Women’s Place in War

It is within that matrix of the harsh reality of the contemporary and seemingly ubiquitous nature of war that we examine force, but from a different central focus: where are the women warriors in that long arc from the Tollense Bridge, the Iliad, and the Mahabharata to the present?

This volume seeks to put women in their rightful place into that most powerful and destructive of matrices, for they have so long been denied their fair positioning in its holistic nature and nearly ubiquitous past. They are, and have been, a fundamental part of the war space and processes, not just as victims, but also as planners, participants, and leaders. Women deserve belated recognition as purposeful actors in the history of warfare.

We are fortunate to be examining this subsection of topic today and not much earlier, because we find that the last few decades have seen scholarship not only focused more on the roles women play in war, but also new perspectives and new sources have emerged that highlight the positions of women in the historical landscape of war, illuminating their extensive participation across time and space.

As we begin our examination of women in the context of war, then, it is fitting therefore that the first recorded author in history was a woman; and she was indeed writing about war. Enheduanna was the Sumerian/Akkadian chief priestess who, during the reign of Sargon the Great (2285–2275 BCE) wrote, “You hack everything down in battle…. God of War, with your fierce wings.” Enheduanna

is where we start.

She, and her pronouncement, begin our search.

As we will see later in this volume, there are ancient echoes of women warriors far back in the mists of time: the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut led armies in both Canaan and Nubia in the 15th century BCE; Lady Fu Hao in China in the 13th century BCE also captained a number of military campaigns; the Rigveda was written in the same time period, and also contains verses of praise for the women warrior Vishpala; while in the 6th century BCE Queen Tomyris led her army to a stunning victory over Cyrus the Great.

Accounts, however tantalizingly brief in many cases, suggest that women have been in the military sphere, albeit often underreported in that canon. One initial question of import, therefore, is that if women have been such widespread participants in warfare until recently, why have they been so neglected and understudied in the history of war?

Certainly, some of the biggest Anglo-American names in the study of warfare during the last generation—Michael Howard, Jeremy Black, Donald Kagan, John Keegan, Victor Hanson, Williamson Murray, Paul Kennedy, Allan Millett, and others—have spent very little time investigating women at war or have ignored them altogether. Some have gone farther, even denying their widespread participation, such as John Keegan, who confidently asserts “Warfare is… the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart.”11

Nor are women exegetes on war immune to disregarding or substantially ignoring the combat history of women. Margaret MacMillan, in her widely praised contemporary account War: How Conflict Shaped Us, after giving women wide coverage as cheerleaders, excuses for war, victims of rapes in warfare, their roles as camp followers and in the peace movement, gives virtually no coverage to women warriors in combat, concluding her few examples with the caveat, “they are exceptions, seen as outside the normal order of things where war is the male sphere.”12

Others have been even more overtly dismissive.

For example, Israeli Martin van Creveld, who has dealt extensively with warfare, finds women’s contributions and even their potential as singularly unimpressive. He also states categorically and incorrectly, “Women have never taken a major part in combat—in any culture, in any country, in any period of history.”13

More recently, there have been substantial attacks on van Creveld’s positions vis à vis women in combat. One well worth noting here is Nina Liza Bode, in her The Imaging of Violent Gender Performances, which conclusively underscores his lack of familiarity with non-Western women warriors.14 Using the case studies of Tanja Nijmeijer, Xarema Muzhakhoyeva, Wafa Idris, and Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Bode cogently attacks his assertions that warfare is not for women because biologically they are incapable of the heinous actions that are central to war.

By providing a refined and holistic image of the female participators of political violence, she shows how they are as capable of men of perpetrating mass slaughter and in the process refutes Creveld’s biological determinism. Bode also puts women realistically and squarely in the space/time continuum of purposeful war acts, including as perpetrators of genocide. The case studies she uses are worthwhile in and of themselves, for they show the wide range of motives and actions involved in these five women’s stories.

Part of the problem of the suppression of the deeds of women warriors is also cultural, for many societies did/do not think that women should be involved in war and therefore treated those who did as aberrations, oddities, anomalies or totally atomized and brainwashed by the experience, hence there is no real reason to explore it.

For example, the feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe writes,

None of these causes and consequences of militarization are more significant than the entrenchments of ideas about “manly men” and “real women.” I am convinced that women have special roles to play in exposing and challenging militarization, not because women are somehow innately, biologically wired for peacefulness, but because women are so often outside the inner circles where militarizing decisions are being made yet are likely to be called upon to support, and even work on behalf of, militarizing agendas.15

Although worldwide the military field remains a primarily masculine space, the existence and accomplishments of the women warriors included in this bibliography challenge the notion that war and militarization only re-entrench gendered conceptions of “manly men” and “real women.”

While the military space is certainly not female-dominated, the success of women warriors across space and time rejects the false dichotomy between femininity and military strength and positive participation. Joan of Arc and her military exploits stimulated proto-nationalism, which in turn freed northern and western France from English domination, and Queen Isabella of Spain personally oversaw the military campaigns to drive the Moors from Spain, so far permanently altering the political and religious contours of that country.

Another element in that denial may come from another source. And that is that for much of human history, most military historians were and even now are men, and many of the most celebrated simply did not want to include women, finding them so small in numbers and so scattered as to be useless in looking at the broader questions of waging war—or simply because they do not believe that women belonged in the sphere of war-making except as victims. Finally, many of them often lack extensive knowledge of women warriors (and warriors in general) in a non-Eurocentric context except as those societies defeated by “The Western Way of War.”

Perhaps Adrian Goldsworthy puts it best, especially for the earlier eras:

Women tend to be a shadowy presence in much of ancient history, and although it is obvious that they were often highly influential, their own voices are not preserved and they are seen solely through the prism of others.16

Part of the problem is also the scope of the data involved. With tens of thousands of battles, describing them and interpreting them required a broad brush in terms of sweep and detail. The bias for historians of military strategy and decisions was that even when women made those decisions, it was assumed that there were men behind the scenes actually making those choices for war and peace, for strategy and tactical actions. Hence it was safe to ignore them.

But they were there and in significant enough numbers to enable us to ask the following question: how many more women would have entered the armed forces and combat without the host of prohibitions in so many societies and polities preventing them from doing so?

At the present time, however, a number of mainstream male historians—such as Max Boot, John Lynn, Geoffrey Parker, and Robert Kaplan to name a few of the more prominent—are now paying more attention to the role of women, even when they have had to search for them resolutely in previously examined times and spaces.17 In the process, they are contributing to fresh examinations of the true roles played by women in warfare.

For today, if one truly wants to know about the various substantial roles women have played throughout history, it is now quite easy to find evidence of their activities and import across a wide array of time periods and societies. They are not, for the most part, hidden; they have simply been ignored. They are now, and have always been, in plain sight.

That is the theme of this book.

In terms of warfare, even with all the biases and submerging of the roles of women, they are still there for all to see.

They have always been there.

Women warriors have simply been hiding in plain sight.

Until fairly recently they have simply not been brought together in any holistic way. Patterns for their involvement have not been studied, and the differing contexts for their participation and success in warfare that exist have been scattered and seemingly random, or presented as sui generis, not placed in the context of the mode of warfare of their time and place.

But now, this highlighting has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because almost wherever we have looked, we find women playing important roles in war. As we hope to show in this annotated bibliography, there are thousands and thousands of women who have participated in warfare across the globe and across eons.

There have been some discernable reasons for the flood of articles and books dealing with women warriors over the last few decades: (1) more mainstream male military historians are writing about women in combat; (2) there have also been more women becoming military historians or having an interest in military dimensions involving women; (3) the historical revisionisms of Black history, social history, and women’s studies, including several strands of feminist thinking (one that more women engaged in military pursuits would change the nature of the military making it more pacific and another that sees women gaining equality within the military as having positive social value); (4) more recently, there has been considerable interest on the part of the LGBTQ? community in examining LGBTQ? participants throughout history including in the military sphere; and frankly (5) the Internet and sites such as Wikipedia and Military Wiki have greatly enhanced our opportunity for finding stimulating mention of often obscure women warriors. Some Internet “discoveries” turn out to be fantasy, some turn out to be debatable, but many, even most, are real and simply needed to be brought to our attention as contemporary sources are now much easy to access.

But all are stimulating a search for more information about more women in more cultures in military situations. For us, especially, in the present circumstances, it seems preferable to cast a too-wide net than one traditionally too narrow. Hopefully this volume errs on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

All five of these strands thus combine to contribute to greatly enriching our knowledge of women warriors and their actions throughout history and the present. We celebrate these activities and the momentum they have produced. Collectively they have greatly added to our store of knowledge about women playing active roles in warfare and stimulated interest in the study of war from different perspectives.

The women’s movement in general and gender studies in particular have become a most important part of this process of rediscovery, both in terms of simple description of where and when and how they participated, but also in terms of their multiplicity of intentions.

Women should be able to participate as equals, say many. They have in the past, often under duress and almost always with substantial resistance and difficulties, been present, whether societies have welcomed them or not.

Also, many in women’s and gender studies have reexamined history and found widespread cultural and societal censorship, and when that is stripped away, even more women and even greater roles for them have been uncovered.

Happily as a result, the last decades have seen a virtual tidal wave of articles and books and websites devoted to the new knowledge and much of this investigation has found it in the scholarly literature. In the process there have been many books and articles written looking at those various women through new lenses and with new perspectives.

There have been articles and books about the history of women at war. There have been articles and books of great women of history who have made strategic and policy decisions leading to war and it conduct. There has been an outpouring of historical works looking at individual women in action throughout time and space, but often under two rubrics, popular and scholarly.

Here we seek to bring together much of this new scholarship with the older, more popular versions of that interest, in order to present a truly holistic and far-ranging bibliography that melds the popular with the scholarly so that the interested reader can find both in one hopefully convenient resource.

We know of no other major work that seeks to combine the new knowledge about women and their various roles in warfare with the long-studied dimensions of warcraft and differing styles of war throughout human history, so we seek to buttress our collective knowledge of these illuminated women warriors with background and context for their achievements and the limits thereon.

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