A few weeks ago, I went to the Pritzker Military Museum and Library to attend Pamela Toler’s lecture on her new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. Toler is a well-known historian who studies the often over looked aspects of history such as women contributions and noncombatants contributions during war. Her book focuses on women warriors from all over the world, breaking down when we are most likely to see women engaging in combat and dismantling common assumptions when it comes to women warriors.
I found the lecture fascinating because she broke away from the stereotypical outlier warriors who led men in ‘glorious’ combat and was an exception to the norm, aka Joan of Arc. Instead, Toler tries to break through that assumption and highlight that women warriors were far more common and, in some ways, ‘mundane’ than that ‘romantic’ perspective. The lecture seemed to gain even greater importance after reading about a theory that Casimir Pulaski was intersex. There seems to be a drive to stop assuming that war was a ‘man’s’ game and expand our perspective to include those who were traditionally written out or ignored.
Pamela started her lecture with a familiar story: a tomb is found with an unidentified body surrounded by weapons. Archaeologists and historians assume the skeleton is a man. It is quickly proven it belong to a woman. They explain away the weapons by claiming that the woman removed the original occupant, who was obviously a man. Toler claims that this is the easiest way to erase women from history-whenever you confront something that collides with your assumptions, deny it was ever there. It was only with the increasingly reliance on DNA testing that women warriors are being properly identified and accepted for who they are. Toler poses the question: how many women have been accidently or purposely misidentified or ignored?
When women are acknowledge as warriors, they are always presented as an outlier, maybe even a dangerous one. Everyone knows about Joan of Arc and Boadicea because they fit this belief that women warriors are rare and they are too big to erase. Another example of extraordinary women are the Trung sisters, Vietnamese female warriors who led a rebellion against Han China. They were able to beat the Chinese out of their country and ruled for two years before the Chinese sent their best general to brutally crush their reign. They are national heroes in Vietnam and have their own national holiday.
But those are exceptions and they’re exceptions because women have been written out of history. This is possible, not only because of sexism, but because the women themselves hid their own identities. It was common for women to volunteer to fight dressed as men and never be discovered. We would only know they were women if their disguises failed. Some women wrote about their experiences but it was either ignored by the establishment or it was suppressed. After World War II, Soviet authorities told the many women who fought against the Nazis to never speak about their experiences. Or women will talk about it, but men won’t and it becomes a victim of being in an echo chamber, where only those with something to lose talk about it, while everyone else ignores them until their knowledge is lost.
Finally, women are written out of history through historical definitions. Toler argued that during the French invasion of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, women who fought with artillery men weren’t considered soldiers or warriors because they weren’t combatants. They were just defending themselves.
“Once you assert women warriors don’t exist, it’s hard to see them.”-Pamela Toler
Toler argued that nomadic or tribal people were more accepting of women warriors than other cultures. For example, there were Arab women warriors in Syria who fought against the Rome and got them to sue for peace. Buffalo Calf Road was a Native American warrior who fought at Little Bighorn and it is claimed she was the one who shot Custer off his horse.
There is one outlier to this observation and that is China. During China’s long history, they have a surprising number of female warriors. One of Toler’s favorites is General Fu Hao who was wife to King Wu Ding and served as a military general. For a long time we didn’t know anything about her because her legacy was recorded only on 250 oracle bones. Eventually these bones were deciphered and we discovered she took part in many of the campaigns that occurred during her lifetime and would be considered a task force commander in a modern military. There is even some evidence that she commanded multiple armies at once. In 1976, they found her tomb and it is now open to the public.
This led to Toler’s first principle, women warriors are most common during periods of national crisis. One of the reasons China may have had so many women warriors was because a national crisis would occur every time a dynasty changed, which happened frequently during China’s expansive history.
During the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibarruri was a famous anti-fascist member of the resistance. The Mau-Mau and Algerian rebellions were known for their female members. Many of the African, Asian, and Latin American revolutionary armies during the 20th and 19th century had numerous female members. Currently, 7,000-10,000 Kurdish women have fought against ISIS. These women answered the call when their nation was in incredible danger and they’re not the exceptions. This is a trend seen in almost any nation during a time of crisis.
Toler’s second principle is that desperate manpower shortage forces governments to use women in new ways. The Soviet female pilots are famous, but Toler used an example from the first war-the Women Battalion of Death.
The Women Battalion of Death was created after the Romanov dynasty fell and it was created to shame Russian men into continuing the war against the German invaders. Led by Maria Bochkareva, the battalion were sent to the front with the highest desertion rate to shame the male soldiers who were tired of fighting. When the Germans attacked, the men, who had organized themselves into a committee, argued about fighting while Maria led her women to war. The battle started on July 9th, 1917 and they held off the German attacks for hours.
Toler’s third principle is that women fighters are most common during chronic warfare i.e. when war is a way of life. This seems to support her other observation that tribal and nomadic societies are more accepting of women warriors. Toler mentioned feudal Japan and the concept of a female samurai. While it’s impossible to determine if one of the most famous Tomoe Gozen was real or legend, DNA testing has proven that female samurais were more common than initially thought.
Toler argues that they would have been common during sieges. When Japan was modernizing, many samurai resisted the change. One of the battles that occurred was the siege of Aizu, in which the Imperial army led siege to the entire city. Many women killed themselves to save themselves from the horror that would occur when the Imperial soldiers broke through, but a women named Nakano Takeko gathered a number of women and led them against the Imperial Army. Their appearance on the battlefield supposedly shocked the Imperial soldiers so much, the women were able to use it to their advantage, killing them of many before being gunned down.
Which leads to Toler’s final principle. Women warriors are most common, and most often overlooked, during sieges. During a siege, normal women will use whatever they can to resist the enemy and this is often overlooked because it might consist of nothing more than throwing pots and pans at soldiers or dumping boiling water on the invader’s heads. Russian women in Leningrad threw Molotov cocktails at German soldiers and dug anti-tank trenches. Things that seem small given the scope of the Siege of Leningrad, but still dangerous and still a form of warfare. Women were also some of the people who suffered the most should a siege succeed. A fallen besieged city is known as a rape of a city for a reason.
One of Toler’s favorite stories regarding women fighting during a siege is the Defense of Argos. After the Spartan army destroyed the Argos army, they turned on the city, expecting it to fall. Telesilla, a poet, organized the women of the city and prepared a powerful defense against the Spartan army. When the Spartans broke through the gates, the women fought so fiercely, the Spartans retreated and never attacked Argos again. Telesilla recorded their deeds and the women even erected a statue to honor their own deeds.
While the women Toler spoke about are known, she argues that the anonymous women is the norm. Our problem is that we tend to focus on one women, one cluster of women, or one country or time period and that makes these amazing women seem like exceptions, when the truth is different.
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