The Wide Range of Women Warriors

There is now such a virtual cornucopia of women warriors arrayed across time, space, and cultures that trying to organize them in any coherent way presents considerable problems for those cataloging them.

What are some ways to sort and cluster women warriors? Obviously, they are numerous and varied, but what follows is a very small sampling that students over the years have found useful. These few typologies are meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. Many cited in one typology could fit in one or more other categories and are kept sparse in the service of brevity. And also, to be honest, so as not to tax the attention span of those younger scholars addicted to the allures of constant screen time and Twitter feeds. In any case, the following categories are meant to be illustrative, not definitive, and the reader is encouraged to come up with additional ways of cataloging these many, many intriguing women.

By Location

One obvious way is to do it geographically, simply where were they located when practicing warcraft, not necessarily where they were born.

Here are some pertinent examples that fit with this approach:


Berenice II (273–221 BCE) was a Ptolemaic queen married to Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt during the Hellenistic period. She is credited with riding with her father Maga, king of Cyrene, into battle before her marriage and when his forces were on the verge of defeat in one, Berenice rallied the remaining troops, leading them to victory on horseback. “Tradition also emphasizes her bravery and even—like her chariot-riding cousin Berenice Syra—a certain blood lust.”18

Amina of Hausaland (1533–1610) was an African Muslim leader who defied a wide variety of conventions—male dominance, existing Islamic hierarchies, and African traditions—all of which militated against her success, yet she would go on to conquer much of north central Africa. She ruled northern Nigeria, with a capital at Zaria, south of what is now Kano. Born into the ruling house of Zazzau, she took the throne in about 1576. She reportedly refused all suitors and led her armies, fighting for 34 years and presiding over a great expansion of trade. Under her rule, the Hausa language became the language of trade.

In the Kano chronicle it says, “In her time, Amina, a woman as capable as any man.” The African playwright Wale Ogunyemi in his play Queen Amina of Zazzau goes even further, celebrating her warcraft as well, calling Amina “a strategist for all times.”19

Masarico (1470–1545) was a Mende woman who hived off from north central Africa and led her followers (subsequently known as the Manes) into what is now Liberia and Sierra Leone. Portuguese sources describe her military innovations, including complex three-pronged attacking units and other strategic imperatives, as well as their own fierce fighting with the Manes at their fortress at Mina.20

Or in more modern times, take the example of Rose Kabuye (1961–), a Rwandan freedom fighter for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) during the 1990–1993 Rwandan War when the Tutsis invaded and again took over that country. She became a lieutenant colonel and highest-ranking female military officer in the Rwandan army. Later she became mayor of Kigali and eventually, chief of protocol under President Paul Kagame.

Finally, we could not really be putting a book together on women warriors throughout time and space in Africa and not include the “Amazons,” the women warriors of Dahomey in the 19th century.

During the reign of King Ghezo, who ruled over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858), women warriors were officially integrated into the army when faced with various other tribes pressing in upon him and European powers, especially France, trying to colonize and Ghezo faced a “manpower” shortage. His answer was an all-female force, the warrior women of Dahomey. As Stanley B. Alpern writes in his Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, this all-female unit fought at Abeokuta against the Egba in 1851 and 1854, and later against the French in 1890 and 1892. While some (such as Martin van Creveld) have questioned their battle worthiness, it is worth quoting one of the French Legionaries who fought them:

These warrioresses fight with extreme valor,

always ahead of the other troops….

They are outstandingly brave…

well trained for combat

and very disciplined.21

And Major Grandin, who published a two-volume work in 1895, concluded:

The valor of the amazons is real. Trained from childhood in the most arduous exercises, constantly incited to war, they bring to battle a veritable fury and a sanguinary ardor… inspiring by their courage and their indomitable energy the other troops who follow them.22


For her part, Rani Lakshmibai (1834–1858) led her Jhansi State troops against the British during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857–1858 (or as many Indians call it, “The Great Rebellion”). She exhorted her troops to die in battle if necessary and is today regarded as one of the pioneers for Indian independence. Michael Edwardes provides an interesting account of the role played by the Rani of Jhansi in the uprising and quotes the general who defeated her in battle, Sir Hugh Rose, who called her “the bravest and best of the military leaders of the rebellion” after she was killed in action during the Battle of Gwalior.23

Another Rani, Abbakka Chowta, the Rani of Ullal, “The Fearless Queen,” who reigned from 1525 to 1570, fought off the Portuguese for four decades, defending her port city of Ullal. Regarded as the “first woman freedom fighter of India,” she was later captured after attacking the Portuguese fort at Mangalore. There she led a revolt in prison and died in the subsequent fighting.

Or take Chand Bibi (1550–1599), a Muslim woman warrior who acted as Regent of Jaipur and Ahmednagar and led her soldiers against the Mughal forces of Emperor Akbar in 1595. She also personally put down various rebellions, reportedly taking her own life by filling a well with acid and then jumping into it as the Mughals closed in (although other accounts have her killed by her own troops for negotiating with the same Mughals).24

From China we find Quin Liang-Yu (1574–1648) in the Ming Dynasty period. Her well-documented life as a Ming female general in Sichuan Province indicates that she fought against the Manchus invading in the north and also put down a series of peasant revolts in the south. Leading an elite unit in a variety of combat situations, she is the only woman known to have been a regional military commander under the Mings. Taught by her father and initially accompanying her husband into battle, she took over his command in 1613 when he was killed. For her battlefield exploits, she was highly decorated and was appointed the Crown Prince’s Guardian by the Chongzhen Emperor.

Japan too is well represented in the field of women warriorhood. Although we feature the most famous one here, Tomoe Gozen, there were many others. Tomoe Gozen is of legendary proportions. She purportedly commanded 300 samurai in a battle against the Taira clan and later, fighting at the battle of Awazu in 1184, where she fought valiantly until told by Lord Kiso to flee, whereupon she immediately charged the leader of the opponents, Onda no Hachiro Moroshige of Musashi, and his thirty men, killing him and cutting off his head. Only then did she deign to leave the battlefield and according to Stephen Turnbull, who provides much background on female samurai, Tomoe’s near contemporary, Hangaku Gozen, fought at the siege of Torisaka Castle in 1201 and Tsuruhime took part in the naval battles of 1541 as well.25

It should be noted there are obviously many more Indian and Chinese and other Asian women who have not only been in battle but led in battle: Abbakka Chowta, who in the late 16th century fought off the Portuguese from Goa for 40 years, and Mah Chuchak Begum, who led an army to defeat Munim Khan at Jalalabad in the mid-16th century; the Thai queen Suriyothai, whose battle elephants helped defeat the invaders from Burma in 1548 when she fought with King Maha Chakkraphat during the 1547–1549 war between Siam and Burma,26 and the Sikh warrior Mai Bhago, who led soldiers against the Mughals in 1705.

Australia and New Zealand

Here we can cite Heni Te Kiri Karamu (1840–1933), a Maori woman warrior from northern New Zealand. Normally in Maori society women warriors were not encouraged to take part in battle except in exceptional circumstances. Heni’s clan, the Koherki, joined the Nga Te Pangi group that was being hard pressed by the British. Their defensive pa (fortified trench and dugout) was under attack and Heni went in action during the battle. Ironically, she is best remembered in Britain for giving water to wounded British soldiers before the Koherki retreated rather than for having fought against them.

There is also the Australian Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAF) (1941–1947)—Australian women who from 1941 to 1947 were a branch of the Australian armed forces and numbered 27,000. Machinists, signals traffic, intelligence, bomb armers, munitions experts, and many other positions were filled by them. They came under attack by the Japanese at various points and eventually paved the way for women to become regular members of the Australian Air Force after World War II.

Note: This is a good juncture to pay homage to the many women in many countries who participated in World War II in other “auxiliary” organizations. Some examples of these include: The Australian Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) and Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS), the American Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve (SPAR), the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (WAFS), Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) later the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Brit ish Women’s Auxiliary Air Force-UK (WAAF), the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps-UK (WAAC) and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps (FANY).

These women were vital to the war effort, many had very dangerous jobs (such as ferrying aircraft across countries and continents), and some, like the Australians cited above, came under fire. This was especially true for such units such as the various antiaircraft battalions.


A number of Indigenous women stand out here, women such as Queen Nanna of the Maroons (c. 1686–c. 1755) who was the acknowledged leader of escaped slaves in the eastern part of Jamaica. Originally from what is now Ghana, she led this cluster of “Windward Maroons.” Over the course of a decade, she thwarted and eventually defeated the British in the First Maroon War (1728–1734) using guerrilla tactics. The British eventually sued for peace and signed a treaty in 1740 giving her Maroons a land grant on which was built “New Nanny Town,” today known as Moore Town. She was a superb tactician and strategist, and her military prowess surprised the British.27

Or take note of Carlota Lucumi (?–1844). She was an Afro-Cuban woman who led the slave revolt of 1843 at the Triumvirato plantation in Matanzas Cuba. Yoruba African born, she was known as “La Negra Carlota.” She died in battle at the end of the revolt in 1844, one of a series of slave uprisings in Cuba that year. Fidel Castro, in sending Cuban forces to Angola in 1975, called the effort “Operation Carlota” in her honor.

Think also of La Mulatresse Solitude (c. 1772–1802). Her mother was raped on a slave ship coming from Africa and she was born on Guadeloupe. When the French Revolution freed the slaves in 1794, she joined a Maroon community in Guadeloupe. Although Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802, a number of Guadeloupeans resisted under Joseph Ignace and Louis Delgrès. La Mulatresse Solitude joined the band of Delgrès. When the French troops (4,000) arrived under General Richepance, they attacked some 1,000 former soldiers and rebels at Galion in May 1802 and defeated them. La Mulatresse Solitude was captured, but she was not executed until after the birth of her child in November. She was hanged the next day.

Although mentioned below under slave revolts, Sanite Belair (1781–1802), the Haitian revolutionary, deserves mention here. A lieutenant in the army of Toussaint Louverture, she fought in numerous battles and when captured by the French and executed, she died calling out “Long live Freedom. Down with slavery!”


Some examples include Kenau Hasselaar (1526–1588) who, during Spanish pacification of the Low Countries under King Philip II of Spain, when the Spanish invaded the town of Haarlem, led a stiff fight against the invaders for seven months. In the process, Kenau Hasselaar organized and led a group of 300 women in defense of the city. When Haarlem finally surrendered, the garrison was put to death, but she survived. A great hero of Holland, she has had many ships named after her.

Then there is Cynane (357–323 BCE). Half sister of Alexander the Great (and daughter of Philip II and the Illyrian Audata), Cynane was a warrior princess in her own right. Illyrian women often were engaged as fighters and Cynane had considerable military training. She fought in a number of early battles with Alexander and, according to Polyaenus,

Cynane, the daughter of Philip, was famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians, she with her own hand slew Caeria their queen; and with the great slaughter defeated the Illyrian army.28

Eventually Cynane was killed by Alcetus after the death of Alexander as she was speaking to the Macedonian troops.

Or take Grace O’Malley/Gráinne Mhaol (1530–1603), the Lord of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland. Upon her father’s death, she took over active leadership of the lordship on land and sea. She led raids and attacks and involved herself in Irish/English politics. Called “the nurse of all rebellions in the province for this forty years,” she interacted with Queen Elizabeth I, claiming equal status as Queen of Ireland. She also insisted on a personal meeting with her—and got one. A pirate’s pirate, Grace is now a feminist legend to boot.

Another interesting case is Laudomia Forteguerri (1515–1555), one of three women leaders in resisting the siege of Sienna by organizing a militia of 100 women in January 1553. The women built fortifications to resist the 1554–1555 siege of the city. Although she was married and had three children, Forteguerri is also thought to be one of Italy’s earliest lesbian writers. The city would eventually fall to the Imperial Spanish forces under Duke Cosimo de Medici after the bloody Battle of Marciano.

In Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, we find Agustina de Aragon (1786–1857). During the siege of Zaragoza in 1808, she stepped up when the French were about to break through the city’s defenses. She loaded a cannon and fired at point-blank range. Her courage electrified the defenders, and they fought the French off for the next two weeks. Augustina escaped the siege and became a low-level rebel leader for the guerrilleros. She was eventually painted by many, including Francisco Goya. See his “What Courage!” in the series “The Disasters of War.”

Latin America

Four Inca women, Micaela Bastidas (1744–1781), Bartolina Sis (1750–1782), Gregoria Apaza (1751–1782), and Tomasa Tito Condemayta (1729–1781) should be mentioned here as all participated in Tupac Amaru II’s revolt against Spanish rule in what is now Bolivia. Tomasa Tito Condemayta was a military strategist of note and led her women’s army to defeat the Spanish at Sangarara. There is considerable literature on their roles, much of it quite recent.29

Dandara of Palmares (?–1694) was an Afro-Brazilian warrior of Palmares, a settlement of free Afro-Brazilian people established in the 17th century in what is now the state of Alagoas. Dandara fought in many battles as part of that free settlement despite efforts of slave owners to capture or kill her. When the head chief of the region, Ganga Zumba, signed a peace treaty with the government of the state of Pernambuco, she and her husband led another revolt because the treaty did not outlaw slavery. Eventually she was captured and committed suicide to avoid enslavement.

Then there was Rafaela Herrera (1742–1805). She was a Nicaraguan who fought the British at the battle for Rio San Juan de Nicaragua (1762). Educated by her father, who was a captain of artillery, she was put in charge of defense of the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception on the San Juan River when British and Mistiko filibusters attacked. When he died, she directed cannon fire that killed the British commander and led the defenders to a victory in a battle lasting six days.

Finally in this section, we note Juana Azurduy de Padilla (1780–1862). A mestizo (Spanish and Indigenous person), she was born in what is now Bolivia. When her father was killed by the Spanish, she married and, alongside her husband, subsequently gave birth right after the battle of Pintatora in 1815. Subsequently Padilla fought a guerrilla war against the Spanish including 16 major actions from 1809 to 1816. She was wounded in 1816 and her husband was killed trying to rescue her. Padilla then fled into what is now Argentina and established an insurrection commanding an army of 6,000. In one battle she reportedly killed 15 men while leading the all-female battalion of her personal bodyguard. Today, both Bolivia and Argentina recognize her as a national heroine.

Middle East

One prominent example is Hind Bint ‘Utbah (late 6th century–early 7th century). Wife of an important pre-Islamic Meccan leader, she fought against the Muslims at Badr 622 (the Meccans lost) and Uhud 624 (the Meccans won). But then she converted to Islam and fought with them at the Syrian Battle of Yarmuk and is credited by Arab sources as playing an important role during the second day (the Battle of Yarmuk lasted six in total) by rallying the fleeing Muslims. This huge Muslim victory over Byzantium at Yarmuk (626) changed the course of history by projecting Muslim military and political power into the Levant from which it has never withdrawn.

After the Battle of Uhud (624), Hind declared “We have paid you back for Badr and a war that follows a war is always violent…. I have slaked my vengeance and fulfilled my vow.”30

Many accounts of the life and time of the Prophet Muhammad omit or downplay the military accomplishments of women in the early years of struggle, yet there were some prominent examples such as Umm ‘Umara (a.k.a. Umm ‘Uhud). An Arab Muslim woman who fought beside Muhammad in several key battles (including Uhud and Yamma) during his rise to power. After the battle of Uhud (624 CE) in which she was wounded several times including severely in the neck, Muhammed declared “Whenever I looked to the right or left I saw her fighting in front of me.” Umm later fought at Yamma (632), was wounded several more times, and lost her hand. For her valor and courage as well as her fighting ability, Umm was granted the high honor as being recognized as one of the “Companions of the Prophet.”31

There is an interesting contemporary parallel to Umm Umara in the female Kurdish Peshmerga fighters of the present day and the female pilots of the United Arab Emirates, both groups of which are held to be heretical by some in the Muslim world.

Another of the early female Muslim war leaders was Khawla bint Al-Azaar, a commander in the Rashidun army. She was in numerous battles in the Levant, including Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, including the decisive Battle of Yarmouk in 636 against the Byzantine empire (known to the Muslims as “Romans”). She is recognized today in Muslim countries such as Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

Think of how many women who fought in so many wars and who never had their accomplishments celebrated by subsequent historians because they were airbrushed out of those respective narratives or have had their roles downplayed or submerged.

North America

There are numerous examples of women fighters in this category. Here is but a sampling.

The first is an exception to the thesis of this book, because the story of this Native American woman warrior was not hiding in plain sight but actually hidden from view for over a century. Buffalo Calf Road Woman (c. 1850–1879) was a Northern Cheyenne woman who saved her wounded warrior brother, Chief Comes in Sight, at the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876. She later fought alongside her husband, Black Coyote, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Eyewitness accounts have her going into battle with a pistol and much ammunition. Credited after 100 years in 2005 (the survivors of the battle took an oath of silence at the time to avoid retribution from the U.S.) for having knocked General George Custer off his horse during that battle by an eyewitness, Kate Bighead, who puts her at the center of the battle:

Most of the women looking at the battle stayed out of reach of the bullets, as I did. But there was one who went in close at times. Her name was Calf Woman… who had a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers. She was the only woman there who had a gun.32

In 1878 she and her family broke out of the reservation with the Northern Cheyenne (from Oklahoma back to Montana). On the way her husband shot a number of Native Americans and U.S. soldiers. Eventually captured along with Black Coyote, she died of diphtheria while he was awaiting trial. Black Coyote then committed suicide in his cell. How many schoolchildren over the years have been deprived of knowing about her exploits?

Or take Harriet Tubman (1822–1913). Well known as an abolitionist and political activist, she was born a slave and escaped to take part in the Underground Railway and helped John Brown recruit men for his attack on Harpers Ferry. During the Civil War she worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, then an armed scout. But in this latter activity, she was a true pioneer, becoming the first woman to lead a military expedition, one which freed 700 slaves at Combahee Ferry. A major motion picture in 2019 reprised her various accomplishments.

Then there is Francoise Marie De La Tour (1602–1645). French born, in 1625 she went to Nova Scotia, married Charles de La Tour, and helped build Fort La Tour. In a conflict with Jesuit Seigneur d’Aulnay Charnise, she assumed the role of military commander when her husband was absent. In one engagement, she used their three ships to fight Charnise off, although later he returned and captured the fort, putting her soldiers to death and her in prison at Port Royale where she died.

Ignacia Reachy (1816–1866) was from Guadalajara, Mexico, and organized a battalion of women to defend her home during the Second French Intervention in Mexico (1861–1866). However, Reachy soon left Guadalajara to join the Army of the East, what is now the modern-day Mexican Army, and distinguished herself in Mexico’s fight against Napoleon’s France. Assigned to the Second Division under General Jose Maria Arteaga as a second lieutenant, she was captured for a year in 1862 while trying to protect General Arteaga. However, she escaped after a year and reported back to him, ready for more combat. She was then made the Commander of the Lancers of Jalisco, but in 1866 she was killed in action.


Several useful examples from Oceana would include Manono II (c. 1780–1819), a Hawaiian warrior woman who died fighting with her husband in a struggle for the traditional religion at the Battle of Kuamo’o in 1819. They were defending the traditional Kapu system, which kept women and men from eating together and prohibited women from eating certain foods.

We should note that while fighting to uphold the gender norms of the Kapu system, Manono II did defy the gendered expectations of women to be submissive and pacific. This tension and her actions remind us that we should not assume that the actions women warriors take always fit into the modern, Western understanding of women’s liberation.

Another example would be Queen Teriitaria II (1790–1858), Queen of Tahiti. She fought the French in the Franco Tahitian War of 1844–1847, repelling them in the Battle of Maeva in 1846 although she was later deposed by them.33

Other Polynesian women warriors of note fought on Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Society Islands, the Cook Islands, and the Marquesas and include the daughter of Chie Ahomee of Tonga and Putahaie, wife of Keatonui of Taiohae Bay, and Nukuhiva in the Marquesas.

By Typology

Another way, more interesting albeit more difficult perhaps, is to look at women warriors in terms of the military typologies or patterns into which many of them seem to fall.

Horse Archers

For many, the Sarmatian/Scythian warrior women horse archers began the “women warriors” saga. These women, like their male counterparts on the steppes, fought primarily from horseback and with composite bows and arrows. Certainly in the Western tradition, the Greeks were the first to describe women warriors known as “Amazons.” Interestingly enough, the Greeks were both fascinated and repelled by them. When the numerous Greek polis were established on the Black Sea, they encountered stories of and myths about women who rode horses and shot bows in battle. And although we don’t have any reliable records of the Greek phalanx encountering the female horse archers, it seems likely that such interactions occurred on the periphery of the steppe lands north of the Black Sea.

To the Greeks the very idea of women acting as independent beings and going to battle, let along killing men in action, was doubly anathema, although ironically enough, we do have instances of Greek warriors dressing as women for purposes of assassination.34

In the first instance, martial women went totally against their well-ordered universe of male hierarchical dominance, with women excluded from voting or participating in warfare. Amazons were a threat to the very underpinning of the patriarchy and thus to be both ridiculed and hated, because their existence upset the “normal” balance of the known universe.

The Greek disdain for women steppe warriors also comes from the nature of the Greek way of war versus the steppe warfare with its mounted horse archers. The steppe horsemen armed with composite bows would dominate many centuries of battle situations in Central Asia and its periphery in an arc of several thousand miles over a thousand years of history.35

The Greeks could never seriously challenge the horse archers effectively. The Greeks and their heavily armored infantry phalanx formations were able to operate effectively only in small valleys and for very short periods of time. They could not, and generally did not, do well on the open plains where any horse archers could kill from afar, and never come within striking distance of the Greek spears.

How frustrating then was the very idea that these horse archers killed from afar, and women doing some of that killing undoubtedly made it doubly hateful, even shameful, for the Greeks.

But these Amazons were not legends alone, nor did their military process require Greek certification one way or the other. Women horse archers were widespread and extensive across a broad arc among many societies. For over 1,000 years, across a 2,000-mile Eurasian arc, horse archers dominated the Eurasian landmass, leaving behind irrefutable evidence of their presence. With their mobility and standoff fighting ability to inflict casualities, as well as their durability and longevity when in action against heavily armed infantry, the horse archers, male and female, were the premium military formation across the vast steppes from Hungary to China.

In the Don Basin and Central Asia, for example, among the Sarmatians and Scythians and other steppe peoples, 20% of women’s graves have bows and other weapons buried with them. More recent archaeological and DNA evidence places these women warriors back as far as 2,500 years ago, thus providing stark new evidence that Herodotus was not wrong is depicting the “Amazons” of the day.36 They were, in fact, Scythian women engaged in ongoing warfare.

Castle Keepers/Defenders of Home and Hearth

Just as horse archer warfare on the Asian steppes was conducive to women’s participation, certain other types of warfare seem to have been more open to female participation than other forms. For example, such as in the Middle Ages, castles and the nature of defensive medieval warfare from the fortifications enabled women to step into leadership roles more easily than at other times and in other situations.

Megan McLaughlin, in her seminal work “The Woman Warrior: Gender, Warfare and Society in Medieval Europe,” also draws our attention in this category to several important distinctions between women warriors as foot soldiers and women warriors as generals and points out that much of medieval warfare in Europe involving the defense of castles and therefore should be thought of as “domestic warfare.”37 They also can be thought of as women “military commanders” depending on their time, place in the decision-making apparatus, and activities.

For example, one can look at the large group of women who were in castles or fortresses and, in the absence of a male war leader, took charge during the Middle Ages. One of the most famous of these was Jeanne La Flamme, Jeanne of Montfort (1295–1374), Joanna of Flanders, or “Jeanne La Flamme.” She was the consort Duchess of Brittany and showed her skill as a military leader defending her captured husband’s (Jeane de Montfort, Duke of Brittany) dukedom against the challenge by the House of Blois during the Breton War of Secession. Jeanne La Flamme actually led her husband’s knights in battle when he was in prison and became famous throughout France for burning the tents and supplies of her French opponents.

Or take the even more famous Caterina Sforza (1462–1509). Milan born, she was Countess of Forli and Lady of Imola by her husband Girolamo Riario. After his death, she ruled Imola and Forli before being finally defeated by the Pope Rodrigo Borgia Pope Alexander VI, who sent his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia to capture her while she and her soldiers waited in a fortress in Ravaldino. Caterina is cited several times by Machiavelli in The Prince and Discourses on Livy for her harsh treatment of her subjects, but it may be she was only criticized because she was a woman, for contemporary men did all these things as a matter of course.

Elizabeth Lev in her The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de ’Medici gives a fascinating account of her heroic stand in 1499 against Cesare Borgia, his mercenaries, and assisting French forces. For hours Catarina fought in battle with her troops, finally betrayed by someone on her own side “for she had no intention of leaving the battlefield alive.”38

Indeed, John Lynn, calling this category of women warriors in castles “Besieged,” finds that in the early modern period, women defending home and hearth are considered quite acceptable and widespread even when breaking gender norms for their sex, declaring as he does, “Women who fought bravely and publicly as women in siege warfare were anything but rare.”39

Some other examples include Agnes of Dunbar (1300–1369) in Scotland, Lady Mary Banks (d. 1661) during the English Civil War, and Jeanne d’Albert (1528–1572) during the Wars of Religion. Aluzehen (during the Chinese Jin dynasty [1115–1234]) also led troops against Puxian Wannu during a siege as well.

There was also Stamira of Ancona (1172) who defended the city of Ancona when she fought against the archbishop of Mainz during the Byzantine- Venetian conflict (1170–1177) as did Alruda Frangipani, who liberated the town of Ancona from imperial siege during the same war and Marzia Degli Ubaldini (1330–c. 1374) who defended the castle of Cesena (near Forli) against papal attacks in 1335 and 1357. Emma de Gauder (1059–1096), Countess of Norfolk, also defended her husband’s castle against the king as did Nicolaa de la Hay (1160–1230) of Lincoln who commanded during two sieges, one in 1191 and the other in 1216–1217 and Charlotte Stanley, Countess of Derby (1599–1664) who defended Lathom House during the English Civil War. In Poland, Anna Dorota Chrzanowska refused to let her husband surrender the castle of Trembowla during the Polish-Ottoman War of 1672–1676 while Ilona Zrinyi fought off the Habsburgs during the siege of Palanok castle (1685–1688).

In Japan, this phenomenon was also much in evidence during the 16th and 17th centuries. To take but a few examples: Lady Ichikawa defended Konomine Castle in 1569; Akai Teruko served as commander in the Battle of Kanayama Castle in 1574, holding out for 18 months; Kato Tsume fought that same year in the siege of Suemori Castle; Myorin-ni defended Tsurusaki Castle in 1585–1586 and Yuki no Kata defended Anotsu Castle in 1600.

There are many more from a number of countries.

This is thus quite an interesting and far-reaching category.

Admirals and Fleet Commanders

Also, at sea where ships are like little floating castles, there have been women admirals, in charge of their own ships and their fleets, and they successfully appear and reappear across time and space. Women admirals such as Artemisia of Halicarnassus, who was at the battles of Artemisia and Salamis, and her Aceh, Greek, Irish, and Chinese compatriots all show women warriors able to compete with their male counterparts in this type of warfare.

Here we encounter a whole array of successful women admirals such as the legendary Admiral Keumalahayati or Malahayati (c. 1501–16th century). Born into the Aceh Sultanate at the height of its power, Keumalahayati convinced the reigning sultan to form, and put her in charge of, an armada of Acehnese women whose husbands had died in war. This armada was called the Inong Bale, and Keumalahayati led it through successful warfare with the Dutch and diplomacy with the British. She eventually died in battle, at the hands of the Portuguese. The female GAM unit, the Inong Bale Forces of the Free Aceh Movement (1976–2005) was named for her.

Or take one of the most successful pirates in history, Ching Shih, a.k.a. Cheng I Sao (1775–1844). At one time, she commanded and at least loosely controlled as many as 300 ships and 20,000 pirates. At various points, she fought the British, the Portuguese, and the Quin dynasty. In the process, her Red Flag Fleet was never defeated in battle. Unlike most pirates, she knew when to retire and successfully made peace with the Quins and died ashore at age 69 after successfully running a variety of enterprises.

Another Chinese bandit queen and “outlaw of the marshes” is Huang Bamei (1906–1982) who fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) and the Cross Strait conflict (1949–1955). Her life quickly became the stuff of legends in both China and Taiwan.40 She played a number of roles and had a variety of careers, first as a bandit, then as a smuggler who traded with the Japanese, then as an anti-Japanese fighter recruited by the Nationalists. After World War II, she fought the Communists, both during the Chinese Civil War before the Nationalists fled to Taiwan and afterward as a guerrilla leader on the mainland.

Known as “Double Gun” for her ability to shoot with both hands, she joined the Nationalist Army in 1940 as a protégé of Mao Sen, a top commander of the Nationalists. The CIA tried to recruit her for cross-straits operations after 1949, but she preferred to work directly with the Nationalists against Mao’s forces.


Like their male counterparts, numerous women wrote accounts of their military lives and published them, some to considerable acclaim. Some interesting ones include the following:

Loreta Velasquez (1842–1897) who, after her husband was killed in the American Civil War, signed up as Harry T. Buford, and fought at 1st Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, Ft. Donelson, and Shiloh before being wounded and discovered to be a woman. She was then discharged, whereupon she served the Confederacy as a spy. She claims to have gotten close to both U. S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Velasquez wrote a book entitled The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army.41

Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866) was a Russian woman who, disguised as a man, fought for the Czar during the Napoleonic wars. Becoming a cavalry officer and distinguishing herself in battle, she was awarded the Cross of St. George (the first woman ever) and promoted to lieutenant in a hussar (light cavalry) regiment by Czar Alexander I, who found out he had an “Amazon” in his army. By her own account, The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars, this Russian woman from the Urals, disguised as a boy, joined the Imperial Army, and found herself in the Polish Regiment as a lancer, seeing combat in 1807 and again in 1812–1814 against Napoleon. “At last my dreams have come true! I am a warrior! I am in the Polish Horse, I bear arms and moreover, Fortune has placed me in one of the bravest regiments of our army!”42 She fought at the Battle of Smolensk and was wounded in the Battle of Borodino in 1812. Durova only left the army in 1816 to take care of her ailing father.

Flora Sandes (1876–1956) was an English woman who went to Serbia to serve as a St. John Ambulance driver, but later enrolled in the Serbian Army and was promoted to the rank of captain. Sandes fought in numerous engagements and earned seven medals. Wounded in battle, she received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karadorde’s Star. In her book, An English Woman-Sergeant in the Serbian Army, she outlines her military career in Serbia, Albania, and Corfu. She apparently loved “becoming an ordinary soldier.”43 Her account is charmingly self-effacing, and humorous and shows a fine eye for detail.

Finally, it is important to include in this section Christine de Pizan who although she was not in combat, nevertheless wrote two very important texts in the Middle Ages dealing with war and the women warriors of the past such as Artemisia: The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry (see analysis of both in part 2), she was one of the first authors to rediscover and study the earlier Roman texts of military writers such as Vegetius and bring them back into the mainstream.

Guerrilla Warfare/Revolutionary Participants

Here we have one of the largest and most inclusive categories, women who have participated as warriors in guerrilla warfare/revolutionary uprisings.

In modern times, these have included hundreds of thousands of participants in the Cuban, Algerian, Vietnamese, Angolan, Mozambique, South Africa, Eritrean, Guinee Bissau, Salvadorian, Peruvian, Argentinian Nicaraguan, Free Aceh, Huk Philipina, Malaysian, Cambodian, Timoran, and other revolutions. See for example, the women in this volume: the French women of the Paris Commune such as Louise Michel, Spanish Civil War Republican women such as Lina Odean, the Philipina HMB Huks, women of the Peruvian Shining Path, women of the Colombian FARC, Eritrean women of the EPLF, women of Mozambique FRELIMO, women of the Angolan UNITA, MPLA, women of Namibia SWAPO, women of Guinea Bissau PAIGC, women of South West Africa SWAPO, women of the South African ANC, the Rwandan RPF, Zimbabwe ZANU, Vietnamese, Malayan and Chinese women warriors, Cubans, Algerian FLN, Hungarian Freedom fighters, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, Cambodian Kamer Rouge and Pated Lao women warriors, Nicaraguan Sandinista FSLN, El Salvador FMLA, Free Aceh GAM, Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Black Widows of Chechnya, Timoran Falintil-FDTL, the ISIS Al Khansaa Brigade, and Kurdish Peshmerga women warriors.44

But before the contemporary era, there were women who fought in earlier revolutions, including the American, the French, the Latin American revolts against the Spanish (Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, etc.)—and against them in the causes of Royalist France and Spain—women such as Renée Bordereau, “The Angevin;” Celeste Bulkekey, Catalina de Erauso, “The Lieutenant Nun,” and Rose-Alexandrine Darreou. We also have the example of Maria Lebstuck, the Croatian woman in the revolution of 1848 against the Austrian Empire

One could also include here another potential subcategory, partisans. Women participated in considerable numbers in a variety of partisan operations during World War II, including those in Russian, Yugoslavian, French, Italian, Dutch, Vietnamese, Danish, Belgian, Norwegian, Czech, Greek, Rumanian, Polish, Jewish, Chinese, Indonesian, Burmese, Malayan, Thai, Filipino, and other resistance movements.

Recent scholarship has also finally illuminated the war-making contributions of many Ethiopian women fighters. Wayzaro Shewaraged Gadle, Wayzaro Olamawarq Terunah, Wayzaro Shewanash Abreha, and Wayzaro Lakelas all fought against the Italian invasion of 1935–1936 and later with the shifta Patriot movement who resisted from 1937 to 1941, when Ethiopia was finally liberated.45

Additionally, contemporary studies now accent the key role played by women in the Taiping Rebellion (which lasted from 1850 to 1864) against the Qing Dynasty and resulted in the deaths of 20 million people, making it the most destructive civil war in recorded history. For example, an expert on the rebellion, Maochun Yu, states that a “unique feature of the Taiping military organization was its utilization of women soldiers in combat units. Since all men and women were regarded as brothers and sisters under God, no one was supposed to face discrimination because of their sex.”46 Such female generals as Qiu Ersao, Hong Xuanjiao, and Su Snniang emerged during this most bloody of conflicts.


At the other end of the war spectrum, there are a number of countries which have included women in their peacekeeping details seconded to the United Nations. By 2020, some 5% of United Nations “Blue Helmets” were female, serving in South Sudan, the Central Africa Republic, Darfur, Mali, and Haiti and on the India-Pakistan border. They have come from a number of countries as part of the regular army units of countries such as India, Bangladesh, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Niger, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

Some countries have also used this participation as a method of integrating former rebels and opponents into their national armies. These include Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Liberia.

First of Their Kind

A great variety of women of note can be found here. Sabiha Gokcen (1913–2001) who was the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal and the first Turkish woman pilot as well as believed to be the first woman in air action bombing the Kurds during a punitive strike in 1937.

Or look at Ecaterina Teodoroiu (1894–1917), the Romanian woman killed in action leading Romanian troops into battle against Germans. Originally a nurse, when her brother was killed, to avenge his death she joined the 18th Infantry Regiment. Captured and wounded in action, she then became the first woman in World War I to command men in action. She was eventually killed defending a bridge with the 11th Division during the Battle of Marasesti.

Then there is Evgeniya Shakhovskaya (1889–1920), the first female aviator in Russia, who, during World War I, flew reconnaissance missions over the battlefield on the Eastern Front. Accused of spying and put in prison, she was later liberated by Bolsheviks and became a chief executioner for the Cheka.

Of note also is Susan Travers (1909–2003), an upper-class English woman raised in France. Travers joined the Red Cross in 1939 and in 1940 served with the French expeditionary force that was sent to Finland, where she was a nurse during the “Winter War.” After the fall of France, she fled with the Free French to North Africa via Central Africa and the Horn and Syria. Travers then became a driver during the East African campaign and was trapped with the 1st Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim, Libya, where she drove the commanding general in the combat breakout after the unit held off Rommel for 15 days. Travers eventually served in Italy and France and later in French Indochina as well after officially joining the Legion in 1945. Travers was the first woman to join the French Foreign Legion and she eventually received the Medaille Militaire and the Legion d’Honneur.47

More recently, Captain Linda Bray (1953–2011) was the first American woman to officially fight in combat. An ROTC Army MP, she led in combat some 30 male U.S. Army MPs in the 1989 invasion of Panama (dubbed “Operation Just Cause”) against the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF).

And there was Nguyen Thi Dinh (1920–1990), the first female general in the Vietnam People’s Army, who began by commanding an all-female force known as the “Long Haired Army” after being arrested by the French during World War II, 1940 through 1943. Nguyen subsequently helped lead insurrections in Ben Tre in 1945 and again in 1960. She was a founding member of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and was highly decorated, being awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and the Hero of the People’s Armed Forces medal.

“Joan of Arcs”

There have been a number of women throughout history who have been called the “Joan of Arc” of their country. In some situations, such as that of Lady Trieu (Trieu Ba) (225–248) who is often called the Vietnamese “Joan of Arc” this is something of a misnomer because Lady Trieu was in the history books over a thousand years before there even was a French “Joan of Arc.” It would be more accurate to say Joan of Arc was the “Lady Trieu of France.” However, given the weight of works on the French Lady Trieu and the historical accumulation of accolades in her honor and centrality, such historical accuracy may be beside the point.

Nevertheless, there are quite a number of women who are now viewed as being heroines of their country’s ultimate struggle to be free and are often referred to as the “Joan of Arc” of that country, just as a number of Chinese women are called the Hua Mulan (the legendary Chinese woman warrior) of their area, such as Han E, a.k.a. Han Guanbao (1345–1409), who is known as the “Hua Mulan of Sichuan Province.”

The list of “Joan of Arcs” includes both India’s Rani Lakshmibai and Arc-Veera Mangai Rani Velu Nachiyar, the Congo’s Beatrice Kimpa Vita, Brazil’s Maria Quiteria, Lithuania’s Emilia Plater, Russia’s Alena Arzamasskaia, Serbia’s Sofija Jovanovic, Russia’s Arzamasskaia Alena, and the Philippines’ Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, “Kumander Liwayway,” among others.

Others officially and unofficially also given that rubric are the North African Dihya or Al-Kahina, “The Prophetess.” Born late in the 7th century, this Berber queen and military and religious leader led resistance to the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, then known as Numidia. She and her forces fought off the Arab Islamic armies of the Umayyad Dynasty, defeating Hasan ibn al-Nu’man at the Battle of Meskiana. Hasan eventually defeated her in what is now Tunisia at the Battle of Tanarka (703 CE). In 2003, the Algerian government dedicated a statue to her, calling her the “Berber Joan of Arc.”48

Then there was Dona Jesus Dosamentes (sometimes Dosamantes), the Mexican “Joan of Arc” who fought at the battle of Monterrey in 1846, leading a troop of lancers and earning the praise of her American opponents, one of whom described her prowess and courage: “There’s an example of heroism worthy of the days of old. It has remained for Mexico to produce a second Joan d’Arc, but not, like her, successful.”49

Slavery Revolt Participants

This category has more than its share of un- or underrepresented women. Nowhere is the devaluing of women’s participation more glaring than in this cohort. Thousands of unnamed women took part in the dozens and dozens of slave revolts, resistances, and defenses, yet we have the names of only a few, and the references to them are often fragmentary or negative or both.

But exist they did and should also be of note today even as we wish we knew more about them and their companions. For example, in addition to America’s Harriet Tubman, Brazil’s Dandara of Palmares, Jamaica’s Queen Nanny of Nanny Town, and Cuba’s “La Negra Carlota” mentioned above, Haiti had Sanitte Belair (1781–1802), Victoria “Abdaraya Toya” Montou (c. 1739–1805), Dedee Bazile (?–1816) and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere (?). St. Croix had Queen Mary Thomas (c. 1848–1905), St. John had Breffu (?–1734) and Martinique had Fermina (dates unknown). Guadeloupe had “La Mulatresse Solitude” (c. 1772–1802) and Martha-Rose. Barbados had Nanny Grigg (dates unknown). Brazil had Filip a (sometimes Filipa) Maria Aranha (1720–1780) in Amazonia, and Zeferina (dates unknown) near San Salvador. Guyana had Amelia, Barbara, and Pallas (last names and dates unknown) who were executed for their part in the 1763 Berbice slave uprising.

There were many more.

The sheer numbers of women executed after slave revolts in the New World suggests that they often played leadership roles in the rebellions and thus suffered the same penalties as male leaders. Unfortunately, we simply do not have their names to remember their sacrifices.

Nor do we have the names of the many women who participated in the slave revolts during their transport from Africa to Europe and the New World. It has been estimated that 1% of the total number of slaves involved—according to some estimates one hundred thousand—were killed in ship revolts and their aftermaths and judging from the numbers of female executions after the revolts were suppressed, women were involved in the thousands.50

One reason for the large number of women involved in the revolts is that on many ships they were allowed more movement than their male counterparts:

Female slaves were rarely shackled while on board and were housed separately from men and closer to officer quarters, where they were closer to weapons and key. As they were sometimes sexually abused by crew members, women also had access to information that was essential to planning a revolt.51

Transgender Warriors

With the current debate about transgender and transsexual inclusion in the United States military highlighting the issue, there could also be a special category for transgender and transsexual warriors from the past and present in order to provide appropriate recognition to put their activities in this context.

The considerable outpouring of recent literature on the subject looking at warriors throughout history through this lens also argues for an exploration of this category. In general we are including persons who identified as male, not just in battle, but previously or subsequently or both, continuing to self-identify as male as well.

In our analysis of the transgender warriors below, we use “she/her” and “he/him” pronouns to mirror the pronouns used to describe the warriors in the scholarship consulted, usage which varies by exegete and era. If those sources are confusing or seemingly contradictory, we use the hybrid she/he designation. If that designation is used, it is meant neutrally and does not involve an editorial comment.

In some Native American cultures, for example, there exists a concept of two-spirit people, individuals who possess both a female and male spirit and therefore occupy a third gender or are gender nonconforming. For example, Bíawacheeitchish/Fallen Leaf/Warrior Woman and Otaki/Running Eagle of the Blackfeet Nation are characterized by some to be two-spirit (see their descriptions below).

Such a gender category would help to distinguish these warriors from women who simply dressed as men (and were thus transvestites in some sense of that term) in order to participate in battle—either not hiding their identity, such as Joan of Arc, or hiding their gender in order to pass muster with recruiting officers and subsequently with compatriots.

This category of transgender warriors would include a number of fairly well-known historical examples. Petra “Pedro” Herrera was one. Unfortunately the only truly certain date for him is 1914, when he and his band of armed 400 women took the city of Torreon in the Second Battle of Torreon, but we know he had previously joined the revolutionary movement of Pancho Villa. As Pedro, he had been accepted as a military leader, but later split with Villa and went off to war on his own with other like-minded women and fought other battles during the Mexican Revolution.

There is also the prominent case of Amelio Robles, who also fought during the Mexican Revolution. According to Gabriela Cano in his “Unconcealable Realities of Desire: Amelio Robles’s (Transgender) Masculinity in the Mexican Revolution,” Amelia Robles was born female, but subsequently identified as male. So Amelia became Amelio and fought with the Zapatas in a number of battles (later supporting General Álvaro Obregón) and was wounded no fewer than six times.52 He subsequently was given the Mexican Legion of Honor and Revolutionary Merit Award.

Cano rightly notes the importance of this military self-emancipation, “As a guerilla fighter, Amelia discovered, in her words, ‘the sensation of being completely free.’”53 As the author states, “Amelio Robles made the transition from an imposed feminine identity to a desired masculinity: he felt like a man, acted like a man, and constructed a male appearance.” He also didn’t take kindly to bullying about his gender thereafter, allegedly shooting two men who tried to intimidate him.54

As Michy Martinez observes, Amelia had no interest in just being considered “only” a soldatara camp follower, as Amelio, he wanted to serve in combat.55 It is important to reiterate that the mere fact of dressing as a man in order to join an army was of considerable importance in and of itself to some.

The liberating aspects of wearing men’s clothing is a theme throughout many of the women warriors’ history. For example, the cross-dressing British “Colonel” Barker put it very forthrightly:

Trousers make a wonderful difference in the outlook on life. I know that dressed as a man I did not, as I do now I am wearing skirts again, feel hopeless and helpless…. Today when the whole world knows my secret I feel more a man than a woman. I want to up and do those things that men do to earn a living rather than spend my days as a friendless woman.56

Another powerful example of a transgender women is Bíawacheeitchish or Fallen Leaf, also known as Warrior Woman. She was the only known woman chief among the Sioux, Arickaras, Assiniboines, Crees, and Crows. This Gros Ventre girl, captured at age 10 by the Crows, had a foster father who allowed her to pursue her passions, which included hunting, counting coup four times (which involved striking an armed opponent with a small wooden stick in the heat of battle), stealing horses, and showing great proficiency with weapons.

She gained very high stature among the Crows fighting the Blackfeet. Upon the death of her father, she assumed command of his family and participated in both warfare and tribal decision-making. In the process, she continued to act as a man and would acquire four wives before being killed, ironically enough by her original people, the Gros Ventres.57

Also consider Otaki or Running Eagle of the Blackfeet Nation (c. 1840–c. 1878) who entered the Braves Society and fought the Crows and others and was eventually killed in battle by the Flatheads. Born “Pitamakan” in southern Alberta Canada, her father instructed her in hunting and warcraft, and with his death, she assumed responsibility for the family and forced her way onto a raiding party despite its leader’s wishes. Her subsequent vision quest and participation in the Medicine Lodge Ceremony were unusual for women. The Chief, Lone Walker, gave her the name Running Eagle, and she became a member of the Braves Society of the Young Warriors. Otaki led numerous war parties and was eventually killed by the Flatheads, who purposefully targeted her as a woman posing as a man. She continued to wear men’s clothing when not going to war, and many today would put her in the transgender warrior category.

Maria van Antwerpen (1719–1781) was also an interesting if somewhat ambiguous example of transsexuality in the 18th century. She donned men’s clothing and joined the Dutch army as Jan van Ant and subsequently served in a variety of locations during wars with the French. Jan courted many women and married two of them, rejoining the army in the process, not once but twice, finally “being discharged because of a ‘quarrelsome nature.’”58

Warrior Queens

This category is probably the most widely used by those who look at war through a female lens. Here we find many of the best-known rulers who strategically (if not necessarily tactically) guided their armies and countries in significant military action. Cleopatra, Aethelflaed, Nzinga, Zenobia, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, Matilde, Isabella of Spain, Boudica, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are often included in most lists of “warrior queens.”

In Jonathan and Emily Jordan’s The War Queens: Extraordinary Women Who Ruled the Battlefield, a strong case is also made for more women who may not have actually been in battle per se but whose strategic imperatives guided the outcome of those wars. In this category, their examples in addition to some of the above, include the Georgian Queen and “King of Kings” Tamar, the Mongol Manduhai, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi.59

Intellectuals and Theoreticians

Perhaps the interesting example falling into this category is Christine de Pizan, cited above. De Pizan wrote The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, an amazing document for the 15th century. Imagine how many cultural and religious barriers this early feminist writer had to overcome in order to even get her book published. Written in the 15th century by this Italian born, but French court author, The Book of Deeds resurrects many classical writings on war (especially Vegetius) but also provides very useful contrasts between Medieval Europe war practices and those from antiquity, including just war, siege warfare, chivalry, trickery, and “subtlety.” De Pizan skillfully uses many examples from contemporary Europe as well as campaigns of Scipio, Hannibal, and Hanno. It is a truly amazing work given the time, the place, and the gender of its author.

De Pizan is also the author of The Book of the City of Ladies, which highlights numerous women in fact and legend, most important for our purposes, the Amazons, Zenobia, and Artemisia, who she unfortunately puts on the side of the Greeks in the Persian wars.60

Women Warriors Diminished by Subsequent Historical Accounts

There are some startling examples of women who played important strategic and military roles at the time but who were mostly airbrushed out of many subsequent accounts. Without the four daughters of Genghis Khan—Checheyigen, Alaqai, Al-Altun, and Yesui Khatun—there would have been no Mongol empire. The feats of the “Four Tiger Queens,” suppressed by Muslim, Christian, and Chinese chroniclers and written out of subsequent histories. In the Secret History of the Mongols, they are all there. All four daughters played major roles in ruling and warfare during this period and kept the dynasty viable.61

Also the later Mongol “Queen Manduhai the Wise” or “Wolf Mother” (1449–1510) who reunited the warring Mongols, defeating the Oirats and Mings. At 45, she married Bat Monkh Dayan Khan, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and fought in numerous battles, often leading from the front. In one, when she was eight months pregnant, she was knocked from her horse and only saved by her loyal bodyguard. The next month she gave birth to twin boys, Ochir Bolod and Alju Bolod. She was the driving force behind the resurgence of Mongol power in central Asia.62 Later, Queen Anu of the Dzungar Khanate (r. 1693–1696) died in battle protecting her husband in fighting against the Qings at the Battle of Jao Modo (1696). The Mongol women deserve wider attention and credit.

Likewise many Muslim women who fought in various situations over the century have tended to have faded from the accounts of later historians although there have been some attempts to renew interest in them as Moroccan author, Asma Lamrabet, whose Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading provides a rereading of the Muslim Holy Scriptures from a female perspective. For example, on page 19, she quotes the Prophet describing a woman warrior, “Who else could endure all that you are suffering here Umm “Umarah?” The author says Umm was wounded 13 times in various battles including Uhud, Hudaybiyyah, Hunayn, and Al-Yamama, where she lost a hand.

Or take the example of Ahilyabai Holkar (1725–1795), Sardar of the Maratha Empire. When her husband was killed in the battle of Kumbher and her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar, died in 1764, she became ruler, personally leading her troops into battle on her favorite war elephant. As the Rani of Indore, she played a key role in preventing the Mughals from taking over the Maratha Confederacy from her position in Malwa which abutted Mughal forces at Delhi. She was also in charge of the Maratha artillery in the Battle of Panipat (1761), one of the largest battles of that era, yet only belatedly has she been given full credit for her exploits in modern military annals.63

Modern Warfare Groupings (20th to 21st Centuries)

Regardless of how long it took for women to be recognized as warriors by large number of observers, today there are a lot of countries that accept women in that capacity—and they don’t have to dress up as men to be accepted either.

At the time of this writing, women play vital roles—including actual and potential combat forces—in the armed forces of Canada, Singapore, the United States, Brazil, Cuba, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Iran, Rwanda, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Denmark, Finland, France, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Turkey, Taiwan, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Greece, Kurdistan, Latvia, Romania, Russia, Holland, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Bolivia, Ukraine, Singapore, Serbia, Thailand, South Africa, Bangladesh, Algeria, Tunisia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Slovenia (note that in 1988, Major General Alenka Ermench became the first female chief of staff in NATO), Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.

By Amount of Source Material

When looking for a fit subject for interest and research among the woman warrior cohort, it is often necessary to look at how much material is available in readable or usable form. As we have indicated, there are a large number of women about whom we would like to know more, often much more.


Note: It is very important to distinguish between a lot of different material versus a smaller amount of material cited by a lot of works.

Tantalizingly Brief

In some cases there are specific references to women in battle, references that intrigue and make one want more information and lament no one was paying enough attention or cared enough to write down more about them.

Who, for example, wouldn’t want to know more about Maria de Jesus Dosamantes, the Mexican woman who fought as a captain with General Ampudia in his defense of Monterrey during the American invasion in the Mexican War of 1846? According to an eyewitness when she led a valiant attack with her Mexican lancers, an American officer cried out “There’s an example of heroism worthy of the days of old.”64

Or how about Giuseppa Bolognani “Peppa la Cannoniera”? She was a Sicilian woman in revolt against the restored Bourbons. Wouldn’t we like to know why she acted as she did and what happened to her? In the swirl of the Italian unification struggle, there must be quite a few women like Giuseppa who joined that effort.

Even more intriguing would be additional information about the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (Shammuramat), Assyrian wife of Shamshi-Adad V (824–811 BCE). According to Diodorus, after the death of her son, she masqueraded as him and subsequently led the army he had inherited from his father, winning a number of battles as far away as India and expanding the Neo Assyrian Empire (911–605 BCE). She appears to be the only woman ever to have led the Assyrian Empire.65

Or Clara Camarao: wouldn’t we like to know more about this woman who led tribal warriors against the Dutch invasions of Brazil during the period 1630–1637? Or Maria Estrada, who fought with Cortés in Mexico during his conquest of the Aztec and participated in a number of battles?

And what about Xi, the Tang dynasty woman who commanded a troop of women who fought against the Qidan and was given the title Mistress of Loyalty and Integrity? Or the legendary Toltec queen (c. 1116 CE) Xochitl who created a women’s battalion and was killed leading it in battle?

These would all be very interesting to study if we only knew more.

We would also like to know much more about Zoia Smirnova, who left home to join the Russian Army in 1914 on the Austrian front. Despite all odds and obstacles, she was accepted as a fighter, was wounded twice, and was awarded the St. George’s Cross.

Considerable: Individuals

There are a large number of women warriors about whom much has been written and the scholarship is readily available. Most of the warrior queens listed above, women such as Cleopatra, Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Matilda of Canossa, Boudica, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret Thatcher, Aethelflaed, and the like are all quite well represented.66

So too are some lesser-known (at least to most American readers) figures such as the Rani of Jhansi, Zenobia, Amina of Hausaland, Nzinga of Mbundu, Lozen the Apache, Chand Bibi, and Maria Bochkareva.

Considerable: Groups

As mentioned above, there is a lot of material on many of the resistance and partisan fighters as well as revolutionaries from a great variety of countries and ages. Women warriors operating in these spheres are quite well represented.

There is also a lot of currently available information on American women who fought or played major military roles in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. There is also a fairly large number of works looking at contemporary American women who have been steadily increasing their numbers fighting in the various campaigns in wars since the Reagan era.

A considerable literature has also grown up around women who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, and especially Russian women during World War II, including those who fought in both the regular armed forces and the partisans.

In addition, there is a considerable body of material dealing with European women resistance fighters during World War II, including—but not exclusively—those in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. There seems to be less available on the female resistance fighters in Asia and Africa.

Perhaps surprising to many new to this search, there is now also a substantial body of literature dealing with Native American and Indigenous women warriors, along with a considerable amount of material on the earlier Scythian and Sarmatian fighters. Twenty years ago, these would have been ignored by military writers. Now they can only be ignored at those writers’ intellectual peril.

More surprising to traditional historians or casual history buffs may be the ever-growing literature on warriors housed in the LGBTQ? community. While much more needs to be done to reexamine the women throughout history who fit into this category, even a quick glance into this annotated bibliography will provide a quite amazing list of recent material in this genre. This scholarship has not only enriched and enlightened us to the specific participations from the LGBTQ? community, but it collectively points to our need to question many of our assumptions about history. Also, this new knowledge has come from a variety of genres and disciplines.


Joan of Arc is probably the warrior woman about whom the most has been written. There are over 20,000 works written about Joan of Arc in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France alone. There are also numerous poems, novels, essays, books, and monographs. This body of work is an astonishing amount for someone who, when her career is examined closely, really had a more important afterlife than the life she actually led.67 In terms of volume of work, scholarly and otherwise, she is the gold standard by which biographies are compared.

By Degree of Author’s Interest

Over the years, many students have been interested in which women warriors stand out in the professor’s mind, either for sheer novelty or in terms of perceived impact and the degree of difficulty of their achievements. Here are a few of those favorites, for it would be hard to beat the following examples if you want to study the exciting examples of women warriors in action.

Lozen the Apache (1840–1898). Even among the most fearsome of the western Native Americans such as the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches, with leaders such as Cochise, Geronimo, Nana, and Victorio (her brother) in the last decades of the 19th century, Lozen stands out, treated as an equal in terms of warriorhood.

She fought with all four, leaving a reservation to fight with Geronimo, led and served as a most important leader for her people, fighting the Mexicans and the Americans as well as other tribes. As a true warrior, she must have relished her final battle, when she and her tiny band were outnumbered 7,000 to 42. As the patriarch of the Apaches, Nana, put it “Though she is a woman, there is no warrior more worthy than the sister of Victorio.”68

War with various Apache clans turned out to be the longest in U.S. history (officially 1861–1886 but actually beginning in 1857).

Empress Zenobia (sometimes Zabbai) (240–c. 275). From Tadmor-Palmyra in what is now Syria, Zenobia led a rebellion against the Romans from 269 to 272 CE, and, for a time, she operated skillfully in the seam between Roman power and Persian power, taking advantage of their internal problems and martial competition. She led her victorious army through Egypt, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, declaring herself Queen of Egypt. But like Boudica in Britain, eventually the power of the Roman Empire came to bear, and she was eventually captured and brought to Rome as a prisoner (although some Arab sources claim she committed suicide, thereby imitating Cleopatra).69

Matilda of Canossa (1046–1115) was an ally of Pope Gregory VII in 1087 when she marched with her Tuscan army on Rome to fight and oust one of the anti-popes, putting one pope back in on the throne of St. Peter’s, and later sustained another in office. A master strategist and military leader who waged war for 40 years defeating the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) Henry IV when he invaded Italy.

Her military biographer calls her simply, “The most powerful woman of her time” for she denied the Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful male leader of the period, his designs on Italy, the papacy, and especially her territory. This was an unheard-of feat for a woman in her era. It was in fact at her castle that Henry IV was so famously made to kneel in the snow in order to have his excommunication by the pope lifted. Urban II was the second pope she kept in the Holy See.70

Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920). Dirt poor and harmed by domestic abuse perpetrators (her drunken father, her drunken lovers, and her drunken husband), she petitioned the Czar to let her join the army. Imagine her struggles as a woman in the Czarist army of 1914, when peasant soldiers were considered to be serfs. She fought for two years in the Imperial Army, becoming a noncommissioned officer (NCO), being wounded twice, and inspiring her troops and officers to fight under very difficult situations.

When the Czar fell, she got the new government under Alexander Kerensky to let her form the Russian Provisional Government’s 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death (6,000 women) in 1917 which continued to fight against the Germans. She and her cohort of women shamed their fellow male units to fight on several occasions when they preferred to avoid combat. Later, she was captured by the Bolsheviks, met Trotsky and Lenin, and when they wanted her to integrate her female warriors into their Red revolutionary army, she fled and made it to the United States by way of Siberia. Once in the United States, she met and hectored President Wilson to intervene and fight the Reds. Frustrated when he refused, she returned to Russia to fight for the Whites. This time when she was captured by the Bolsheviks, she was shot.71

Njinga (Nzinga) of Ndongo and Mataba (c. 1583–1663). Ruling as regent, she killed her nephew and became the first queen of the Ndongo (Mbundu) people, successfully orchestrating a variety of campaigns and maneuvers. Her military prowess, including a decade-long stretch of successful battles both guerrilla and set-piece warfare (1624–1663), is matched only by her strategic and diplomatic efforts as she played the Portuguese, Dutch, and African tribes off against each other, even negotiating successfully with Pope Alexander VII.

Also noteworthy is her defiance of the gender, sexuality, and religious norms of her time (she took both men and women as lovers and sometimes dressed as a man but made her male lovers dress as women) and her most skillful blending of Mbundu, Impangala (Jaga), and Christian traditions to support her legitimacy, explaining to the cannibal Impangala that their religion was compatible with Christian beliefs since the Christians symbolically, at least, drank the blood and ate the flesh of Christ and were thus, at heart, cannibals. A woodcut shows her leading her troops into battle at age 73, and Ndongo survived as an independent state until 1909 when the Portuguese finally annexed it into Angola. Njinga is now rightly considered a mother of her country.72

What a woman. What a warrior.

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