U.S. Women’s History
An Uncommon Soldier: Fighting for the “Home” Front
Throughout the passage of time, in order to make sense of the world and justify established ideologies, man has put forth disproportionate effort into defining what is deemed by the masses as acceptable and appropriate. With the formation of these social life requirements, it goes without saying there will be outliers who do not fit this man-created construct, either by innate or self-realized characteristics. This social restraint is undoubtedly the source of much emotional turmoil and unrest. Here is where Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s story begins. As a white, American woman born in the 1800’s, Wakeman’s scope of “acceptable” life directions was very limited, and much can be said about how she dealt with the obstacles created by the aforementioned social constraints. Wakeman’s decision to leave home, and assume the characteristics of a man, was more out of a sense of familial duty than an outward expression of suppressed sexual identity. In order to better understand Sarah’s motivation one must first analyze her childhood and the environmental factors which molded her.
Born on January 16, 1843, in what would become Afton, New York, to Harvey and Emily Wakeman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was the eldest of 9 children, seven of whom were female. To Harvey and Emily’s dismay, Sarah and her two siblings that followed were all female, which was less than to be desired during the era. Sarah was nearly nine years old before Emily was able to give Harvey a son (Burgess, 101). At that time, children were expected to begin helping the parents by contributing as soon as there was work compatible and “appropriate” for their age and gender. This is how Sarah’s transformation was necessitated. To understand these driving forces in more depth, one must take a look at the role Sarah played in her home life. Sarah’s dad, Harvey, found the easiest way to support his family, as many did during this time, was through agriculture. The amount of work required to be successful in that endeavor during that time period, far exceeded the capabilities of one man. Since they were in the north, the possibility of slave labor was nonexistent, so as was customary of most family farms from the period, Harvey attempted to create an army of his own metaphorical slaves, his children. With her innate familial duty and lack of male siblings, Sarah had no choice but to step up. While the letters do not technically say that she played a large role in what would have been considered male gendered labor, Burgess as well as other historians, are left to speculate based upon her communications with her father, “… Rosetta’s high level of interest in her father’s farming, her knowledge of the details of the family farm, and her desire to own her own farm after the war are evidence that she served as her father’s farmhand,” (Burgess, 9). This knowledge and desire were attributes associated with being male and not seen as traits a woman could or should possess. Working the farm alongside her father had more life-altering implications than can be determined without further dissection. While most professions today are not gendered, farm work is still connotated to be in the male domain, as the work is strenuous and more physically demanding than most. If 150 years later, even after the advent of modern technology, it is still considered to be a gendered role, one can only imagine the psychological toll this upbringing played on her identity (Chambers, 10/19/12). After years of transitioning between her societal gender role and the gender role made necessary by her family, the delineation became less distinct. The manual labor sculpted Sarah, instilling in her a “man’s” work ethic, as well as diminishing the strength of her more feminine qualities, while amplifying those characteristics associated with the male gender (Chambers, 10/19/12). Her transformation into a man was a process that...
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