Reenactress Blog

On the Problem of Bathrooms

On The 4th of July, two fellow female soldier reenactors invited me to the Antietam National Battlefield Park where they volunteer so we could watch the fireworks together. We witnessed the Maryland Symphony Orchestra play all sorts of patriotic songs including the 1812 Overture complete with cannon fire, which was exceptionally wonderful for all of us because we have all been “fighting” on cannon crews as reenactors for quite a while. We have a special love for the big guns!

However, during our several-hour visit to the park, I did end up having to use the facilities to relieve myself as it was extremely hot and I had been drinking tons of water all day. It was on our visit to the restroom in that battlefield park, that one of my fellow ladies in arms informed me that the lavatory we were visiting was THE “Lauren Cook Memorial Bathroom!” Well, it’s not really called that, but that was their nickname for it.

I observed that the LCMB was completely non-descript, not much to notice at all. There was no plaque out in front denoting a special honor, and there were no features that could have distinguished the room from any other ladies’ room one might visit. However, because I know the history of that park and of Lauren Cook’s rather infamous trip to that bathroom, I still found it to be one of the most exciting trips to the toilet I have ever taken in my life!

Let me explain this history to you so you can also understand the sheer importance of that bathroom. Lauren Cook Wike (formerly Lauren Cook Burgess) was a female reenactor who portrayed a soldier, just like me! In 1989, she visited the Antietam Battlefield Park with her unit to perform in a living history program where she was to play a wounded soldier.  Everything seemed to be going fine for her and the unit until Lauren had to use the bathroom. She entered the ladies’ room in her male uniform attire, and upon exiting, she was confronted by a park ranger who told her that she had to leave. Why? Well, they didn’t allow female reenactors in uniform at their park.

Ms. Cook ended up fighting and winning a lawsuit on the basis of gender discrimination because she didn’t want to be removed from future events just because she was a woman. She knew that several women fought in the Civil War battle that took place at that very park! She also loved that park, and when I spoke to her she made it very clear that she did NOT want to say any disparaging remarks about one of her favorite battlefields. After visiting there, I can agree. The Antietam Battlefield is richly historic and also gorgeous!

Winning that lawsuit, however, completetly changed reenacting for the rest of us women! It forced the Park Service to create new regulations that would allow women to reenact as soldiers in any events on public land or open to spectators. That’s why that bathroom is so important to me. What happened there made Ms. Cook take a stand for female reenactors everywhere!

Now that you know the history, though, let me tell you, it’s still a very non-descript bathroom. I was pretty shocked after going inside how normal it was. It was almost disappointing. I don’t know why, but I was expecting fanfare of some kind, fireworks like there were outside. Maybe there SHOULD be a plaque!

But that bathroom is not where the problem of bathrooms for female reenactors trying to portray soldiers ends, oh no!

Another problem that affects women in military reenacting is that people seem to take issue with women urinating outside, which is not as big of a problem for men. At an event in Florida, I once heard a soldier yell, “Okay, guys, go water the trees before battle!” I was really confused until I saw a bunch of the guys take a few steps out behind the trees to go pee.

However, since I can’t pee standing up or without exposing my nether regions, if I wanted to “water the trees,” I’d need a device to prevent my trousers from getting soaked through. FYI, there IS a device to do that, there’s more than one actually. Two “popular” brands include the GoGirl and the Shewee. Basically, these devices are just urine funnels. Trust me, the user reviews are hilariously excellent. You should check them out on YouTube!

I’ve always thought about getting one of those to really try to pull off the “I’m a man” thing at reenactments, but most of them come in a very feminine pink or purple color. Way to make it obvious, device manufacturers!

Is there always going to be one thing that separates the women from the men? How am I supposed to be really convincing if I can’t even pee like everyone else? And what am I supposed to do when we’re in the middle of the woods with no toilet, no port-a-potty, and no really, really big trees around when I really have to go?

All of these questions got me to thinking: What would women have done about bodily functions back in Victorian times if they were trying to pass as men? How would they be discreet enough to never have to pee around anyone else, especially when everyone is camped out together? From my research, I’ve come to understand that people were more modest back then than they are now so they didn’t tend to urinate in “public” as often. I’ve been told it would have been relatively easy for a man to claim he was uncomfortable peeing with the guys, and just go off in the woods to do it by himself. A woman passing as a man probably could have gone off into the woods to urinate alone, relieving her of more than her need to pee.

I guess the point of all this is that the ideas we explore as reenactors, we might never think about if we didn’t have to experience at least somewhat of a similar situation to the real people who lived in the 1800’s.

But then I thought, there are people out there today that experience these problems with gender-divided bathrooms on a day-to-day basis: transgendered people and intersex people! This issue is more current than ever RIGHT NOW!

At an event in small-town Pennsylvania, I surprised a woman in a bathroom when she saw me in my uniform, assumed I was a man, and promptly freaked out that she might be in the wrong bathroom. I know that passing as a man when I’m in uniform is the idea, but I found I could easily explain to her in my feminine-sounding voice that, no, she wasn’t confused, I’m really a woman, and she was in the correct bathroom for her. We even laughed together about it afterward, and it started a short conversation about women disguising themselves as soldiers during the real Civil War, turning an awkward moment into a teaching moment!

However, if I were a transman forced to use the women’s restroom like some transmen in certain states might be if laws are passed requiring people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth, this wouldn’t be so funny. I might have to explain to a complete stranger that although I present myself as a man and am recognized as a man, I was assigned a different gender at birth. I might have to lie and tell someone that I’m female to assuage their fears but deny myself and my identity. This wouldn’t be awkward but funny; it would probably be awkward and demeaning. In certain cases, I might just wait until I could go to the bathroom alone so as not to have to deal with the issue all together, which might be awful for my sense of self-worth as well as my bladder.

You should check out the hashtag #weneedtopee for info on a protest being conducted by transgender activist, Michael Hughes, that discusses this issue in a very easy-to-understand way.

All in all, the problem of bathrooms pervades history. We hope to explore it thoroughly in the Reenactress movie, and we hope you can’t wait to see what we discover.

Stay tuned!

Victory at Gettysburg!

We fought on both sides: Confederates during the Blue Gray Alliance Reenactment on June 28-30th and Union during the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee Event the following weekend, July 7-9th. We shot enough new footage to have to buy a new hard drive! We'll be looking through it over the next couple of weeks to put together a short Pitch Tape for the feature-length project.

The events were extremely intense with 1-3 battles each day, rain or shine. Some days had temperatures in the upper 90s with almost 100% humidity. We spent time holding down our tents under strong winds and getting completely drenched in the rain in our wool uniforms. Several reenactors went down with the heat during the events, and we heard that many spectators had to be hospitalized with dehydration and heat exhaustion.

However, even though the 150th Anniversary Reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg brought many difficulties and challenges, they proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that taught us more in two weekends than we may have been able to learn in years of study.

We made lots of excellent new friends including a civilian reenactress of Japanese descent, a really fascinating young woman who works in her non-reenacting time as a volunteer firefighter, and several other filmmakers, reporters and photojournalists who were working on other projects documenting Gettysburg. I was interviewed for an article in the York Daily Record/Sunday News as well as for a non-fiction book. The 6th New York was followed by a female photojournalist from Bucks County, PA, who was imbedded with our unit for two days of battle. The Reenactress Facebook and Twitter were both buzzing during the week, and we gained a ton of new followers and posted dozens of photos.

We toured the historic Gettysburg battlefield site and took pictures near the monuments that memorialize the actual 53rd Georgia Infantry Unit that we portrayed on the field.  We also visited the Gettysburg National Military Park and museum, run by the same National Park Service that got sued and lost for kicking a female reenactor off the field back in the early 1990s.

We're newly motivated to review all of the footage we shot and to be posting more information about our experiences as female reenactors in Gettysburg to share with the world. The whole adventure proved to be extremely inspiring and character-building for both Keyes and myself, and we're excited to continue on the journey of bringing the documentary film, Reenactress, to life!

Stay tuned to this space!

J.R. Hardman (Reenactress Director)