For centuries, tales of female warriors known in Greek mythology as “Amazons” invoked lurid images of voluptuous, scantily-clad women parading into battle aloft white horses. Such stories always made for more than a few good sexual fantasies and even some tawdry jokes. Then, in 1997, archaeologists excavating in Pokrovka, Russia, near the Kazakhstan border, discovered 50 ancient burial mounds containing female skeletons – and weapons. Among the paraphernalia, were iron swords, daggers and bronze arrowheads. One of the skeletons in Pokrovka was that of a young girl, perhaps 13 or 14; proving that, in a world where life spans were short and sometimes fragile, people trained early to defend themselves. As often happens in human history, legends contain some measure of truth. And, in the region once known as Mesopotamia, female warriors weren’t mythical figures, like mermaids or fairies. They were genuine members of their respective societies; committed, battle-hardened individuals who fought for their own freedom and that of their communities.
As controversy swirls around the new U.S. Defense Department policy to allow women into combat, I have to wonder if female warriors of the past are laughing; perhaps saying, ‘It’s about time!’ Predictably, social conservatives have reacted with horror. Already upset that gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military, they’re now howling in greater protest at the thought of women squatting in the proverbial trenches alongside the men. Heather MacDonald of the National Review surmised that the Pentagon has bowed to “feminism’s insatiable and narcissistic drive for absolute official equality between the sexes.”
Bryan Fischer of Renew America stated, rather chivalrously, “we want to live in a nation where we expect men to use their strength to protect the women in their world, not the other way round.” He then added, “God simply did not design women to have the same size, upper body strength, or stamina as men. It’s just plain stupid to ignore this biological fact of nature.”
Ryan Smith, a former Marine who now practices law, also views the matter from a physiological perspective. “Many Marines developed dysentery from the complete lack of sanitary conditions,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, describing his experiences about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “When an uncontrollable urge hit a Marine, he would be forced to stand, as best he could, hold an MRE bag up to his rear, and defecate inches from his seated comrade’s face.”
Montana State Representative Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, told “Newsmax,” “This is not a Hollywood movie. This has real consequences that are going to affect our sons and daughters whose lives are on the line.” Zinke concedes that, during his lengthy military tenure, he encountered “women operatives who were very, very good.”
Elaine Donnelly, president and founder of the Center for Military Readiness, apparently speaks for all military women. In a CNN interview she declared, “It’s the kind of a position that military women, in the majority, don’t want to have. They don’t want to be treated exactly like men.” In almost the same breath, however, Donnelly admits that, after more than a decade of war, “we’ve seen women do remarkable things.”
For these folks, the world as they have known it has come to an end. They must be sad. But, they must also be ignorant of world history, and the role women have played in national conflicts. Many people, however, seem to view the concept of female warriors as a late 20th century anomaly; that, if women have served in a truly military fashion, it’s only been by chance or accident, or in times of absolute necessity, such as World War II. Conservatives begrudge the overall presence of women in the military as the result of aggressive liberal ideology, social experimentation gone awry, and feminism run wild; they see it as an omen, a portent to an unstable American society; total collapse, they say, looms on the horizon. Liberals, on the other hand, regard it as the culmination of decades of hard work and aggressive civil action; women, they declare, have finally arrived at the gates of freedom and opportunity within the military-industrial complex.
They’re all wrong. To say that women have never held prominent positions in military history is tantamount to saying that men have never helped to raise children. Human history isn’t so clear-cut. People are looking at it from the prism of their contemporary opinions.
The United States alone has a long history of women in the military, starting with the American Revolutionary War. Women, of course, served in the traditional roles of cooks and nurses, but there were a handful who jumped into the fray of battle; either by chance or disguising themselves as men. On that front, many social conservatives are correct. But, one has to go further back, before the U.S. came into existence, and understand the truth about “Amazonian” women.
While the “Helen of Troy” story is filled with glorious fantastical imagery, the Amazon warrior isn’t mythical. In ancient Greece, women often trained alongside men. They became skilled with horses, various weapons and even hand-to-hand combat. They weren’t scantily-clad vixens on horseback; they were bruised and battered combatants who could eviscerate their enemies with a sword or an axe.
In “Warrior Queens Among the Classic Maya,” Kathryn Reese-Taylor notes that the “importance of women in Maya society is no longer in question.” As part of one of the most scientifically and technology-advanced societies of ancient America, Mayan women held leadership positions, often ruling kingdoms of their own. That certainly required some military knowledge and expertise, writes Reese-Taylor, and not just from a purely objective standpoint. Archaeological evidence from the Late Classic Period (A.D. 600 – 800) proves women were prominent figures in the culture’s military. Analyses of Mayan stone inscriptions revealed that both women and men carried the moniker of “kaloomte,” a high-ranking title in Mayan society that denoted accomplishments in political and military circles.
The Mayans’ counterparts, the Aztecs, also viewed women as equal to men. In fact, as a whole, Aztec culture considered all citizens equally valuable to society; everyone, from the elite to the commoners, had to work to sustain and protect their communities. It was, after all, a warrior culture, which ultimately led to its collapse when Europeans arrived (as the Aztecs had created so many enemies among surrounding tribes). The Aztecs even considered childbirth to be a form of military combat, and pregnant women were viewed with the same high regard as male warriors. Dying in childbirth was akin to dying in battle.
As Europeans began to traverse the Western Hemisphere, they were surprised – almost amused – to see that Native American women weren’t subservient to their male counterparts. From the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Zuni Pueblo in the Southwest, women in most Native American communities held equal sway in politics and trade; they farmed and hunted with the men; and naturally, they served as warriors. For most Native Americans, their history has been written by the Europeans; any famous Native Americans, therefore, were often closely associated with a person of European extraction. Moreover, Europeans viewed war as a man’s duty, and any female Native American fighter became invisible. Consequently, the identities of many American Indian women on the battlefront have been lost. But, there are a handful of exceptions, such as Fallen Leaf, a member of the Crow Nation; Running Eagle, a Blackfoot; and Tashenamani (“Moving Robe”), a Lakota warrior who fought George Armstrong Custer in Montana in the 1876 “Battle of the Greasy Grass.”
Europeans were equally surprised at the high status of women in West Africa, especially their military prowess. Queen Amina of Hausaland is among the most legendary. As in Greek lore, there are some assertions Amina’s accomplishments are mere folklore. But, there are reliable sources that substantiate her existence. Amina’s mother, Bakwa Turunku, was another powerful queen and fierce warrior who reigned in the Hausa state of Zazzau during the late 15th century. Bakwa Turunku is credited for establishing a new capital for Zazzau when the water supply in the former capital of Turunku was nearly depleted. The new capital was named Zaria after her second daughter. By the time Amina assumed power, the entire state of Zazzau had adopted the name Zaria. Amina came to power around 1536 and helped to expand her kingdom by conquering surrounding states.
Another prominent African female ruler, Yaa Asantewaa, was the queen mother in the Edweso tribe of the Asante, or Ashanti. As part of their continuing efforts to keep indigenous Africans under control, the British Empire removed the Ashanti king, Prempeh I, in 1896. They installed their own ruler, a Briton, whom the Ashanti refused to recognize. Yaa Asantewaa almost immediately began developing plans for a coup to overthrow the British. In March of 1900, the Ashanti attacked the British fort at Kumasi; the ensuing conflict lasted over three months. The British succeeded in regaining control and capturing Yaa Asantewaa. They exiled her to the Seychelles where she died in 1924. Unrepentant, she reportedly spat in the faces of the British military officials as they took her prisoner.
Asian history is also replete with female warriors. Among them is Tomoe Gozen who lived in Japan in the 12th century A.D. and fought during the Genpei War. Skilled in horse-riding, archery and with swords, she is known to have killed more than a few opponents. Japanese women could attain the coveted role of samurai, the legendary warriors of feudal Japan.
In China, Fu Hao was the wife of Emperor Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty; they lived around the 13th century B.C. Hao’s battlefield exploits are inscribed on about 200 of the approximately 17,000 turtle shells unearthed in 1976 in Henan Province. She also has the distinction of resting in her own tomb, instead of beside her husband, as was the cultural tradition in feudal China.
Xun Guan was only 13 years old when she joined her father, Xun Song, the governor of Xiangyang in Western China, in a battle to protect the state from an internal revolt led by one of Xun Song’s own officials. Xun Guan led a group of warriors out of the city at night and successfully attacked the enemy. Her father eventually joined the group to fortify the defense and saved the city.
Princess Pingyang is the only woman in China’s feudal history to have a military funeral. She lived at the end of the Tang Dynasty where life had become unbearable for many local citizens. In A.D. 617, Pingyang joined her father, Li Yuan, when he decided to overthrow the ruling government. Officials learned of his plans and ordered Li Yuan and his family to be arrested. He managed to escape capture, as did Pingyang and her husband, Chai Shao. Pingyang returned to Huxian County and sold some land she owned to raised money for the planned siege. She also recruited and trained hundreds of volunteers, finally leading her troops – known as the “Army of Lady Li” – to victory in a number of battles. Pingyang’s forces were a major factor in crushing the remaining Sui Dynasty military.
Other Asian women such as India’s Queen Vishpala and China’s Hua Mulan, bear the same mythological aura as the Greek Amazons. But, while those particular individuals may just be purely legendary, it’s more likely they’re composites of actual women who lived and died the warrior lifestyle.
European history has its own gallery of exceptional female warriors. Queen Boudicca ruled the Iceni tribe of Britain during the 1st century A.D. The Iceni had managed to retain their territory near present-day Norfolk after the Romans invaded in A.D. 55. Following the death of her husband, King Prasutagus, died in A.D. 60, Boudicca assumed leadership of the Iceni. But, the Roman government didn’t honor female rulers and attempted to confiscate the family’s wealth and property. When Boudicca resisted, she was captured and flogged in public. Her two daughters also were captured and subsequently raped. Boudicca and her daughters recuperated and the Queen plotted retaliation. She rallied her fellow Iceni into battle and attacked Roman officials in the new settlement of Londinium (later London). Initially, the Romans retreated, but gathered their troops and fought back. The battle culminated in the deaths of some 80,000 Iceni. Although defeated, Boudicca and daughters remained defiant against the Romans and poisoned themselves rather than face subjugation.
Perhaps the most famous of all medieval female combatants, Joan of Arc, was a 17-year-old peasant girl when she joined France’s Prince Charles to battle England’s King Henry VI over control of the French crown. English troops had invaded northern France where they found an ally in John, the Duke of Burgundy. By 1422, Charles still hadn’t been crowned king, but he wouldn’t capitulate to British rule. In 1428, Joan – claiming she had received visions from Roman Catholic saints ordering her to lead the French overthrowing England – traveled to Vaucouleurs to ask French military leadership for permission to support Charles’ efforts. Military officials dismissed her, and Joan returned home. But, she remained undeterred, insisting she could help the French achieve victory. Apparently seeing few other options, the military finally accepted Joan into their ranks. At the time, French royalty held a more guarded, conciliatory theory in dealing with enemies, which may have led to England’s presence in France. Joan, however, rejected that approach, opting instead for more aggressive tactics. She had to train French conscripts not just in tactical maneuvers but to rethink their views. In May of 1429, Joan led her troops to attack a British fortress in Saint Loup, before marching on to another in Saint Jean le Blanc. At yet another British stronghold at Les Tourelles in Orleans, Joan was shot through the neck, but survived and rejoined her comrades. Her resilience inspired them to continue fighting, until the British surrendered. With England in defense mode, Charles traveled to Reims where he was crowned King Charles VII in July 1429.
Allowing women into combat here in the U.S. invariably leads to another pertinent issue: Selective Service. Can and should women be forced into military service via the Military Selective Service Act. Passed by Congress in 1980, the Act requires all males in the U.S. to register for military conscription within 30 days of their 18th birthday. If they don’t, they could be fined $10,000 and imprisoned for up to 5 years. They also will be denied federal financial aid, such Pell Grants and Stafford Loans; federal job training; and federal employment. Men who are only sons or only children are required to register. Even men who are mildly physically disabled (meaning they can still leave their homes under their own power) must register for the draft. It’s the most blatant form of sexism in the U.S. this side of the death penalty. Feminists usually scoff at the notion that women should be required to register for Selective Service; stating that women should never be forced to do anything like that. God forbid! Whenever I’ve brought up the subject, some women have disparagingly responded that men should have children first; that is, get pregnant. That, of course, is not the issue, since individual women aren’t required by law to bear children. Men, on the other hand, have no choice but to register for Selective Service, lest they be dubbed criminals.
Women in Israel are already required to serve in the military along with men. Israeli citizens don’t have a choice. Surrounded by cultural and political enemies, everyone in Israel is obligated to protect their nation’s sovereignty. I feel the U.S. should adopt a similar policy; it’s perhaps the only way to even out much of the social disparities in this nation and make our leaders think twice before jumping into war, as they did in Iraq. But, I won’t hold my breath on that one.
Social conservatives deplore the idea of women returning home in wheelchairs or body bags, as if though we’ve made our peace with men in similar circumstances. But, if anyone doesn’t like the idea of women being killed in battle, they shouldn’t feel comfortable with the concept of men dying like that.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but this issue clearly won’t be settled easily. While conservatives scorn a nation that deliberately sends its women into war, liberals rejoice at the concept of equality. Regardless, both sides need to understand that women have held a place in the world’s military history long before the United States and most other nations were even born. It’s simply indisputable. And, anyone who fights for their freedom should never be disrespected or forgotten.