Women Warriors

English: zenobia, queen of Palmyra, by Sir Edw...
English: zenobia, queen of Palmyra, by Sir Edward Poynter (1878) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spurred by the U.S. decision to open more combat positions to women, Military History Quarterly (Spring 2013) published a series of articles and sidebars on women warriors. Many will be familiar to most people but there are quite a few on the list, especially from Asia, that were new to me. Women warriors are far from rare in speculative fiction, books or movies, to the point where a historical review of the topic is perhaps not all that useful for fantasy authors but it never hurts to look back at some real-world examples for triangulation, if nothing else. And, as I touched on in Longevity, and is certainly not lost in our own age, much of the role of women in combat has to do with the larger role of women in society.

There seem to be three basic classes of women warriors in earth history:

  1. War leaders, often but not always women who took the place of an absent or dead spouse
  2. Women fighting as women in the front lines, often when a society was fighting for its life
  3. Cryptic female warriors: women who pretended to be men in order to fight, Mulan is probably legendary but there are documented cases of women masquerading as men in Renaissance and later armies.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The war leaders are probably most famous: Boudicca is well-known, although scholars argue over whether she was just a figurehead or a real leader. Somewhat less well-known but just as fascinating are Artemisia I of Halicarnassus who commanded five ships in Xerxes’ 480 BCE invasion of Greece and Zenobia of Palmyra (3rd century CE) who conquered some of the near east after her husband was assassinated.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 CE) was an intriguing figure for many reasons but she also took part in the 2nd Crusade in war councils if not leading soldiers directly. In first century CE, Trung Hac and Trung Nhi were two sisters that raised an army (with many more women generals) and successfully fought the Chinese, a precedent that was consciously used in the Vietnamese wars against the French and Americans in the 20th century where there were many female leaders, including Nguyen Thi Dinh (1920-1992).

While the barriers to female war leaders were significant in the past, there probably aren’t too many people today who would claim a woman could not make a good war leader. That’s not to say every woman would make a good general but no one says every man does either. But leading warriors is one thing, picking up a weapon and killing someone in personal combat is something else. Here, there are also examples from throughout history from the legendary Amazons to the Norse and Celtic women (at times) through to the modern era.

Tomoe Gozen -- artist's impression by Kikuchi ...
Tomoe Gozen — artist’s impression by Kikuchi Yōsai (1781-1878). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tomoe Gozen (circa 1157-1247) was a famous warrior celebrated in the epic Tale of the Heike (partial translation in the Spring 2013 MHQ) magazine. With her husband and two sons, Umm ‘Umara (7th CE) fought alongside the Prophet Muhammed.

By World War II, however, thousands of women took to combat. The Soviets had the Night Witches (588th Night Bombing Regiment) and two other all female air force regiments. They also put 2,000 women through sniper’s school. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was self-trained but famous for 300 kills. The Soviets had 300,000 women in their anti-aircraft units. Other nations in WW2 also made use of women but not usually in direct combat roles (for instance, the US Women’s Airforce Service Pilots flew many planes over the Atlantic to Britain and the British had many women in their AA units, including Churchill’s daughter but they didn’t pull the triggers.) For the Soviets, women in combat was a war-time exigency eliminated at peace but in the decades since, many nations have put women into full combat roles, well ahead of the US, with China, North Korea, Israel and Taiwan notable examples.

For me, though, the most interesting type is the third category, the woman who went to war disguised as a man. Not surprisingly, this area is a little more hazy: many women were, no doubt, never discovered in their ruse and when they were, commanders often kept it quiet. It is not as surprising as it sounds: in centuries past soldiers were often teenage boys not yet showing a beard and heavy clothing could also be the norm. That, coupled with a few basic techniques like wrapping the bosom and a silver trumpet to urinate standing up, and apparently women often passed for men. Motivations are rarely documented but some of the women must have joined for the same reasons men did: adventure, patriotism, vengeance, loot, even signing-bounties.

There are accounts in France of one woman joining and being discovered multiple times. She was simply kicked out and would take a new name to join a new unit elsewhere. Deborah Samson (1760-1827) served on the American side in the Revolutionary war as Robert Shurtleff for about a year before being discovered. She may have been personally discharged by George Washington. Nagezhada Durova (1783-1866) served for almost a decade as a Russian cavalry officer while disguised as a man, fighting against the French in the Napoleonic wars. She was awarded a medal by Tsar Alexander I when discovered.

Not surprisingly, such cryptic soldiers were often found-out when treated for wounds. Less surprisingly, they don’t seem to have been frequently discovered by their fellow soldiers, although there perhaps it was more a matter of looking the other way.

For the fantasy writer, there are plenty of fictional female warriors so role models aren’t too hard to come by but it never hurts to take a pass through history for ideas. The Wikipedia article, Women Warriors, is a good starting point for many more examples.


3 thoughts on “Women Warriors

  1. Nice article. I was thinking of covering this topic at some time in the future myself, but you beat me to it. Just when women seemed like they were here to stay in fantasy, some readers of both sexes have been coming out of the woodwork and complaining that women warriors in pre-industrial societies creates a serious suspension of disbelief issue. I don’t think it’s impossible, if it’s prefaced correctly. It always amazes me how long women could hide their sex in the close confines of barracks and army camps. I remember reading somewhere that men in many pre-industrial societies were actually more modest about undressing and “answering calls of nature” in front of one another in the old days than they are in the modern military.

    1. There’s lots more to add to the subject; I just scratched the surface. Feel free to add more 🙂

      You’re right that when people contemplate women in armies in the past, they forget that ideas on clothing and privacy have changed a lot.

      Regarding the female warriors in pre-industrial societies, I’m also one that might have an issue with a society that pretty much looked like a pre-industrial earth society yet had men and women treated exactly the same when it came to war: it didn’t happen much on earth for many reasons so why should it be casually tossed into a story?

      However, it did happen on earth at times and in speculative fiction there are certainly many reasons you could have more or even dominant female warriors: authors have a wide range of things to play with starting with physical form (maybe less sexual dimorphism or women are larger than men) to longevity to cultural reasons.

      So, if the author cribbed his or her society on say, Mongolian horsemen, but then tossed in an equal number of female warriors without justification, that might rub me funny (although it wouldn’t be the determinant for whether I liked the story). That said, it wouldn’t take too much work to provide a plausible reason for the difference from earth.

      One thing I’ve always wanted to study more, was the prevalence of female war-gods in very chauvinist societies. Ancient Anthens was extremely restrictive for upper class women yet here you have Athena, patron of the city and frequently in martial guise. It always seemed discordant to me that a society could lock up their women in a closed part of the house yet honor a female goddess, even if she was ‘apart’ from the normal flow of women by being divine and a virgin. (And the flip-side for the same area, Ancient Sparta was a lot less chauvinist although they had other problems 🙂 ).

      In fantasy worlds, with active, interventionist gods, it always seemed to me that the simplest way to reduce gender barriers was to have the goddesses not tolerate it: between their intolerance of chauvanism and their example as role models, there might be a lot less chauvism if Athena really did walk down the street at times.

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