Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

by Pamela D. Toler

Paperback, 2020




Beacon Press (2020), Edition: Reprint, 240 pages


Who says women don't go to war? From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly--Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities. These are the stories of women who fought because they wanted to, because they had to, or because they could. Among the warriors you'll meet are: * Tomyris, ruler of the Massagetae, who killed Cyrus the Great of Persia when he sought to invade her lands * The West African ruler Amina of Hausa, who led her warriors in a campaign of territorial expansion for more than 30 years * Boudica, who led the Celtic tribes of Britain into a massive rebellion against the Roman Empire to avenge the rapes of her daughters * The Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who led an untrained army of 80,000 troops to drive the Chinese empire out of Vietnam * The Joshigun, a group of 30 combat-trained Japanese women who fought against the forces of the Meiji emperor in the late 19th century * Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi, who was regarded as the "bravest and best" military leader in the 1857 Indian Mutiny against British rule * Maria Bochkareva, who commanded Russia's first all-female battalion--the First Women's Battalion of Death--during WWII * Buffalo Calf Road Woman, the Cheyenne warrior who knocked General Custer off his horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn * Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza warrior who fought in at least 16 major battles against colonizers of Latin America and who is a national hero in Bolivia and Argentina today * And many more spanning from ancient times through the 20th century. By considering the ways in which their presence has been erased from history, Toler reveals that women have always fought--not in spite of being women but because they are women.… (more)


½ (21 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Kellswitch
A look at the history of female fighters in wars throughout history.
This is a pretty decent introductory book for this subject, the author covers a lot of different cultures and time periods from as far back as we have records to the modern age and touches on a large number of women, known and
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This isn’t a particularly deep book, the author never spends too much time on any one woman or time period, and many of the women covered here I have heard of before and you don’t really learn anything new here. That said, there were just as many women here that I hadn’t heard about, so I felt it was well worth reading even though she never went in to much depth about them.
My main take away from this book was just how much time we spend at war with each other and how brutal and ugly it can be. I mean, I know this but to see it laid out, one conflict after another and another and another, it got kind of numbing after a while.
One thing the author does in this book that I both enjoyed but also found frustrating and annoying was the constant use of footnotes, some where almost as long as the originating paragraph. If the information as that important why not write it into the main body of the text? That said, I did find much of the information given in them interesting even though the structure could be extremely distracting and make reading the book a little harder at times.
Overall and easy read that may be more useful for newcomers to this sort of history, or for casual history buffs and I enjoyed reading it but if you are looking for more depth and details this might not be the book for you.
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LibraryThing member dankeding
"Women Warriors" by Pamela Toler is a fascinating and important book. It tells the stories of women warriors, many of whom have been forgotten or relegated to the back pages of history. This book not only brings their stories to light but also puts them into historical context and illuminates the
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reader to the importance of their struggles. The book moves quickly from one story, one theme to the next and is a book you won't be able to put down. I highly recommend it for all.
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LibraryThing member Chrisethier
Disclaimer: I won a copy via a giveaway on Librarything.

My brother reads quite a bit of John Keegan. I’m not entirely sure if he has read every book Keegan wrote, but it must be close. Every so often I think I should read Keegan, but then I read something and go, “yeah, he might be a
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brilliant dude, but he sounds like a bit of a dick”. Years ago, it was his comments during the case Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin books. Recently, it is the comments of his that Dr. Toler quotes in this excellent book about women warriors. Apparently, Keegan cannot conceive of women ever fighting.
Yes, it made me gnash my teeth too.
Dr Toler’s book is, in part, a rebuttal to those like Keegan or those, as Toler points out more than once, that presume one thing about warrior grave goods in a grave of a woman and make a totally different presumption about the use of weapons in a man’s grave.
But it is also an analysis of why women who fight got written out of history in some cases. So that bit about the Viking warrior that was really a woman, is in this book.
The women that Toler writes about come from across the world, except for Australia for some reason. The number of women mentioned by name is a vast, and Toler covers Asia, Africa, and South America as well as Europe. When she deals with North and South America, Toler includes Indigenous women. Therefore, we have a discussion about Molly Pitcher but also Nanye’hi (White Rose) who lead a Cherokee victory against the Creek. (Don’t worry Buffalo Calf road Woman is also here).
But the book isn’t just about women warriors, it is also about how cultures and society saw them. For instance, the motivation for a woman warrior in China, say, would be different than that of a woman of Europe. Japanese warrior women also composed poetry after fighting in sieges.
And the footnotes, Toler’s footnotes are a joy to read.
The book is divided, loosely, into type of warrior and type of popular warrior in history. So, there is a chapter on Joan of Arc and her sisters, but then on women in siege warfare. The book covers the ancient world tilt the end of the Second World War, and serves as a history to illustrate that women in warfare isn’t something new.
While famous women warriors make appearances, such as Queen Ninja, Joan of Arc and Mulan, Toler includes lesser known women such as Kenau Simonsdochet Hasslaer and Cathy Williams, the first African-American woman to join the Armed Forces. She disguised herself as a man and then they refused to give her a pension.
When dealing with woman of color who exist in a white society, Toler does not forget to include racism as a factor for the treatment of the women in terms of historical texts. This is particularly true when she is discussing Buffalo Calf Road Woman.
Toler presents an entertaining, informative read that cements women’s place on the battlefields of history.
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LibraryThing member mattries37315
The phrase warrior women evokes many images, most with “boob” armor as a prominent feature however history tells a different story. Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler covers millennia of historical records and new archaeological discoveries from Shang China to modern day
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examining the women who went into battle in numerous ways.

Toler covers not only the more famous warriors like Boudica, Joan of Arc, Lakshmi Bai, Hua Mulan, the Trung Sisters, and Tomoe Gozen among others but also spread her reach to lesser known historical figures of prominence as well as “every day” women. Toler brings to light many reasons why women went to war including adventure, defense of family and home, and surprising cultural as well. Also examined is how contemporary and modern-day historical accounts of these women use many of the same phrases like “she fought like a man” thus bring to the forefront the seemingly universal gender role that war is to many societies—though not all. Many of the women that Toler relates in her book, disguise themselves in men’s clothing and several continued using men’s clothing after their military service and one was “crossdressing” before she entered military service. Finally Toler covered the recent turn in archaeological findings that not all burials that contained weapons were men, but many women and the raging debate on if those women were actual warriors and if those weapons were ceremonial—though if men were buried with jewelry it showed they were rich.

The book’s text covered roughly 210 pages, but many of those pages having a considerable amount of footnotes that were both positive and negative in the overall quality of the book. Toler does focus on the famous few warriors, but spreads her eye to all parts of the globe and showed the diversity and commonality that all women warriors had. Her criticism of how women warriors were depicted over the millennia and across cultures showed many of the same trends with relatively few exceptions—China. However the book is far from perfect and while Toler packed a lot in 210 pages, she kept on repeating the same things over and over again including in her numerous footnotes. It was one thing to say something critically in a witty and sarcastically way once thus making an impression and making the reader aware to look for future instances of what Toler was criticizing, but to repeatedly make wisecracks over the same criticisms again and again just resulted in them losing their effect and become tiresome. Unfortunately the many repeated comments and footnotes makes one wonder if Toler had cut them out, if she could not have moved some of the interesting things she put in the footnotes because she “ran out of space” into the actual text if the book wouldn’t have come out better.

The overall Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is a nice primer and introduction to the many women who fought throughout history and the complex history surrounding them. While Pamela D. Toler does a wonderful job in bringing many women to the spotlight, her repeated phrases—including overdone wittiness—and almost overly expansive footnotes take away from the quality of the book.
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LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
In the Introduction, the writer refers to Joan of Arc, Jeanne Hachette and Lakshmi Bai and then moves on to...Wonder Woman and a thing called ''Black Panther'' which I know nothing about, sorry. To top it off, she includes war veterans in romance novels and thus, the circle of the trash is
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I was tempted to abandon the book right there and then. Seriously. But I persevered. For a couple of pages, I tried to overlook the comics and trash being in the same company with actual heroines and warriors. And then, a very condescending footnote ''spoke'' full of contempt for people who believe the female characters of today are highly sexualised on purpose. Excuse you, writer. I am one of ''those'' people.

Congratulations, though. A new record. You made me DNF a book before the Introduction ends. This work was clearly unsuitable for the readers who enjoy quality...
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LibraryThing member WhiskeyintheJar
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

In fact, women have always gone to war: fighting to avenge their families, defend their homes (or cities or nation), win independence from a foreign power, expand
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their kingdom's boundaries, or satisfy their ambition.

In 2017, when the “Birka Man”, in fact, turned out to be the “Birka Woman”, I felt like women all over the world shouted a “Yes!” collectively in euphoria and then simmered with rage over how our contributions over time have be left out of the annuals of history. With Women Warriors, Toler delivers a world wide smattering of women fighting at the head of and in the trenches with men.

Njinga was forty-two years old when she succeeded her brother as the ngola of Ndongo. In December 1657, when she was nearly seventy-five, she led her army into battle for the last time.

While I enjoyed the vastness of time periods, cultures, and geographical places the author touched on and named women warriors for, the organization kept me from fully placing, absorbing, or delving into these women. The first chapter is titled “Don't Mess with Mama” and the second is “Her Father's Daughter”. The women featured in these chapters are essentially categorized by their children, their father, and how that relationship defined their battle cry. This gives a new spin on viewing these women and helps to showcase the vastness of women's contributions but I'm more of a linear and structured reader. I would have enjoyed a more time line driven categorization, this helps with placement and remembering who was where and when. It wasn't until chapter seven, titled “In Disguise” that I thought the chapter had more cohesiveness and I enjoyed how the women were grouped by more interpersonal notes. Although, I still thought this chapter had issues because of the author's decision to relay the women's story but give their individual one line endings grouped together at the end of the chapter.

I also found some of the footnotes to be tiresome. The author had a tendency to footnote personal feelings, which brought some humor, but as they became repetitive, they worked to disrupt my reading flow. I felt the page room would have been better served with added factual information given to the women warrior stories.

“The horror of women in body bags is not a horror of a dead woman. It's that the woman was a warrior, that she is not a victim. American culture does not want to accept that women can be both warriors and mothers...To accept women as warriors means a challenge to patriarchy at its most fundamental level.”
Linda Grant De Pauw

As I mentioned, the author did a fantastic job touching on numerous women from numerous cultures, time periods, and continents. I recognized some probably more well known names, the Trung sisters, Emma Edmonds, and the Joshigun, but was also brought to the attention of some maybe lesser known, Pingyang, Ani Pachen, and Aethleflaed. I was particularly touched by the story of the unnamed American Civil War woman solider who not only fought in Fredericksburg but gave birth soon after and we only vaguely know of because of male soldier letters sent home giving mention of her.

This reads as more of a primer, whether the reason is lack of research material available, facts, time, space, or personal decision, the author only devotes a couple paragraphs to the majority of the women's stories. It is, however, deeply satisfying to read the evidence of women's contributions to fights, battles, and war, an area women were and are constantly trying to be written out of. This is a “coffee table” book each household should have, as these names deserve to live on in memory. These pages were full of heroic and blood thirsty women, women who fought for country, revenge, adventure, and escape, tactical geniuses, and women simply trying to survive. No matter the time period, circumstances, or historical erasure, women have been right beside men actively living the human experience, this book importantly relays those facts to readers.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
Fascinating peek into the world of women as warriors. Global, covering millennia of human history. The author spent years gathering this information, with copious footnotes, notes, and bibliography. The oldest female warriors were no doubt nomadic women of the Eurasian steppes; we know this from
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the burial goods archaeologists have found in their kurgans, or burial mounds. This holds true for the Scythians and Sarmatians of a slightly later era. In ancient Greece, we have Telesilla of Argos who led women and fought off Spartans[!] in defense of their city. There are the two Artemisias: one fought as admiral of Persian fleet in Greco-Persian War and the other fought for her native city against Rhodes. In ancient Britain, Boudica led her people against the Roman army and nearly defeated them. In India, history nearly repeated itself where Rani Lakshmi Bai led the people of her princely state against the British in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. There are examples from Africa ands Asia. On the latter continent, Tomoe Gozen, a Samurai [the name pertains to a certain social class--of both sexes], fought in the 12th century Gempei War between two clans. She is pictured on the cover of the book. Warrior queens: Isabel of Castile against Granada and her daughter Catherine of Aragon. The latter is more famous for more than just Henry VIII's wife and her fate; she directed a war with Scotland as Henry's regent, while he was fighting on the Continent. Zenobia fought Romans, setting up her [short-lived] kingdom of Palmyra [in Present-day Syria]. Cleopatra commanded the Egyptian Navy in the battle between Marc Antony and Octavian. There are many women who disguised themselves as men and fought, their sex only being revealed when they were wounded: Nadezha Durova who fought for Russia against Napoleon, the many women who fought in disguise during the American Civil War. I'd say a novel I read recently:[Die Tatarin] about a Tatar girl who disguises herself and fights against Sweden in Peter I of Russia's time, isn't so far-fetched, then.

This was an enthralling and very readable set of information about women warriors throughout history; this is a book meant to be dipped into again and again.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member MarysGirl
Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers,
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as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women.

Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the all femalel guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.

Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.

Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.

Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.

Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”

Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
I had high hopes for this one, but I found it disappointing. One problem was the book description, which led me to believe that this would be more about women warriors as a group, not individually. We do get one chapter near the end about that, but it didn't answer any of my questions about the
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My other problem was the style. The editorial voice was so present here and it really put me off. All the snark in the footnotes, the long explanation of pronoun choice for women who dressed as men to fight, the presumption that all historians were conspiring to exclude women from military history. It was overwhelming and it made reading this book a chore rather than a pleasure.
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LibraryThing member Mantra
Warrior Women by Pamela Toler

This is a very interesting book. It was a little tough to read due to the
copious footnotes, but worth fighting through. Usually I don't pay a lot
of attentin to footnotes but the ones in this book are definitely worth
reading. I'd heard and/or read about a few isolated
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stories of women
going into battle and a few disguised as men, but was surprised to learn
just how much this really took place. Even more interesting but NOT surprising
is how often historians/men claimed the stories to be myths and especially
in the section about Viking remains how they just refused to accept the
evidence and came up with all kinds of explanations to cast away the idea
that women could have been true warriors. So many of the attitudes that
are still prevalent today.
I was initially put off by the extensive footnotes but once I got a couple
of chapters in I found it quite fascinating. This is non-fiction, historical
research but for anyone interested in the real-life adventures of "wonder
women" this is definitely recommended.
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LibraryThing member JSKupperman
Women Warriors does much to dispel many of the false notions concerning women at war. While the book is ostensibly about a number of particular women, told about through the lens of mini biographies, Women Warriors is really about the role of women in warfare in general; the stories told about
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them, how those stories have been appropriated by male historians and others, and the truth, when accessible, behind those stories. As a corrective for the popular view of women at war, Women Warriors is a much needed volume.
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LibraryThing member bostonian71
Count me among the fans of "Women Warriors". As another reviewer states, this wide-ranging book goes beyond the typical profiles of fabulous females (which, given how long women have been left in the shadows, are important in and of themselves). Toler's history, however, also demands -- and
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delivers -- a critical look at when and why women have been relegated to the margins, how they actually took a greater role in military narratives than people realize, and how their contributions have been erased, minimized, explained away or turned into myth.

My one complaint is that I wish "Women Warriors" were longer, but that is purely my greed for more history and context. I know some reviewers object to the footnotes, most notably Toler's comments about bias; given the persistence of misogyny (as is clear from even a glance at Twitter), I personally feel like her criticisms bear repeating, and understanding.
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LibraryThing member readafew
Very interesting book! I enjoyed reading about all the ways women have contributed to war, and the many ways society has tried to bury it, or make it seem it was only exceptional women in exceptional circumstances.

The foot notes were even more entertaining than the regular text. definitely worth a
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Original language


Physical description

8.82 inches


0807028339 / 9780807028339
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