New Worlds: Women in War

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Since we’ve been talking about different types of soldier and warrior, it seems appropriate to take a moment to discuss a particular group: women in war.

This is a contentious topic in part because our evidence is a mess. When it comes to analyzing the role of women in combat and combat-adjacent positions, in addition to wrestling with people’s conceptions of sex and gender and the appropriate places for each, you’re looking at a tangle of legends, historically attested women treated as exceptions, lacunae in the records, and evidence colored by the assumptions of the people looking at it.

What do I mean by that last? Since I’m an archaeologist, I can speak very specifically to one way that bias manifests. Sexing human remains (by which I mean, determining their biological sex) is a tricky business: if you have enough skeletal material to measure properly, which you may not, then you’re making a statistical guess based on things like height or the width of the pelvic notch. Wider than a certain angle, it’s probably a woman who gave birth. Narrower, and it’s probably a man (or a woman who never gave birth). These days we get better answers from DNA tests — some of the time, if you can get a good sample, and if you have enough funding to pay for the lab work.

But if those things are lacking, then . . . well, the long-standing practice in archaeology has been to sex remains based on their grave goods. If the body was buried with stereotypically female artifacts like jewelry or weaving implements, then it’s assume to be that of a woman. If it’s buried with stereotypically male items — like, for example, weapons — then it’s assumed to be that of a man.

As pragmatic as this practice is, it’s also deeply problematic: you’re literally assuming a thing, and then using that assumption to gather evidence in support of itself. And so it’s no surprise that modern archaeology has a mounting pile of studies where someone’s gone back to look at, say, a Viking Age weapons burial excavated in the late Victorian period, and the DNA test returned an XX result. Although that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the gender of the individual — sex and gender are on my list of topics not yet discussed, but they aren’t the same thing — the biological part is relevant, too.

We know women have engaged in war from very early times onward. We find them buried with weapons; we find them with the osteological markers of combat, like certain kinds of injury, and the overdeveloped bone features that go with using your body in specific ways over and over again. Fantasy movies have given us this weird idea that bows are great weapons for women, but while it’s true that Victorian ladies liked a bit of recreational archery, if you want your arrow to accomplish much, you need significant upper body strength — far more than a sword requires. Archers are easy to find in the archaeological record because their arms are so ridiculously mismatched. Women do better with things like polearms: in fact, Japanese women of the samurai class were trained in the use of naginata, whose length gave them reach and increased angular momentum, ergo more striking force. (Even in modern Japan, naginata competition is more a women’s sport than one for men.) One of my archaeology professors speculated that the atlatl, a device used to increase the power of a thrown spear or javelin, might have been invented by a woman, precisely because that’s the type of person who would have the greatest need of its effect.

For some women in combat it was probably the idea discussed last week, where people living in a frequently-raided area have to learn to defend themselves. For others, it may have been a long-term social role. Catalina de Erauso cross-dressed to be a sixteenth-century conquistador; Hannah Snell cross-dressed to be an eighteenth-century British Marine; the Mino, sometimes called the Dahomey Amazons, were an all-female military unit in that West African nation. While we’ve never been the majority of anyone’s armed forces, never had warfare be a defining characteristic of their gender the way men sometimes have, there are more than enough examples of women on the battlefield to know there’s more to the idea than just legend.

But it would also be a mistake to look only at the battlefield. “War” has never been a concept that begins and ends with the front-line fighters, and in considering women’s involvement, we should look beyond that narrow definition.

Women have commanded armed forces, too. In many cases this was the lady of the castle assuming command in her husband’s absence (or in the absence of a husband at all); when the enemy comes besieging, they’re not going to wait while you go fetch a man to defend you, and putting a subordinate in charge of everything is a good way to kneecap the authority of your rank. But we also have historical examples of women (beyond Joan of Arc) taking to the field with their armies, instead of just sitting tight behind the castle walls. They may not have had the tactical experience of a skilled commander, but they could and did take advice from their officers and then make the call — the same way a man with rank but no tactical experience would (and did) do.

As for during those sieges . . . TV and movies would have you believe the women holed up with the children in some sheltered spot to wait out the storm. In reality, they (and the children) had plenty to do, retrieving and treating the wounded, bringing food and drink and ammunition to the soldiers on the walls, putting out fires set by flaming arrows, and so forth. And when things got dire, do you think they really didn’t pick up whatever weapon or tool came to hand? No doubt some ran and hid, but again, we know (because the historical records tell us) that plenty made a last-ditch stand to defend their homes and families. Similar ideas applied in the field, though properly discussing an army’s support staff will have to wait for a future essay.

Consider also the role of intelligence work. That, too, is a topic for a future essay — they never end! — but the very fact that women were not routinely considered combatants made them very useful in the context of espionage. Both the Royalist and Parliamentarian sides in the English Civil War employed female spies, who could get access to prisoners via their work as laundresses and the like, or who could cross battle lines to visit family with ciphered letters sewn into their petticoats. On the other side of the pond, Kate Warne famously helped foil an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

To be clear, I’m not attempting to claim that women historically participated in war on an equal footing with men. That isn’t true even in most modern armies. But we have too many exceptions to the rule to pretend they don’t form a small rule of their own. And that’s with the historical record having written many of them out, in some cases literally: the finished copies of Parliament’s records from the war note money being paid out to women for “nursing,” but if you compare to the draft copies, you see they were actually being paid for spying. Elsewhere, both Catalina de Erauso and Hannah Snell are known because they chose to confess their true sex (and subsequently made money by publishing their life stories). If they hadn’t, it’s entirely possible neither of them would ever have been discovered . . . and that other women never were.

So if a novel or a short story wants to put women into a war — whether on the edges as commanders, nurses, spies, and other supporting roles, or directly into the thick of it as solo combatants or members of an organized female unit — there’s historical support for the idea. Anyone who says differently needs to read more history.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Women in War — 10 Comments

  1. Serendipitously today’s Washington Post has this article:

    “They were the world’s only all-female army. Their descendants are fighting to recapture their humanity.”

    [ ” . . . .Now a team of Beninese researchers is working to reshape the narrative. For the last three years, historians at the African School of Economics, a private university that Wantchekon founded near Cotonou, the capital, have been tracking down descendants of Amazons across the nation. . . . ” ]

  2. Time Team did an excavation of a mass Anglo Saxon cemetary. They found several double graves, man and a woman placed together, posed to suggest strong familial ties, with respective grave goods. Except one couple lovingly embraced in death, after analysis discovered that the “male” had that wide pelvic notch–a woman who had given birth–with all the trappings of a warrior. And her wife right beside her.

    This was enough years ago that the team did not say on camera that this was a case of same sex marriage that was treated with respect, only that it was an anomaly. How many of these anomalies have been found and glossed over, or ignored….?

    • I will say it’s right to be cautious in projecting our modern concepts onto the past; people in the Anglo-Saxon period didn’t think of sex, gender, or sexuality the same way we do today, so whether that was “a same-sex marriage” in the sense that we think of that phrase now, we’ll never know. But that blade cuts both ways: just as we can’t assume that what that grave represents is the same as a modern lesbian relationship, we also can’t assume that our cis and heteronormative assumptions apply, either. Unfortunately, we have a long history of doing exactly that, which is why these kinds of analyses are so important.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Women in War - Swan Tower

  4. There’s also a subtle social-class bias built into whatever evidence we can get. For example, there was one mercenary company of cavalry in the early 1630s that Tilly’s staff kept referring to using (the still-developing-and-not-nearly-as-formalized predecessor of Hochdeutsch) feminine articles and pronouns. Was that a recognition of gender or an insult (personal, social, or disdain for mercenaries)? Nobody knows, and the two battlefields on which that company (fighting on the Imperial side) was wiped out by the Swedes provide darned little in the way of clues.

    I suspect that what clear evidence there is of women engaged in “regular-force” combat prior to the industrial age also has significant class bias to it, if for no other reason than the distinction between individual burial and mass graves that makes things so much fun a few centuries later…

    • I didn’t know about the cavalry company! Interesting.

      And yeah, there’s definitely a class issue bound up in all of this. You see distinct differences in how female Royalist and Parliamentarian spies were treated — the Royalists leaned heavily on ladies of quality and were happy to talk up their devotion to the king, while the Parliamentarian side relied more on common women, and tended to hide their involvement. Women with wealth and status can get away with being some kinds of exception; women without those things can get away with other kinds.

  5. I think the topic was a hot button issue a while back because of the ambiguity of the evidence as well as the concept of ‘exception’ being very flexible.
    I have no doubt, that there were women fighting in the front lines because that’s what they wanted to do. In the same way however, I pretty sure that those women on the front line were the exception rather than the rule in an organized army. By that I mean that fewer than 2% of soldiers were female.

    Just as it make sense to train women in combat if you are under threat, it makes no sense to have female-only battalions scale enemy walls – simply from the biological fact that for the vast majority of humankind, losing 75% of your male population was a harsh blow, but losing 75% of your female population was close to a death knell for your community.

    So communities that risk their men tend to out-compete those who risk their women. Hence I’m pretty sure it’s right to say that the higher the risk of death, the higher the ratio of men to women. That’s just talking about probabilities and populations – the individuals story is up to everyone themselves.

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