Thanks to my friend Michael who prompted me to write an article with more ‘meaty’ content. In honor of potential 2012 Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich, I thought I would focus on women in combat. Those of us old enough to recall well remember Newt’s stated opinion on women in combat:
If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don’t have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they’re relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn’t matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes. — Newt Gingrich, Adjunct Instructor, Reinhardt College,1995 “Renewing American Civilization”
Newt has always stood by this statement, emphasizing his belief that women are incapable of being in a combat situation and drawing heavily on disproven gender stereotypes to buff up his opinion that women do not belong in the military and in fact are physically incapable of its demands.
Now, America still bars women from serving on the frontline or in ‘combat positions.’ However, the modern wars we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are in a state of insurgency, which blurs the lines of combat, there is no true “front line” as violence can and does break out anywhere. The reality is that throughout human history, women have been soldiers and leaders of armies alongside their male counterparts. I decided to take some space on this blog to highlight famous female warriors and wartime leaders.
Joan of Arc – While still a teenage girl, Joan of Arc inspired French troops and successfully led men into battle during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan lived on the front lines, fought with the men, and was even wounded in battle on more than one occasion. In spite of being born an uneducated peasant girl in the French countryside, her tactical instincts proved more successful than many of her educated male counterparts. In fact, it was her immense popularity with the (male) army that likely led to her betrayal to the English and subsequent execution for witchcraft. In spite of her trial and condemnation by the Catholic church for witchcraft, she was later canonized by the same church 1920
Artemisia of Caria – Artemisia was a ruler in the 5th century BCE over a client kingdom in the Persian Empire. She was one of the most trusted advisors of King Xerxes and is best remembered for the role she played in the Battle of Salamis. Her skill was such that even the Greek Historian Herodotus commented on more than one occasion about her prowess in his Histories. Her skilled naval tactics, in the wake of failure of her male colleagues, prompted Xerxes to state: “My men have become women and my women, men.”
Gudit – A legendary queen of Ethiopia in the 10th century who ransacked the countryside, destroyed churches, and attempted to exterminate the members of the previous ruling dynasty.
“She is said to have killed the emperor, ascended the throne herself, and reigned for forty years. Accounts of her violent misdeeds are still related among peasants in the north Ethiopian countryside.” – Paul Henze
Gladiatrix – The female counterparts of Roman Gladiators, Gladiatrix were a popular draw in the arena and the historical sources are replete with references. Tacitus recorded in the Annals and Dio Cassius in his Histories that the Emperor Nero regularly held shows with female gladiators from the upper classes. The poet Statius recorded the popularity of Gladiatrix in Domitian’s shows. Septimius Severus unsuccessfully tried to ban female gladiators in the second century, but they continued to show up in history, art, and literature throughout the history of combative shows until their loss of prominence and popularity in the 6th century.
Nandi – A Zulu princess and the mother of famed African Warrior Shaka-Zulu was a warrior princess who fought slave-traders in 19th century Africa and raised her son to be a leader and a warrior. In fact, when Shaka became King, he established an all-female regiment in her memory.
“Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.” – The Tale of the Heike
Ahhotep I – Was an Egyptian Queen of the 16th century BCE. She led an army against the Hyksos, an Asiatic people that had invaded the Egyptian Delta, and was pivatol in establishing the 18th dynasty. An Egyptian stele referencing her states:
“She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”
Harriet Tubman – While not a combat veteran per se, Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist, served on the front-lines of the Underground Railroad (where she spent a good share of time in ditches), a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, an advocate for Women’s Suffrage, and a great American Humanitarian. She spent most of her life on the front lines and risking her life for her moral beliefs and her country. She was listed in the Smithsonian’s recent recognition of Female Spies During the American Civil War. She was fully aware of the risks she was taking and continued to push the boundaries of her gender and her race in 19th century America.
Queen Boudicca – My favorite and my dog’s name-sake. Boudicca, Boudica, Boadicea (and all the spellings in – between). The Warrior Queen of the Britons was a well-discilined fighting animal. Born into the the British Iceni Tribe, Queen Boudicca would lead an uprising against the Roman occupation of Britain and burn London. She inspired her people to take up arms against a larger and more powerful force. The Iceni did not make distinctions in the battlefield – both men and women fought (except women who were pregnant or lactating). She struck fear in the hearts’ of Roman soldiers, generals, and statesmen.
The reality is that history is replete with examples and stories of female warriors. They did not fight in wars or lead armies in spite of their Biology but in reality, their anatomy itself did not provide a hinderance. The existence of the vagina does not make women more prone to ‘infection’ in a ditch than a man’s prostate does to him. Women’s menses do not make them emotional, vulnerable, or physically incapacitated (do your female coworkers and classmates miss a week every month?). The reality is that women, like men, are a valuable resource for the military and their service should not be limited.