An 1890s Omaha photo shows three young women dressed in what look like men’s military cadet uniforms. It was frowned upon for women to be dressed in such a manner, so why were they?
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
An 1890s Omaha photo shows three young women dressed in what look like men’s military cadet uniforms. It was frowned upon for women to be dressed in such a manner, so why were they? Questions about the story behind the camera lens led Gary and Caitlin Mitchell to investigate. Their research uncovered the story of a female military drill company at Omaha’s Central High School. They tell the story in “The Girls of Company Z” in the Summer 2020 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.
Military-style drill teams became common in universities and schools in the latter nineteenth century. The Morrill Act of 1862 required land-grant colleges to teach their students military tactics. This later influenced high schools to do the same.
But the act didn’t discuss gender, so a few universities started military-style units for women. After young men had participated in drills for years, by the 1890s girls across the nation began to take up this activity. Performing with replica rifles or with brooms, dressed in their own uniforms, and studying manuals such as Barnett’s Broom Drill and Brigade Tactics, female drill teams becoming increasingly popular. Many of these “fan” and “broom drills” were held at exhibitions to raise money for worthy causes.
For a group of girls attending Omaha’s Central High School though, this would mean something more.
In 1896 a group of students formed a female drill team called “Company Z.” They drilled under the direction of the boys, and held fundraisers and social events such as dances. The public began to take notice. Company Z was praised as being “equal of any male organization in the proficiency and smartness of their movements.”
In October Company Z held a public drill competition to determine which girls would be promoted to corporal. Full of determination, the girls showed up not only to compete against each other, but also to prove themselves in a predominantly male activity. With each command given, they were sharp and swift in their movements, and were eliminated one by one for any error until only two remained on the field. After quite the battle, Miss White finally made a mistake and Miss Ward emerged victorious.
Despite the impressive performance, the company still had room for improvement. One opportunity came as a result of an 1892 law requiring the army to assign an officer from Fort Omaha to instruct and drill the Omaha High School Cadets. The officer, Lieutenant Clement, was supportive of Company Z, offering a cadet cap to the girl who won an individual competitive drill.
Later the entire company was outfitted with cadet caps and, eventually, rifles. The company was an inspiration for other schools to start their own female drill teams. Dressed in their blue blouses, skirts, neck ties, and their flat-brimmed band caps with gold-embroidered “Company Z” lettering, they were proudly recognized.
However, after five years Company Z ended as suddenly as it began. By 1899, Omaha Central had a new principal who complained that the drill team’s membership had become too exclusive and snobbish. The Omaha Bee reported that he told them they “must open their ranks to any girl who wished to drill, or else they must disband.”
Company Z disbanded, but authors Gary and Caitlin Mitchell doubt that social snobbery was the real reason. “It is difficult to believe that the ladies of Company Z would have walked away from their beloved unit with so little provocation,” they write. The school newspaper, the High School Register, which was “no shrinking violet when it came to criticism, never attacked Company Z on such grounds.” And the principal allowed other school groups to select their own members, though he brought student-run clubs “under the tight control of the school administration.”
It is left for the reader to question what the principal’s true motives were and whether it had to do with any fault of Company Z, or whether the principal simply wanted to eliminate an ‘un-ladylike’ activity.
Company Z did not return, but its legacy lives on as a predecessor of what is known today as the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program which is taught in over 3,000 high schools today in America.
Top: During the late 1890s, three young women had their picture taken at the Louis Gamer studio in Omaha. Little would they know that their picture would later inspire historians to investigate their will to step out against gender norms. The photo remains a bit of a mystery, as Company Z members did not wear the same uniforms as male cadets. Photo from Gary Mitchell and Caitlin Mitchell’s collection.
Bottom: Company Z is photographed for the High School Register newspaper (1897-98 annual).
The entire article can be found in the Summer 2020 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.