December 29 – Emma Snodgrass

Today, women wear pants without even a second thought.  Women wear pants in professional settings, casual settings, formal settings, and relaxed settings.  But once, it was a crime for a woman to appear in public dressed in pants.  Throughout history, women have dressed as men in order to hide from people or, in the Civil War, to fight.  Much of society viewed these women as crazy, but nothing could prepare society for a petite 17-year-old who would fight to wear pants in public.  Her name was Emma Snodgrass, and she burst onto the scene on December 29, 1852.  The daughter of a police captain in New York City, it is unclear how or why she came to Boston.  But in Boston, she became known for her determination to wear men’s clothes in public.  On that fateful December day, she was caught wearing pants and a frock coat.  She was arrested, but as soon as she was set free, she was back wearing pants publicly.  The publicity she gained soon created many copy cats.  They would dress up like men and walk the streets of Boston.  Often times, they were also caught and arrested.  Ironically, it seemed that these women were not actually fighting to allow women to wear pants as much as fighting for woman to be able to act and dress like men.  One of Emma’s close friends was named Charley.  This friend, who was known for smoking cigars and chewing tobacco, was actually a teenager named Harriet French.  Together, the two girls enjoyed making a sensation in Boston by attending drinking houses and attempting to talk “horse” and generally living like fast boys in Boston.  However, Emma also sought to better herself by taking the opportunity of cross dressing to get a job as a clerk at a store.  Over and over again, she was caught and returned to her father in New York City.  But over and over again, she would return to Boston dressed like a man.  When both she and Harriet were discovered in men’s clothes together, they were given very different treatment.  While Emma was once again packed off to her father, Harriet was given one day to leave the city of Boston by herself.  Since Harriet had not grown up in wealth, she was punished more severely than Emma, who had a prominent father to bail her out.  While Emma may have been dressing as a man for the fun of the stunt, Harriet had a much more real reason.  After all, she had lived under the guise of Charley for far longer than Emma ever did.  Harriet had garnered a living on a steamboat before coming to Boston.  When interviewed and asked why she dressed like a man, she responded that it was for the wages.  Doubtless for Harriet, who seems to have been left alone in the world with very little to sustain herself, getting a job was necessary.  However, the society that she lived in did not look favorably upon women who had to support themselves.  To be a man and work a man’s job, then must have seemed easier.  At any rate, both Emma and Harriet opened a valuable discussion in society.  Though they were branded as unnatural and crazy, they opened a discussion on equality.  Though Emma did it for the fun, and Harriet did it for the money, they shocked society into addressing a question that would take many generations to fully address.  Little did they know that the Civil War would come along and help change society’s ingrained ideas about the place and function of a woman.  Unfortunately, because of the time when they lived, much about their escapades is truly unknown.  The newspapers focused on the sensational news about them instead of providing the facts.  So much about their influence at their time is lost to history.  While we may be able to understand a motive for Harriet, we will never be able to find out what possessed that 17-year-old Emma to move to Boston to gallivant around town as a man.  The one thing that we can say, looking back on history, is that those were two brave women.

To read excerpts from newspapers about these women visit:




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