When I was a girl, I was always a little mystified by books and stories where other little girls would just cut their hair off, put on some pants, and run away disguised as boys. How could it possibly be that easy? My own body betrayed me pretty early on this front. This is not a humblebrag. I was a soft round child, poor at sports and dancing, hardly able to pass for a normal girl, let alone a boy.
You have to wonder what it was to be Elsie Wilson. In the summer of 1919, she cut her hair, passed herself off as a coal passer, and worked her passage from the port of Southampton to New York City. This was one of the fiercest, hottest jobs on a ship, and apparently Elsie did it well enough that no one tumbled to the fact that she was a woman — or if they did, they were satisfied enough with the work to keep their suspicions to themselves. Wilson was picked up in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a “disorderly person,” a charge that might have covered any number of offenses. She pled with the judge to have mercy; she would get five years, she said, if she went back to the United Kingdom. The magistrate was implacable. And thus she disappears from the shallows of the historical record.
How many Elsie Wilsons kept their heads down and trudged through the world, bending their gender by sheer strength, not for any revolutions but for sheer survival?