because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cathay Williams

When the Union Army occupied Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1961, Cathay Williams was a seventeen-year-old slave working as a house servant on a plantation owned by a family named Johnson. At the time, the Army considered slaves "contraband," so it was official practice, when needed, to take a woman slave for service to the troops as a cook, a nurse or a laundress. And so it was for Williams for the next five years of her life.

Then, in 1866, Williams decided to flip the script. She'd been living with the Army all this time and certainly knew what there was to know about Army life. The war was over, so going into battle was unlikely. And she was probably tired of whatever low pay she was getting for working harder than the men. So she put on men's clothes and enlisted for a three-year tour of duty under the name "William Cathay."

Unfortunately, Williams came down with small pox and eventually was identified by a doctor as a woman and discharged. After going west to Colorado where she worked as a seamstress for a couple of decades, Williams' years in battlefield conditions began to take their toll. She had lost all her toes (probably due to frostbite or gangrene resulting from having her feet wet a lot), but unlike in-your-face woman Deborah Sampson, she had no influential friends to lobby on her behalf, so her application for military disability benefits was turned down. Ill and with nothing to live on, Williams quietly died in her late forties and was quietly buried somewhere no one can now identify. But she's memorialized here as a permanent reminder that an in-your-face woman lives and dies and doesn't get any more breaks than anybody else. They just get remembered by more people longer.

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