Don’t be alarmed – there is no new age ‘inner warrior’ nonsense here. This is a history book, very accessible and particularly well-written. The text takes a journey through the extraordinary martial histories of women over 3000 years, from the Amazons of early history to US Blackhawk Pilot ‘Tammy’ Duckworth, who lost both her legs in Iraq in 2004. The biographies are in chronological order, but far from making it a plod along the timeline, this approach allows you to pick a point in time, perhaps a figure that you already recognise, and see what (or who) her contemporaries were battling against. For example, while Queen Elizabeth I was conversing in Latin with Grace O’Malley, the celebrated Irish pirate, in Japan a noblewoman called Chiyome was training as an elite ninja; to be ‘the dark heart of the Samurai’. And while Mata Hari was working her magic (before blowing kisses to her firing squad in 1917), Dorothy Lawrence was disguised as a man in the trenches of the Western Front, and two women of a flying ambulance unit were earning the title ‘the heroines of Pervyse’ for their courage under fire.
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The biographies of each of the ‘warrior women’ are only a couple of pages in length, but they are informative and wear the authors’ considerable research lightly. These are not potted histories, but a good analysis of each women’s warrior credentials, going into detail on her tactics and strengths. Having read these, I wonder why, for instance, I never learned at school about Aethelflaed, very successful daughter of King Alfred the Great. Aethelflaed, attacked by the Danes as she rode to her wedding, refused to give up her Kingdom. She created a military court that she ruled alone, and her sense of strategy allowed her to extend her campaign through Wales, and into the Midlands. ‘When she reached Leicester, her reputation as a war leader was such that the inhabitants surrendered without a fight.’
Of course the war time heroines are well represented here, including the female snipers of the Red Army and pioneering aviators, but there are so many other interesting stories of battles on different causes. Jeanne Holm joined the US military in 1942 and retired three decades later, the first woman to rise to the rank of two-star general. As Director of female personnel in the USAF, she opened up military careers for women and set about abolishing discriminatory regulations. She commented ‘In the military a racist is not allowed to act like one, but it’s sort of winked at to be sexist.’
Women may have fought like men throughout history, but there was no such thing as a fair fight once a female warrior was captured. Achilles killed the last Amazon queen, Penthesilia, and then had sex with her still-warm corpse – out of remorse, apparently. Princess Aife ‘the hardest woman warrior in the world’ had her life spared by Irish Hero Cu Chulainn, but only in return for being raped at the point of a sword, Cu Chulainn promising to continue to force her until she bears him a son. Brunhilde was torn apart by four horses. Nearer to our own time, the humiliations for former warriors were disgrace, penury and simple lack of belief. Harriet Ross Tubman fought against slavery and spent seven years in the Union army during the American Civil War, but was refused a pension in her own right.
As you can see, there is plenty in this book to get the reader engaged and interested. As well as the text, the book is sumptuously, in fact glamorously, illustrated. This is especially the case with the women from distant history, where the portraits are from arty Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or screen goddesses such as Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra. I would recommend this book to any reader with an interest in history, or a liking for inspiring biographies. I think it would make an excellent gift particularly for any woman about to embark on a career in the Services, but male readers will find a lot to enjoy in this book, and it is not presented or designed, (thank goodness) as a ‘women’s book.’
Finally, anyone who likes to stick an interesting, motivational quote to their office notice board or fridge door, will be spoiled for choice. Here is my current favourite:
“I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern Sea, clean up frontiers, and save people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?”
(Vietnamese third-century warrior woman, Trieu Au)
Five fearless Ms Mushroom Heads!
Published in hardback by Quercus 2011.