Anyone who shares my interest in the "female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics" buried in grave Bj581 in Birka, Sweden (the topic of my new book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women) needs to read Warrior Women: An Unexpected History by Pamela Toler.
Bj581 gets a couple of pages. The thousands of other historical warrior women Toler finds hiding in plain sight will blow your mind.
Did I like this book? After I read it, I ordered two more copies for friends.
Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is bold, brash, witty, and cutting--and deservedly so. "After you read enough variations of historians arguing why a particular woman warrior didn't exist or fight," Toler explains, "you grow a bit cynical." Of the notion that "women are natural pacifists" because they give birth, she notes, "At its simplest, this argument is based on a series of assumptions about the relative natures of men and women that is unflattering to both. It is also counterhistorical."
Toler as a writer must have massive, well-organized filing cabinets (whether mental, digital, or actual, I don't know). Since girlhood, she has squirreled away stories about women who are "tough/mouthy/opinionated/different" like Joan of Arc and the women who fought in the Civil War dressed as men. Eventually her "women warrior" file got so fat she felt she had to write a book. She then went looking for women who fought "to avenge their families, defend their homes (or cities or nations), win independence from a foreign power, expand their kingdom's boundaries, or satisfy their ambition" and found that she could, in fact, have written several books.
She settled on a survey. The first woman warriors in her book date from the second millennium BCE: three well-armed women buried in the Caucasus mountains, two with battle scars. The most recent warrior women she mentions are two who completed Ranger School, the US army's elite infantry training program, in 2015; one who completed the Marine Corps infantry officer training program in 2017; and six who earned the Expert Infantryman Badge in 2018--her book came out in 2019.
In between she reports on thousands of other historical warrior women, from vastly different cultures and time periods, organizing their stories into themes. Are these women freaks and social outcasts? No. They are mothers, daughters, widows, queens. Some are socially expected to fight; others break norms and fight in disguise. Repeatedly, Toler skewers the tropes about women being kind, nurturing, peaceful, weak, squeamish, or somehow "other" than men.
"Many people who cheer for the highly sexualized women warriors of popular culture," such as Wonder Woman, she writes, "are less comfortable when confronted with real-life images of camouflage-wearing women with shaved heads at boot camp or Ranger School. In fact, that contrast gets at the heart of much of the long-standing, cross-cultural social discomfort with women warriors—the fear that women who chose to fight will lose their femininity or, conversely, that their presence will 'feminize' the army; thereby rendering it less effective, less aggressive, less serious, or just less. It is an old discussion: when Plato argued that women should be given the same training as men and [be] used in all the same tasks, including training in war, he warned 'we must not be afraid of all the jokes of the kind that the wits will make about such a change in physical and artistic culture, and not least about the women carrying arms and riding horses.'"
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Why don't we know more about the heroic women in Toler's book? "At some level," she explains, "the disappearance of women warriors is part of our larger tendency to write history as 'his story.'" The problem is particularly acute in the field of military history.
"Both the current appeal of pop cultural heroines and ongoing battles over the role of female soldiers in the modern military assume women who go to war are historical anomalies: Joan of Arc, not G.I. Joan. This position is summed up in military historian John Keegan's magnificently inaccurate claim that "warfare is … the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. … Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the field and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and laboured in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight … and they never, in any military sense, fight men."
Magnificently inaccurate indeed--and Toler has the facts to prove it. Not only do the women warriors in her book "fight men," they often beat them.
"As long as you focus on one historical figure, or one cluster of women, or on one historical period," Toler concludes, "it is easy to believe any individual woman warrior was indeed an exception who stood outside the norm of her time—created by a national crisis or an anomaly of inheritance—and who consequently stands outside the norm of history as a whole."
But when you look at the sweep of history, as Toler does, you find these "exceptions" become significant indeed. They change our ideas of what it means to be a "man" or a "woman." They enlarge the role models for every little girl who despises frilly pink dresses and chooses horses and toy soldiers over baby dolls.
Writes Toler, "The main thing that struck me when I looked at women warriors across cultures rather than in isolation is how many examples there are and how lightly they sit on our collective awareness. I began with hundreds of examples. I ended with thousands."
Warrior Women: An Unexpected History by Pamela Toler was published by Beacon Press in 2019. I'm pleased to add that Pamela likes my book, recreating the life and times of Bj581, as much as I like hers.
The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, see the previous posts on this blog (click here) or my page at Macmillan.com.
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