. Dressed as a man, Brita enlisted to fight in the Livonian war, where she was killed in 1569.

Following her death and the discovery of her gender, King John III ordered an investigation into her service and determined that her remaining salary should be paid to her family.

Anna Maria Lane

Anna Maria Lane and her husband joined the Continental Army in 1776. While most wives joined their husbands in encampments and assisted with the chores to keep the army fed and clothed, Anna Maria dressed as a man and fought on the battlefield alongside her husband.

As the only requirements for men to enlist at the time were that they have their front teeth and thumb and forefinger to load a musket effectively, there were no physicals undertaken for enlisting soldiers. This, combined with the poor hygiene of continental camps, would have made it easy for Anna Maria to disguise herself from those in charge.

Zoya Smirnow

At the age of 16, Zoya Smirnow, a Russian schoolgirl, enlisted in the army to fight in the First World War. Along with 11 of her schoolmates (some as young as 14), Zoya left one day without informing anyone of where she was going or what she intended to do.

The group arrived in Lviv, where they dressed as men to enlist. When they experienced their first encounter with combat while defending Galicia and the Carpathians, the girls all cried out in fear, but were surprised when the men around them all did the same.

When one of the girls was killed by a bomb, her friends buried her themselves to avoid discovery. It wasn’t until Zoya, and two more of the girls were injured fighting that their gender was exposed.

Frieda Belinfante

While Frieda Belinfante didn’t enlist to fight (likely impossible during WWII due to the strict physical examinations that soldiers went through), she still fought against the Nazi occupation using every tool she had.

A cellist and conductor, Frieda’s love and passion in life was music. When her career was interrupted, Frieda turned to creating and forging documents for Jews and those fleeing the Gestapo.

A lesbian with a family bloodline descending from Sephardic Jews, Belinfante was herself at risk of persecution from the occupying forces. Being good friends with Willem Arondeus, the openly gay leader of the Dutch resistance group CKC, Frieda was involved heavily with the group's activities.

When the CKC organised and executed a plot to bomb the population registry in Amsterdam, she found herself wanted by the Gestapo. Having destroyed the Nazis' records to check for forged papers, Frieda and the rest of the CKC were forced into hiding. Staying with friends, Frieda dressed as a man for three months before the Nazis tracked her down. She escaped across the border into Belgium, where the French resistance helped smuggle her to Switzerland.