Fight like a man

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For nearly 80 years, it was dismissed as a folktale. A budding journalist in a male-dominated field, Dorothy Lawrence was nineteen years old, British, and the year was 1915. The way to break through the glass ceiling, she had decided, would be to cover the war, and the only way to do that was to get close to it. The only way she could do that, the young woman reckoned, was to pose as a soldier.

The story was uncovered when Britisher Richard Bennett began a family history project and spoke to his grandfather, who had given Dorothy a soldier's uniform to help her pass. Thus outfitted -- and with padding on her back and her breasts taped down -- she rode a bicycle to within 400 yards of the front lines, where she had gotten a job with a mine-laying company. She was constantly under fire, wracked by fears that she would be found out, and slept in an abandoned, unheated cottage in a nearby forest. After 10 days, suffering from chills and rheumatism, she turned herself in to the commanding sergeant rather than risk being discovered in the army hospital. She was promptly arrested and interrogated.

At first they thought she was a "camp follower" -- a prostitute. When they discovered her true ambitions, the story was suppressed, for fear it would encourage other women to try the same thing. She swore she wouldn't write about her experiences, and when she did finally send a story to be published, it was censored by the Ministry of Defense. Her story ends sadly, incarcerated in a mental hospital some years later, where she would spend the rest of her life.

She was the only Englishwoman to experience combat in World War I -- so why haven't more people heard of her?

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November 13, 2006 - 4:07am
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