The combat-ready woman soldier has been a figure of controversy since the founding of the United States. Given the strong historical linkage between citizenship and the right and obligation to fight in wars, the female soldier has been a particularly contested figure in United States history. Both feminists and antifeminists in the years leading up to the Civil War saw military service as the ultimate outcome of the woman's rights movement—and as the ultimate test of women's patriotism. Woman's rights advocates of the 1840s pointed to actual Revolutionary War soldiers such as Deborah Sampson Gannett as proof that women were capable of martial valor and thus should gain access to the full privileges of citizenship, while readers snapped up cheap novels featuring rough, ready and sometimes bawdy cross-dressing female soldiers.
Because the female soldier suggests a sexual ambiguity that conflicts with conventional expectations, the women who cross-dressed as soldiers in the Civil War and then published memoirs about their experiences had to portray themselves as almost ludicrously respectable and committed to upholding traditional gender roles if they were to succeed in reaching a wide audience. Belle Boyd, the most famous Confederate cross-dresser, claimed that she shot her first Union soldier because he used disrespectful language to her mother: the murder was framed as an attempt to protect her genteel status. Sarah Edmonds, author of a best-selling memoir about her service in the Union army, not only omitted mention of her years of cross-dressing before the onset of the war, but barely alluded to her soldierly disguise, burying her references to it beneath a welter of patriotic and Christian language. On the other hand, Loreta Velazquez, the Confederate author of The Woman in Battle, described her military service primarily in terms of the pleasure it gave her to cross-dress and to outfight, outlove, and outswagger the male soldiers with whom she fought. Her memoir, as might be expected, was roundly denounced by commentators, who charged that she had besmirched Southern womanhood.
Besides suggesting potentially troubling aspects of women's sexuality, the idea of women in combat implicitly raised the possibility that, having fought on the battlefield, they would expect equal rights in other aspects of life. Although women no longer need to engage in cross-dressing to serve as soldiers, the relationship between armed patriotism and feminism continues to be contested to this day. Female soldiers were featured in a 2003 photo spread in the NRA magazine Woman's Outlook. However, in a caption accompanying the photo of Airman Rossana Ojeda—who is in uniform but wearing pink lipstick—Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) offers a nonfeminist rationale: "Women in combat is not about equity or equal opportunity. The point is National Security."
The tensions surrounding women's armed patriotism are nicely contained by the fictional female soldier who remains the most famous of all American armed women. According to the legend, which was late in developing, Molly Pitcher was a Revolutionary War soldier's wife who took over her husband's artillery position when he fell in battle. As historians have pointed out any number of times, Molly Pitcher was not a real person, but a composite of several Revolutionary-era women. Thus, Linda Grant De Pauw writes, "The woman memorialized on posters, postage stamps, and a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike was not a real woman at all but a mythic figure constructed by artists and writers many years after the war." Molly Pitcher had not been identified as anything more than "Captain Molly" until 1848, when Nathaniel Currier produced the first print of her: the first written mention of Molly Pitcher does not appear in a book until 1859. But after 1876, when a Carlisle, Pennsylvania man published a genealogy identifying a local woman as "the heroine of Monmouth," the Molly Pitcher cult grew and grew. Molly Pitcher was never pictured as a cross-dresser, but instead as a properly feminine—though heroic—helpmate. Margaret Corbin and Mary McCauley, the women on whom the character of Molly Pitcher was purportedly based, were far from being models of feminine deportment: Corbin was known as "Dirty Kate" and "died a horrible death from the effects of a syphilitic disease" after the war, and McCauley was remembered as "a very masculine person…[who] could both drink whiskey and swear." However, the idealized Molly Pitcher—who grew more perfect over the years—had none of the sexual ambiguity or unseemly independence of actual female Continental soldiers.