WILKES-BARRE —Have you ever heard of an 1860s soldier named William Cathay?
Before you imagine him marching through fields with his regiment and firing his rifle at the enemy, please note “he” was really a woman named Cathay Williams, who switched her name around and donned men’s clothing in order to join the U.S. Army in 1866, in the aftermath of the Civil War.
“We thought that was pretty cool, what she did,” said Lauren Kane, 13, of Bear Creek, an eighth-grade student at St. Nicholas-St. Mary School in Wilkes-Barre who collaborated with two classmates to create an award-winning History Day presentation that they will soon take to national competition in Maryland.
As Lauren and her friends, Laney Schulz, 13, of Hanover Township, and Sophia Magistro, 13, of Wilkes-Barre, were pondering possible topics that would fit this year’s History Day theme of “conflict and compromise,” they eventually decided to look at women’s military service.
The “conflict” on which they focused is not the military action of Molly Pitcher firing a cannon against the British during the American Revolution, or General Ann Dunwoody deploying to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield/Operation Desert Storm in 1991, or Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester fighting Iraqi insurgents during a 2005 ambush, although all those women appear in the exhibit.
Military women’s “conflict,” the girls explained, was their historic struggle against society’s perception that they were “too weak to be able to defend the country.”
“I think any woman is capable of being that brave,” Sophia said as she and her friends looked over a purple-hued exhibit of text and illustrations they had put together for their entry.
“We chose purple because that’s the color of the Purple Heart a soldier gets for being wounded or killed,” Laney said.
Putting together an exhibit is the most common way a team enters the History Day competition, advisors Janine Halchak and Dawn Sullin explained. Other ways to enter include creating a website, a paper, a performance or a documentary.
After the girls’ project won a prize at regional competition at Misericordia University in March, they proceeded to state competition in Harrisburg and are now one of only two Pennsylvania teams in their category to go to the national competition.
Set for June 10 through 14 at the University of Maryland in College Park, the event is expected to include about 3,000 young history buffs — and their teachers.
“We’re as excited as they are,” Halchak said.
Putting together “Skirted Soldiers: The Conflict and Compromise of Women Serving in the Military” was a chance for the girls to develop research skills as they interviewed veterans, read books and articles, and consulted online references.
“They’ll use those skills in high school, college and beyond,” Sullin said.
Standing before their exhibit that highlighted women’s military accomplishments — from Kester’s Silver Star for valor to Dunwoody’s status as first female four-star general — Laney, Lauren and Sophia each said they would consider some type of military service. They’re also hoping to become, respectively, an optometrist, a physician assistant, and a biomedical scientist.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.