Previously Published

sarah emma edmonds: lessons from a mistress of disguise

In 1842 Sarah Emma Edmonds entered this world as a baby girl. It was an era that dictated girls stay strapped in frilly petticoats and master the art of cooking. And Sarah’s determination to prove that she was as good as a boy provoked her father’s temper so much that he became abusive and she had to leave home as a teen.

Answered the call. Civil war was breaking out and when the first call for Union enlistments went out, Sarah responded. Still raging against gender discrimination, she enlisted as a man–She cut her hair, wore a suit and called herself Frank Thompson. Thus on April 25, 1861, Emma Edmonds aka Frank Thompson became a male nurse in the United States Army.

Crossed boundaries. For the average woman, being disguised as a man would be a sufficient dose of drama and point-proving to last a life-time; but not for Sarah. When the Union began looking for a spy to plant in the Confederate camp, she learned everything there was to know about weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities. She applied for the job and got it.

As a spy her disguise as Frank Thompson led to other disguises. She was “Cuff” a black man working on Confederate ramparts. Using silver nitrate, she darkened her skin to the point where even the people she knew well could not recognize her. “Cuff” studied the enemy’s size, morale and weapons; She was Bridget O’Shea, a fat Irish peddler woman. Bridget returned wounded but loaded with confidential information and a horse she named Rebel; She was Charles Mayberry, a young white man with Southern sympathies. Charles went to Louisville and identified the Southern spy network in the town; She was even a typical 1800’s black mammy, complete with a black face and a bandanna. As a mammy she laundered clothes in the enemy camp and found official papers in the pocket of an officer’s pants!

Took risks. When Private Frank Thompson was not needed as a spy, “he” worked long hours in the military hospital. All was going well until Thompson got malaria. Realizing that her true identity would be known if she was admitted in the military hospital, Sarah decided to leave camp, be a woman until she recovered, and then return to camp as Frank Thompson. But things did not go according to plan. While recovering in a private hospital, she came across a list of deserters from the Union army—it included Private Frank Thompson.

That was the end of Private Frank Thompson but not the end of Sarah Emma Edmonds. She worked as a female nurse, wrote her memoirs titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, fell in love, married, and had three sons—one of whom joined the army.


While Sarah’s past secret life had brought her excitement, fulfillment and satisfaction, she sometimes brooded over the fact that her career ended as a disloyal deserter of the army—and that Frank Thompson had gotten credit for Sarah Emma Edmonds. So, in her later years, she petitioned the War Department for a full review of her case. The case was debated and on July 5, 1884, a special act of Congress granted Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus and a veteran’s pension of twelve dollars a month. And in honor of her duty and devotion to her country she is the only female member of the organization formed after the Civil War by Union veterans-The Grand Army of the Republic.

While Sarah Emma Edmonds got her recognition, there are those who don’t. Many daring women answer the call to do the unthinkable, cross boundaries set by society and take risks for the sake of conviction. Yet not all fight for recognition because a fight for recognition takes on the appearance of arrogance and conceit. More than a hundred years after Sarah, society continues to be biased.

So, if your accomplishments have not been acknowledged, speak up for justice. Then if your society is still not ready to validate you, go to the High Court of God and pray for courage and forgiveness and the endurance to continue to answer your call, cross boundaries, and take risks. Rewards and recognition are for the righteous saints on earths. That’s everyone living under God’s grace—be it a man or a woman. Take heart, there’s a crown of jewels to validate a life of glory of earth.

Think of ways women in your community can support one another in the pursuit of answering their call in spite of the lack of adequate validation. Avoid group meetings where sympathy and sad experiences take over. Instead, encourage encounters that promote self-worth in God.

Previously Published

Ramabai: Overcoming Obstacles

Born in 1858, Ramabai was destined to live an empty life. It was not the best time to be a woman. Society saw no value in women except for procreating and housekeeping. Even these value markers dropped to a zero when the husband died; the expendable widow was thrown onto the funeral pyre to be burned alive atop of her husband’s corpse.

Against all odds. Ramabai was fortunate to have a father who believed that destiny is not predetermined by gender. While society espoused that girls were not worthy of education and opinions, Dongri—a renowned scholar of Sanskrit—educated both his wife Laxmibai and his daughter Ramabai at home. However, his ways contradicted society, and he was soon ostracized. Wherever they went, they were denied a place to stay, food to eat, and the company of others. So Dongri moved his family from town to town, relentlessly trying to bring about positive change. Experiencing little success, they were forced to retreat into the jungles to eek a living off the land. Their nomadic lifestyle even took them through a famine when they survived on just water and leaves for eleven days. Finally, the wanderings took a toll and Dongri and Laxmibai died.

Alone and destitute, Ramabai and her brother continued to stand up for what they believed, regardless of consequences. Ramabai fought against child-marriage and advocated education for women.

Proving oneself. Ramabai’s thirst for knowledge continued. But being a woman, she could not enter into any school system. So she found and created opportunities to prove herself over and over again. Her competency in Sanskrit soon gained attention and stories of her impressive memory spread—of how she had memorized 23,000 shastras even before she was 16 years old. She was so talked about that the elite scholarly group (made up of all men, of course) called her into their presence to check her out. What they saw and heard astounded them and they did what had never been done before. They offered her—a woman—the opportunity to take the most prestigious Sanskrit exams. These exams were difficult and it was common for men to fail several times before passing. Ramabai, however, got high marks on her first attempt. And she was honored with the title “Sarasvati.”

Standing tall and alone. Ramabai became a lecturer. But just when life seemed to be getting better, her brother died leaving her alone. Six years later, she married a man of a lower caste but one who supported her causes. Again, just as her life took a positive turn, her husband died—only 19 months after they were married. Although now a widow with a baby girl, she was unwavering and strong. Next Ramabai traveled to England where she taught Sanskrit and then later to the United States. During this time, she studied the Bible and felt impressed to translate it into Sanskrit and Marathi. Her study of the Bible led her to Jesus and to a journey that reaffirmed her determination to change her destiny. After her respite overseas, Ramabai returned to India where she established shelters, schools, boarding houses and organizations to uplift women—widows, low-caste, homeless, and the suppressed.

For most of her life, Ramabai was alone—physically, emotionally, sociologically. She could have allowed loneliness to cripple her. But she didn’t. She rose above it to stand tall, look over the horizon and see her calling—her destiny.

What is the crippling factor in your life? How do you overcome obstacles. Ask yourself “How important is it for me to stand tall and find my calling, my destiny?”

Check out her Wikipedia page for biographical details.

Previously Published

elizabeth bathory: lessons from the blood countess

Among the ranks of the heinous is Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, and Ted Bundy. But none come close to the fetes of the Blood Countess. 650 known deaths and possibly many hundreds more are accredited to her fame.

Elizabeth Bathory was known for her beauty, lustrous black hair, and striking eyes. She changed her clothes five or six times a day, spending hours admiring herself in mirrors. She was of royal blood and well-connected: She was married to Hungary’s “Black Hero,” Count Ferencz Nadasdy and was related to princes and kings, bishops and cardinals.

It was a time when it was common for people of royalty and affluence made life miserable for the poor and working class. Elizabeth’s family was especially known for their highhanded cruelty towards the people who worked for them. She was just a child when she witnessed the torture of a gypsy, who was sewn up alive inside a horse and left to die!

Such experiences did not evoke pity or compassion in her heart. Instead, she was drawn to the morbid and the occult. She lured young girls with the promise of work and tortured and killed them for pleasure. She got her kicks placing girls in a cage too short to stand in, too narrow to sit and one that had a dozen spikes jutting into the compartment and swinging the cage to cause the spikes to tear the girl to pieces; inserting red hot pokers from the fire into nostrils or splitting mouths open with her bare hands; slitting the wrists of girls and letting the blood completely drain out to a fill a bathtub (She believed that bathing in young blood would keep wrinkles away); and biting her victims until they died.

The more she killed, the more embolden she became. She moved from killing peasant girls to those of noble birth. Finally it took the Emperor of Hungary to order Elizabeth’s own cousin, the Count Cuyorgy Thurzo, who was governor of the province to put an end to her flagrant show of power.

A trial followed and Elizabeth Bathory was found guilty. But her power and influence continued to protect her. While her accomplices were put to death, she was merely committed to house arrest until her natural death four years later.

Elizabeth Bathory had access to power and wealth to make an enormous, positive impact in her community. But she chose to use it to satisfy only her primal needs. She had the opportunity to become a leader known throughout the political world of her time. But she chose to be remembered for her inhumanness.

Leadership and influence is not measured by your power and gain; Leadership is measured by the people who follow you because they want to. Consider the powers with which Jesus lived on earth. Should he have succumbed to his powers for evil, imagine the consequences! Consider the power and influence you have as a leader and ask yourself if you are a steward of them.