This past Sunday we had the fantastic opportunity to meet a very inspiring woman, Lauren Cook Wike.
For all of the women reenactors who don't know about her, Ms. Cook Wike made it possible for women to participate fully in reenacting as soldiers by filing a lawsuit against the National Park Service when she was barred from a reenactment in the late 1980s. At that time, women weren't allowed to reenact as soldiers because it was considered an extremely oddball occurrence, so Lauren was portraying a soldier in secret (just like the real women soldiers!) until she accidentally revealed herself by using the women's restroom while still in uniform. Lauren was told she couldn't return to the battlefield if she intended to reenact as a man. Lauren won her lawsuit on the basis of sex discrimination for being barred because of her gender. However, when I spoke to her, I found out that the most important reason she filed the lawsuit was so that women like her could represent the real female soldiers who hid their identities during the Civil War. She felt that for a reenactment to be authentic, women soldiers should be represented because they really existed, really fought in battles, and many times really gave the full measure of devotion by dying for their country and their cause. Excluding the representation of women soldiers would be denying their genuine contributions to the war!
Moreover, it turned out that without the lawsuit, Lauren would never have been contacted by the descendants of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, one of the real women soldiers, who at the time, was unknown to the general public. Rosetta Wakeman's letters home to her family as well as a daguerreotype of her likeness had just been sitting in the family's attic since the Civil War. Because of the publicity from Lauren's lawsuit, the family contacted her and intrusted her with Rosetta's letters. Lauren was able to compile them into a book, An Uncommon Soldier, which was published in 1996. Rosetta's letters are the only known collection of correspondence from a female soldier home.
Compiling the letters for An Uncommon Soldier was a long, complex undertaking, but it led Lauren to the National Archives, where she met DeAnne Blanton, her future co-author for the book They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. Together, they conducted the first comprehensive research on women soldiers, preserving their histories for future generations.
Meeting Lauren was one of the best experiences I've had while working on this project. She shared so many incredible stories about her time as a reenactor. She also cleared up a lot of my questions about her lawsuit and the motivations behind it. I can't wait to share this interview in Lauren's own words with the world in this documentary. She is a true pioneer for women reenactors and historians on female military history!