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Bad Asses Throughout History, Women Warriors Have Always Fought

A Q&A with Pamela D. Toler

Based on a woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen
Image credit: Jo Anne Davies for Artful Doodlers, based on woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen by Toyohara Chikanobu

If you’ve been keeping up with the movies, you’ve seen strong warrior women kick ass on screen. Look no further than Wonder Woman, Wakanda’s Dora Milaje in Black Panther. We love seeing their stories become more mainstream in the public imagination, but where are the stories of the warrior women in real life? We know about Joan of Arc, but weren’t there more? Yes, scores more from around the globe who were just as fierce! Now you can read all about them in Pamela D. Toler’s Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Toler to ask her about the inspiration behind the book, why women warriors are often pushed to the historical shadows, and what she hopes readers take away from her book.

Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing Women Warriors?

Pamela D. Toler: I’ve been fascinated by the concept of women warriors ever since I was a nerdy kid who read every biography of famous women I could get my hands on and who regularly blew her allowance on comic books with female superheroes. But the real trigger for me came in 1988, when Antonia Fraser published Warrior Queens. Fraser’s book not only introduced me to women I’d never heard of before, but also to a new idea: that women “fought, literally fought, as a normal part of the army in far more epochs and far more civilizations than is generally appreciated.” Once I was aware that women warriors had existed in many times and places, it seemed like I ran across references to them everywhere. I began collecting their stories with no particular purpose in mind. After a couple of decades, that file was pretty fat, and I decided it was time to share. 

CC: Tell us about your lifelong interest in the topic. Where does it come from?

PDT: Like a lot of young girls, I was hungry for historical role models that told me it was okay to be smart, mouthy, opinionated, or different. Looking at women warriors as role models, whether they are historical or fictional, takes that one step further. They’re not just smart; they’re strong. They’re not just opinionated; they’re brave.

I think one reason so many girls are fascinated by Joan of Arc is that she was a teenage girl who made powerful people listen to her. That’s heady stuff if you feel like you can’t make yourself heard.

CC: What kind of research and primary source material did you have to mine in order to write about the women you profile in the book?

PDT: The research for a global history is fundamentally different than the research for a deep dive into a single life or a single event. The historian who chooses to grapple with a topic across the artificial boundaries of academic fields inevitably finds herself dependent on secondary sources and translations of primary sources from languages she can’t read. (And frustrated by hints about the stuff that has not been translated.)

That problem was magnified by the fact that with the exception of a few well-known figures, the history of women at war is not well documented. Some women’s stories are told only as historical footnotes to the careers of important men. Others are offered as good examples or horrible warnings. Sometimes they are left out of the official history for political reasons. Many sources exist only in fragments. Or take the form of material evidence. Or were written a hundred years or more after the fact. And, as with all historical evidence, what we have is filtered through the assumptions of the (almost always) men who wrote them. Character assassination, salacious speculation, and hagiography are all part of the historical record where women warriors are concerned—and occasionally warranted. (Forgotten woman does not necessarily mean heroic or even nice.)

CC: What are some of the main reasons that women warriors have been pushed into the historical shadows? Apart from Joan of Arc, why don’t we hear about more women who’ve gone to war?

PDT: The reality is that women in general have been left out of the historical narrative, or at least shoved to the side. That has happened for a lot of reasons, both social and historiographic. Women’s contributions in science, literature, politics, and economics are also routinely minimized, dismissed, or forgotten. Look at almost any subject and you’ll discover another example, whether it’s classicist Alice Kober’s critical role in the decipherment of Linear B or the existence of all-female volunteer fire brigades in the early twentieth century. The disappearance of women warriors is part of our larger tendency to write history as “his story.” As military historian David Hay points out in his study of Matilda of Tuscany, “The assumption that war is something essentially male—be it the apotheosis of masculinity or the incarnation of patriarchy—has banned the study of the female combatant to academic purgatory.”

In the case of women warriors, the tendency to erase women’s roles in history is complicated by the fact that our shared cultural narrative tells us that women should not fight and have not fought. As a result, both contemporary witnesses and later historians often overlook the presence of women on the battlefield or indulge in some twisty thinking to explain it away. Over and over as I worked on this book, I found historians arguing that a specific woman didn’t really fight or didn’t even exist. If you look at individual women in isolation, any one of those arguments seems reasonable. But when you look at examples of women warriors across time and geographical boundaries and see the same arguments being made repeatedly about women in very different times and places, they carry less weight.

CC: Who are some of your favorite women warriors in popular culture?

PDT: As far as popular culture goes, I’ve been a Wonder Woman fan from the day after I learned to read. (Some loves go so deep you can’t say why.) I’m fascinated by Black Widow’s past as a dancer and her general angst. I also love the women warriors in Tamora Pierce’s young adult fantasy novels. They are smart and strong and brave and heroic, but they are also human. I love the fact that they struggle to be accepted for who they are by their peers.

CC: What would you like readers to take away from the book?

PDT: It’s pretty simple. Women have always gone to war, and they’ve gone for the same reasons as their male counterparts. They have fought to avenge their families, to defend their homes (or cities or nations), to win independence from a foreign power, to expand their kingdom’s boundaries, or to satisfy their ambition. They weren’t always heroic, but they were there.


About Pamela D. Toler 

Pamela D. Toler goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world, as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. She is author of The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, among other books. Her work has appeared in Aramco WorldCalliopeHistory Channel MagazineMHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and on Time.com. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @pdtoler.