What does it take to be an awesome military spouse? It’s a question that’s debated over and over again. Is it standing by your service member? Striking out on your own? Taking care of the homefront? Is it something else?
We decided to reach back into history and find a few of our foremothers who broke the mold—whether it was by staying by their husbands, fighting for what was right or doing what they loved. These milspouses, despite wearing petticoats or being constrained by the social mores of the time, knew exactly how to kick ass and take names. Take a look:
5 Historic Military Spouses Who Kicked Ass
No list of historic military spouses would be complete without Martha Washington, a woman who was continually overshadowed by her husband, the larger-than-life George Washington, but who had many accomplishments of her own.
Martha was an anomaly in colonial America—a woman who not only could read and write but was prolific at (and enjoyed) both. Having inherited her first husband’s fortune and land, Martha married Washington as a very wealthy woman who knew how to take care of her assets. Martha is known for her unwavering support of her husband and for her judgment, graces and productivity.
During the winter at Valley Forge, Martha turned up in Pennsylvania with supplies and provisions from her plantation, Mount Vernon. She organized sewing circles among the officers’ wives and tended to the wounded and sick. And she didn’t do this just once—she stayed with her husband at every winter encampment during the Revolutionary War. In fact, Washington found her presence so important he petitioned the Continental Congress to cover her traveling expenses.
Margaret Corbin was a survivor. During a frontier attack by Native Americans, her father was killed and mother was kidnapped, never to return.
In the early 1770s, she met her husband, John, who joined the New York militia. Not to be left at home, Margaret became a “camp follower”—one of the many women who were spouses or entrepreneurs, following the Continental Army and militias from one campsite to the next, in order to take care of their loved ones and make a bit of extra money by cooking and laundering for the soldiers.
At the Battle of Fort Washington, Margaret helped her husband with his job—loading the cannon. When the person manning the cannon was killed, she took over (and had great aim, by the way). Unfortunately, her husband was also killed during the battle, but that didn’t stop Margaret. Even though the British won the battle, her cannon was the last to fall silent on the battlefield. Margaret sustained devastating wounds in her shoulder, chest and jaw, which eventually led to her inability to use her arm and caused her to drink more than was deemed acceptable for a woman at the time.
Still, Margaret was respected for her bravery and was the first woman to receive a lifelong pension (even though it was just half of a male’s pension), clothes, a rum ration and perhaps surprisingly, back pay from the new government.
Gerda Weissmann Klein
Gerda Weissmann Klein lived through one of the most horrific eras in world history: the Holocaust.
Born in Poland, she was 15 when the Nazis invaded her hometown. Eventually, she and her family were forced into a Jewish ghetto and then later to death camps. Gerda was separated from her mother at the beginning of her imprisonment and was an eventual participant in a forced 350-mile death march through Germany and Czechoslovakia. She was one of 120 survivors.
In Czechoslovakia, her camp was liberated by the U.S. Army and her future husband, Kurt Klein, a lieutenant. Just a few months after her liberation, Gerda married Kurt in Paris.
They moved to New York and became staunch advocates of human rights, making it their life’s work. Gerda was awarded the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, has spoken at schools in every one of the 50 states, was the keynote speaker at the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day and was awarded the Lion of Judah.
Fay Bainter married her husband, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy in 1921. In a time that didn’t look kindly upon women who worked outside the home—especially as an actress—Fay bucked the system.
She had been a child performer before the turn of the 20th century and made her Broadway debut in 1912. Bainter acted in her first movie at the age of 41 and had a steady career as a motion picture actress for more than 20 years. Oh yeah–she won an Academy Award for her work as a supporting actress in Jezebel and claimed an Oscar nom for her role in The Children’s Hour.
There comes a day when the flush of youth disappears from every woman’s face. Most women dread it. I did. Like so many things, however, it is worse in anticipation than actual fact.
As if that’s not enough, Bainter also did work in radio, on TV and with touring companies. She’s buried next to her husband in Arlington Cemetery.
Malinda Blalock didn’t give a darn for what other people thought. Growing up in antebellum North Carolina, she met her husband, Keith, in school and married him, despite a 100-year-old feud between their families.
When the drums of war began beating, she supported secession while her husband was an ardent Unionist. Keith decided he would join the Confederate army so he could desert to and join the Union and was leaving town when a small recruit joined him on the outskirts of town.
It was Malinda.
She had cut her hair, donned a Confederate uniform and signed up as Sam Blalock—Keith’s non-existent younger brother—all so that she and Keith would not be separated by war. The couple kept the secret for months, and as a sergeant, Keith was able to order Malinda to stay close to him. They were able to share a tent and fought in at least 3 battles together. Still, they hadn’t been able to desert and join the North.
Finally, Malinda’s secret was found out when she caught a bullet in her shoulder and was examined by a doctor. By a series of circumstances, Malinda and Keith were both discharged from the Confederate army and, to avoid Keith’s forced reenlistment, joined Union guerrilla squads.
They became leaders for the Watauga Underground Railroad and helped guide captured Yankees from the largest Confederate jail in North Carolina. Their fearless and merciless guerilla warfare toward loyal Confederates was loathed by North Carolinians.
Of course, this list isn’t a definitive one. There are many more historic military spouses who made their mark on history and on our country.