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The History and Psychology of Warrior Women

The Forgotten History of the Warrior Woman Archetype

Two female soldiers, Capt. Kristen Greist and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, will graduate Friday from the Army’s physically and mentally grueling Ranger School: they are warrior women. The Warrior Woman is an ancient archetype that is not well known because the stories have been both forgotten and suppressed. Mythology is full of warrior goddesses like the Roman Bellona, who fought with her brother Mars; and the Norse goddess Alfhild, who fought dressed as a man. There are legends of female warriors like the Amazons. Aurelian had a Roman triumphal display of captives including Gothic women who fought dressed as men. The Celts had warrior queens trained in the arts of warfare.There are historical female warriors like the Roman gladiatrix (female gladiators), the Celtic Queen Boudicca, the Anglo-Saxon Aethelflaed, the Chinese Fu Hao, and a startling number of armor-clad women over three centuries—in chronological order, the Spanish women of Tortosa, Jehanne de Montfort, Marguerite of Anjou, Joan of Arc, and Catherine of Aragon.

Although their stories are little known, South American women like Juana Azurduy de Padilla fought the Spanish, African women like Nzinga of Matamba fought the Europeans, Indian women like Rani Lakshmibai fought the British, Native American women like Running Eagle fought white settlers, and the Filipina Teresa Magbanu fought both the Spanish and Americans.

Thinking about women in battle entails a psychic disconnect—cognitive dissonance—because women are associated with giving life, not taking it away. In the romance languages, however, life and death, war and battle are all feminine nouns, which suggests that the battlefield is not simply the domain of the masculine psyche.

The European history of women in war does not end with the Middle Ages and Joan of Arc. For centuries, there were women disguised as men serving as soldiers or sailors. Enlisting in the army or navy, women disguised as men could earn a higher salary than they could otherwise; and enlisting gave women a means of escape from abuse and exploitation. In Women in War, DePauw notes that in Europe, “In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were hundreds of women soldiers and sailors passing as men and everybody knew about it” (p. 105). Most of the women soldiers and sailors came from Holland, Germany, and England because of an insatiable demand for recruits during the wars.

In 1643, the English issued a proclamation prohibiting women from enlisting. From 1650 onwards there are increased efforts in Europe to control the numbers of women in the army. In 1700, France designated vivandières to accompany French regiments. Among their many jobs was tending the wounded—they were the first field nurses. Napoleon III (1800-1815) doubled their numbers and required marriage to a soldier in their unit. American officers observing them in the Crimean war brought the idea of the vivandières to the Civil War. In 1800 their sons were officially designated as children of the regiment, given a uniform, half pay, and half rations until the age of 16 when they could enlist, thus providing an important source of pre-trained manpower for the army. The tradition continued in the French army until 1906. The loss of women on the field of battle in WWI marks the beginning of inhuman warfare—the use of chemicals, massive mining with explosives, and aerial bombing.

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, the female warrior was one of the most popular ballad traditions—the heroine disguises herself as a man to join the army or the navy to be with a loved one or to escape an undesirable fate. These ballads end with the reunion of the heroine with her beloved or with her happy marriage to a soldier or sailor she meets during her adventures. In Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, Dugaw notes that these ballads remained so popular because they mirrored reality—women were joining the army and the navy disguised as men. Women could pass as men because if there was a physical exam, it was limited to a precursory visual of a fully dressed volunteer.

The earliest American warrior woman I found documentation for was Hannah Duston, in the Indian Wars who managed to scalp ten of her Native American captors in 1697—and seventy-eight years later in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), I found documentation for nine including two dressed as men as well as an entire home guard—the Prudence Wright Home Guard of Massassachusetts. Deborah Samson, alias Robert Shirtliff, served as a man for three years and was wounded twice. With Horace Mann, she wrote a fictionalized autobiography, The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson [sic] the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution.

Seventy-eight years later in the Civil War, we have documentation for 400 women fighting disguised as men, which suggests that there were easily two to three times that number, since these women were rarely discovered unless wounded. A conservative estimate would be 800 to 1,200. The vast difference in the numbers in this seventy-eight year interval between the two wars suggests radical social changes. What transpired to enable these changes?

The French Revolution brought the rights of women to the forefront of political discussions beginning with the March of the Women on Versailles in 1789. Women wore sabers, carried daggers, and even pistols like Théroigne de Méricourt, who also donned women’s battle attire——Turkish trousers, later called bloomers, and a red riding habit. Sixty-two years later in 1851, “reform dress”—i.e.,bloomers, became a fashion craze in the U.S. Théroigène posed, carrying a rifle, for Delacroix’s famous painting of “Victory leading the People.”

Revolutionary French women demanded job training, the right to divorce, to vote, and to wear pants—which had become a symbol of liberation from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, who wore knee-breeches. Inspired by the French, Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in England in 1792. In 1792, hundreds of French women enlisted in the army to fight against Austria. It seemed that French women would obtain equal rights until Robespierre came to power and the Revolution took a radical right turn. Women soldiers were sent home. By 1795, women in France could not gather in groups of more than 5. By 1800 there was a law forbidding French women to wear pants.

However, with freedom of the press under the Second Republic in 1848, there was a new flowering of feminist publications and organizations. The Vésuviennes advocated for female military service, the right to dress as men, legal and domestic equality, including sharing household chores. The Vésuviennes wore pants as did the famous author Georges Sand as early as 1834. American women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott began attracting followers. The new thinking about women’s identity is clearly evidenced by the first women’s rights’ convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 which proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

In addition to feminism, migration brought about rapid social changes. With mass migration into northern cities from both Europe and the American heartland, women had more freedom; and industrialization allowed women to do jobs formerly done by men. One woman could operate a mechanical rug-weaving loom that required three men to operate manually. By 1860, there were 270,000 female workers in Northern textile, shoe, clothing, printing, and publishing industries; and 12,000 in Southern factories. Women were in the forefront of the labor movement.

With the Industrial Revolution, assumptions about what women could do changed. Women working in coal mining in England were wearing pants in the 1800s. Because men could earn more than women, some women began passing as men to earn men’s wages as is the case for Unionist Sarah Emma Edmonds, (alias, Franklin Thompson), who was a traveling book salesman before she enlisted, and for Unionist Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (alias, Lyons Wakeman), who worked as a boatman before she enlisted.

In addition to feminism, migration, and industrialization, there is the army’s long tradition of women in the field. George Washington realized he could not maintain his army unless he allowed women to accompany his soldiers. He allowed wives to work for the army to support themselves and their children. For centuries, women played an important role in feeding, laundering, maintenance (uniforms), logistical support (digging ditches and pillaging before armies were provisioned by their governments after 1650), and keeping up solders’ morale during conflicts that sometimes lasted for decades.

This discussion includes only women who were actually on the field of battle under fire, concentrating on women disguised as men (because unless they could pass as men, they were not allowed to fight on the battlefield). However, we cannot ignore the vivandières who wore bi-sexual attire consisting of a jacket, dress, and pants in the Zouave units of which the Union had 70 and the South 25. Vivandières were, ideally, daughters or wives of officers. The vivandières were also called daughters of the regiment. Neither the North nor the South recognized their service with few exceptions. We know of two Union vivandières who were awarded the Kearney Cross: Marie Tèpe, French Mary, and Anna Etheridge. Both Marie and Anna were shot. Anna also had 2 horses shot out from underneath her while carrying wounded men off the field. Unionist vivandière Kady Brownell, awarded the honor of carrying the colors, was shot at First Bull Run. She saved her unit from friendly fire at the Battle of New Bern by placing herself, waving the flag, in the line of fire to prevent the impending tragedy. All three of these women went to war with their husbands. Anna and Kady were awarded pensions. Marie’s male comrades were trying to help her obtain one at the time of her death.

Why would a woman disguise herself as a man to go off to the Civil War? One reason was to stay with a husband, brother, fiancé, or a father. For Confederate women, a couple may have felt safer together on the battlefield rather than leaving the wife alone where Union armies and bushwackers posed a constant threat. Amy Clarke, a Confederate from Mississippi, enlisted with her husband Walter in a cavalry regiment and disguised herself as Richard Anderson. After her husband was killed at Shiloh, she reenlisted with the 11th Tennessee Infantry under General Braxton Bragg. She was wounded at the Battle of Richmond, imprisoned, and eventually freed. In 1863, it appears that she re-enlisted, serving again in Tennessee, having been promoted to lieutenant. Pvt. Joseph Davidson enlisted with her father and served for three years after his death.

There are several stories of brothers and sisters enlisting together. A pair of orphans from Chicago, Frances Hook, alias Frank Miller and her brother enlisted together in the 11th Illinois Infantry. Even though her brother was killed in action at Pittsburgh Landing, Frances continued service. In 1864, she was shot and captured. While imprisoned in Atlanta, her captors realized her gender; she was freed, and with no family to return to, she may have enlisted again under a different name.

There are many stories of women who re-enlisted when their gender was discovered and they were dismissed. The record seems to be held by Lizzie “Jack” Compton. An orphan, Lizzie joined to escape an abusive childhood. She enlisted at the age of fourteen, looking much older than her age. She was wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of Antietam as part of an uphill charge at an entrenched confederate position that resulted in 9,600 Union casualties. Compton served in seven different regiments in the 18 months she was in the army. Having known only hard labor with no education or religious instruction, when questioned about her male attire, Lizzie answered that she would rather die than be a woman. Maybe someday she would be a gentleman, but she could never be a lady.‪

Confederate authorities were more lenient usually releasing female prisoners as soon as their gender was discovered, unlike the Union, which kept them imprisoned. The Union recorded far more instances of Confederate female POWs than the Confederates did Union female POWs; perhaps because the South destroyed so many records at the end of the war.

In addition to staying with a loved one and escaping abuse, women joined the army for financial reasons. One of nine children, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (alias Lyons Wakeman) was used to doing hard work on the family farm in New York. To help her debt ridden father, she disguised herself as a man to get the higher wages offered by men’s jobs. She got a job as a canal boatman; and on her first trip, an army recruiter signed her up with the 153rd Regiment of the New York State Volunteers in 1862. In an early letter she said, “I like to be a soldier very well.” “I can drill as good as any man in my regiment.” However, in 1864 after marching hundreds of miles through swampy Louisiana country and surviving the battle of Pleasant Hill, she wrote, “I bid you all good-bye. Don’t never expect to see you again.” And again a month later, “I don’t never expect to see you again in this world.” Despite this premonition, she carried on to help support her family. She died of dysentery in June19, 1864. Her tombstone identifies her as “Lyons Wakeman.” Her identity was not uncovered until the 1990s when a relative discovered her letters in the attic.

The Confederate Loreta Janeta Velasquez wrote The Woman in Battle: the Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velasquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier, a 632 page biography of her experiences, beginning with her fascination with Joan of Arc. Thus we can add romanticism to the list of reasons why women joined the army disguised as men. General Jubal Early denounced her book as fiction; but scholars can now confirm parts of her story from contemporary sources. Loreta served not only in the field of battle but also as a female spy and a blockade runner, which entailed traveling with thousands of dollars sewn into her skirt. The daughter of a wealthy Cuban family, Loreta strongly believed in plantations and traveled to Venezuela after the war with the hope plantation culture could survive there, but concluded, slavery was doomed. She lost three children, three husbands, and married a fourth time at which point her story is lost to history.

Another woman inspired by her reading was the Unionist Sarah Emma Edmonds. Emma grew up on a Michigan farm trying to be the boy her father had wanted. Like Loreta, she found inspiration in reading. Emma read Fanny Campbell, the Female Captain. To escape her oppressive father and an arranged marriage, Emma ran away, disguised herself as a man, and became a traveling book salesman. In 1861, she joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a nurse under the alias Franklin Thompson. She was frequently under heavy fire on the field and at times took up arms. Like Loreta, she was also a spy and assumed a number of disguises—as a black male slave, a black mammy, and an Irish peddler woman. (Her mother was Irish).

Sick with malaria, afraid of detection, she left the army to recover, and then could not re-enlist having been designated a deserter. She went to Washington and worked as a female nurse until the end of the war. She had 11 successful missions during her military career. After the war, she wrote Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which sold thousands of copies: she gave all the profits to the U.S. war relief fund. Troubled with the deserter label, with the encouragement of her soldier comrades, she petitioned for a review of her case. On July 5, 1884, a special act of Congress granted Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus, and a veteran's pension of twelve dollars a month. She was the only female member of the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic, formed by Union veterans after the war. She said of herself, "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic—but patriotism was the true secret of my success." Loreta and Emma, both testified to the power of the written word, and both wrote their own stories of their wartime experiences. Like Loreta, Emma also married after the war.

In addition to following loved ones, escaping desperate lives, earning more money, and following romantic ideals, women enlisted for revenge as was the case for Mary Smith enlisted in the 41st Ohio Infantry (McClellan Zouaves) sometime in 1861 to avenge the death of her only brother at Bull Run. She was "full of pluck, and aged about twenty-two years.” Confederate Charlotte Hope enlisted in the First Virginia Cavalry as Charlie Hopper with the goal of killing twenty-one Yankees, one for each year of her fiancé’s life, extinguished by Yankees.

Jennie Hodgers, alias Albert Cashier, holds the record for the longest time lived as a man—from the time she left Ireland as a stowaway sometime before 1862 until 1913, more than 51 years lived as a man. She enlisted with the 95th Illinois Infantry, part of the Army of Tennessee under Ulysses S. Grant and fought in over 40 engagements. After the war she returned to Ill., did a variety of odd jobs, received a military pension, and voted. After being hit by a car, she was sent to the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy Ill. in 1913 where it was discovered Albert Cashier was Jennie Hodgers. Despite support from her war comrades, the staff at the home forced her to wear a dress, which led to a fall and dementia. She was buried in her full uniform and her tombstone was engraved with her male identity and military service. In the 1970s, she was given a new headstone carved with both her make and female names.

The most physically imposing female soldier I have come across is Frances Clalin Clayton, married to Elmer Clayton. Frances was six feet tall with big bone structure for a woman. Using the alias Jack Williams, she enlisted with her husband and continued to serve after he was killed. Jack was noted as a good-horseman and swordsman and commanded respect. She fought in 18 battles and was wounded three times before her gender was discovered. She explained that to play her role well, she took up all the manly vices—drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing, and gambling. She was especially fond of a good cigar. By the way, Frances was the mother of three sons.

And, perhaps, the most surprising of all? Maria Lewis, a free Black woman from the Rochester, NY, area, light enough to pass as a Caucasian or a Native American, who served for 18 months in the 8th New York Cavalry. She "wore a uniform & carried sword & carbine & rode & scouted & skirmished & fought like the rest."

After 1877, it was impossible for women to pass and men to join the armed services for combat duty because of the physical exam. Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver have now managed to pass the mental and physical test for the Rangers. Whether they want to or will be allowed to do combat is still in question. What did they hope to achieve by passing this grueling test? In a CBS release (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/shaye-haver-and-kristen-griest-first-women-to-pass-ranger-school-called-tough-soldiers/), Griest said it was “a goal” she had long held. It was her desire to get the best training the Army has to offer, and she was thinking about future generations of women. She wanted to show that women “can deal with the same stresses and training as men can.” Haver said she grew up in a military family and wanted to become an officer and her motivation was strengthened by the death of several of her father’s friends in Iraq. She also knew she was becoming a part of history, (http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/20/us/women-graduate-army-ranger-course/).

Some of their motivations were like that of their predecessors—striving to get the best, even if that entailed taking on a man’s role. Seeking vengeance. Their motivation was different from that of their Female Warrior predecessors in that Haver and Greist wanted to prove that (some) women can attain the same physical and mental toughness as an elite corps of warrior men. To have this documented is, indeed, an historical first for women. In this respect, Haver and Greist have added a new dimension to the age-old Warrior Woman archetype— documented physical and mental parity with men in military training. Some women can be the mental and physical equal of superior male warrior o the battlefield. Given the physical differences between men and women, what Haver and Greist have achieved is phenomenal.

What do these women warriors, past and present, have to teach us? They make us realize our concepts of masculinity and femininity are fluid and changing because they are defined by society, which is constantly evolving. They teach us about courage—what humans will do to stay with or to avenge their loved ones despite enormous hardships, what they will do to escape abuse and to better their lives, what they will do to help their families, what they will go through to prove that a few select women can be just as strong mentally and physically as a few select men in military training. These women, past and present, are a testament to the desire for freedom, to the courage and the creativity of the human spirit, surmounting incredible odds to follow their loves, their dreams, and their beliefs. By showing men and women how much we are alike, they can help us embrace the complexity of gender and see one another as the same as well as different.

Suggested Readings

1) General Histories of Women in War : Women Warriors: a History, David Jones, 1997; Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War, from Prehistory to the Present, Linda Grant de Pauw, 1998

2) Women in the Civil War: Women in the Civil War, Mary Elizabeth Massey, 1966: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, De Anne Blanton and Lauren Cook, 2003

Women in the Civil War

Women in the Civil War, Mary Elizabeth Massey, 1966, reprinted 1994

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, De Anne Blanton & Sarah Cook, 2003, also on

Civil War Memoires

An Uncommon Solider: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1996, also on kindle

Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, And Battlefields, S. Emma E. Edmonds, 1865, reprinted 1999, 2015, also available with Project Gutenberg

The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Janeta Velasquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier, Loreta Janeta Velasquez, 2003, 2012, 2015, also on kindle

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