The Female Fighter Deborah Sampson. Essay on Women Rights
The biblical Deborah was a courageous judge and warrior of ancient Israel. At a time when gender roles were set in stone and men were expected and obligated to fight, Deborah fought for God’s chosen people, defending them from the tyrannies of the surrounding nations. Like the Bible character she was named for, Deborah Sampson helped vanquish the tyranny of Great Britain by joining the revolutionary army. She showed the men-favoring world that, even as a female, she could fight with bravery and nobility. Deborah Sampson was a woman who influenced her time greatly by crossing the boundaries set for her gender and fighting for the distinctly American cause of freedom and liberty.
She wondered, “Why can’t I fight for my country too?” Not many women dared think this, and looked to men as their superiors. Sampson wasn’t afraid of the horrors and pains of war, she wanted to fight for a country devoid of the abuse and injustice of England. She displayed and personified the courage and spirit of women and America by standing up and fighting fearlessly for what she believed in.
Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in a nondescript house in Plympton, Massachusetts. An interesting fact about her is that she was the maternal great granddaughter of William Bradford. Her parents’ names were Jonathan Sampson Sr, her father and Deborah Sampson, her mother, for whom she was named. Sampson had six siblings named Jonathan Jr, Elisha, Hannah, Ephriam, Nehemiah, and Sylvia. Being a poor laborer, Jonathan Sr. left his family in search of fortune, and abandoned them, never coming back. Sampson’s mother, who was too proud to own up to this brutal reality, told her children that their father drowned on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Only when the Sampson children were full grown they knew the truth about their father. But there were hard times ahead with the loss of funds from their father.
Samson's mother was forced to send all her beloved children away because she was financially unable to care for them. In the late 1700’s, there were few jobs available for women, and the jobs that did exist only paid a pittance. Sampson lived with various relatives for two years, and then became an indentured servant at the age of ten. Jeremiah and Susan Thomas became her master and mistress, and were very strict but kind hearted. She accomplished menial tasks around the their house and farm, such as picking crops, caring for animals, cooking, and house cleaning. She also tended to three of their infant children. Having a thirst and hunger for knowledge, Sampson was punished several times for reading instead of working and doing her duties. Servant girls in the day only learned to read and write, but Sampson fell in love with learning and tried to read and retain as much as she could. After her eight long years of servitude were finished, she weaved and taught school for a living.
At the age of twenty, Sampson decided to enlist in the army under the name of “Timothy Thayer”. She was discovered, however, by a woman who recognized her and was forced to resign. However, Sampson, who was full of fire and determination, would not give up so easily. She traveled to Worcester, Massachusetts where no one knew her and enlisted successfully under the name of “Robert Shurtleff”. She sewed herself a military uniform, tied cloth around her chest, and cut off her long hair to fit the typical male style of the time. Under this concealment, she joined the fourth Massachusetts regiment and was recruited to serve for three years. She was known as Private Shurtleff, and was recognized as a hard worker and valiant soldier.
She fought in many smaller battles and also served as a part time spy. Once she received two wounds in her leg as a result of a musket ball, and knew her identity would be discovered if she went to the army hospital. She painfully pried the ball out of her leg. The other grotesque wound was too deep to dig out, so she went on fighting with the ball painfully lodged in her leg. After she came down with pneumonia in the middle of her second year of dedicated service, her true gender was discovered. She was honorably discharged, although flooded with disappointment she couldn’t serve her country for the full three years she was assigned. Roughly a year after her discharge, America signed the Treaty of Paris and ultimately won the war. Sampson only served for a year and a half, but she made a lasting impact on her fellow soldiers. Her pluck inspired the men she served with to look at women in a new light, as equals, not inferiors.
A few years after the war, in April of 1785, Sampson married Benjamin Gannett Sr. After their marriage, she lead a simplistic , becoming a farm housewife. He fulfilled her duties around her farm and gave birth to three children: Earl Gannet, Mary Gannet, and Patience Gannett. She also adopted an orphaned child named Susanna, whom she treated as one of her own. She knew what it felt like to be abandoned as a child, and perhaps her heart went out to Susanna. She was friends with an aspiring author named Herman Mann, who published a small biography about her entitled The Female Review, published a few years after her death. Her life was fairly quiet after marriage, however she did two very important things.
The government refused to give her a pension, even though she was injured in battle.For many years, Deborah sought and tirelessly fought for a pension, refusing to succumb to the inequality the government showed her. She even hired a lawyer and went to court. The pension itself didn’t matter as much, Sampson was demanding equal gender treatment. After many years of hard work and fighting, she finally was awarded a pension of eight dollars a month. She also went on tour to talk about her life as a soldier, which aroused a spirit of patriotism in the people she gave lectures to. It was unusual for women to deliver public speeches, however, Sampson’s listeners were interested in her story. Sampson, once again, had defied the odds for her gender.
On April 29, 1827, Deborah died of yellow fever at the age of 66. Her husband and children grieved for her although the public did not recognize her death. Her family paid for an obituary about her to be written in a rustic country newspaper. Her husband kept receiving her pension she campaigned for until he died. Not many people remembered her until about sixty years after her death, when women started campaigning for their rights.
They looked to Sampson as something of a hero, breaking the gaps of inequality and fighting for what she felt passionate about. Sampson represented their struggle, and her legacy motivated the women to be empowered to fight for their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, qualities Sampson held so dear she was willing to risk her life. There is a statue of Sampson in the Sharon Public Library in Massachusetts, showing her wearing a dress as well as a soldier's jacket and holding a musket. She is still not an extremely recognized figure, but the meaning of her service has been recognized and she is greatly honored for her work.
Sampson still shines like a beacon for women today, proving that they can be anything they want to be. She dared to fight, and inspires women to still campaign for their rights today and every day. Her service in the war showed the true spirit and strength of her gender, and proved her passionate, devoted belief in freedom and liberty.Just like Deborah in the bible, she fought against the tyranny of Great Britain and inspires women to fight for their freedom today and against the tyranny of inequality.