Throughout history, from ancient to modern times, warfare has generally been regarded as the realm of men, shedding their blood for their homeland, or fighting in wars of conquest. This however, is a trend, and as with all trends, there are always exceptions. The role of women in war cannot go unexamined, not just for those who worked on the homefront, but for those who fought on the frontlines. Here are some of the most famous women who made their indelible mark in the histories of their people. These are the stories of warrior women.
1. Tomyris: Warrior Queen of the Massagetae
Even her name evokes a sense of heroism. From the Eastern Iranian tongue, “Tomyris” means “brave,” and during her life, she showed no shortage of this trait. As the only child of Spargapises, the leader of the Massagetae tribes of Scythia, she inherited the leadership of her people upon his death. It was unusual for warrior women to hold such a high position of power, and throughout her reign, she had to solidify her position by proving herself worthy. She became a competent fighter, archer and like all her brethren, an excellent horse rider.
In 529 BCE, the Massagetae were invaded by the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great after Tomyris refused Cyrus’s offer of marriage. The Persian Empire represented the world’s first “superpower,” and would have been considered more than a match against a loose federation of steppe nomads such as the Massagetae tribes.
After learning about their unfamiliarity with alcohol, Cyrus left a trap for the Massagetae. He abandoned camp, leaving only a token force behind, thus luring the Massagetae into attacking the camp. The Massagetae forces under the command of Spargapises (Tomyris’s son and general) discovered copious amounts of wine. They drank themselves into a drunken stupor before the main Persian force returned and defeated them in battle, capturing Spargapises in the process. Spargapises died in captivity by committing suicide.
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Tomyris subsequently went on the offensive and met the Persians in pitched battle soon after. There are no records of the battle, so it is difficult to ascertain what happened. According to Herodotus, Cyrus was killed during this battle. His body was retrieved, and Tomyris dipped his severed head in a bowl of blood to symbolically quench his thirst for blood and as an act to avenge her son. Although this version of events is disputed by historians, it is clear that Tomyris defeated the Persians and ended their invasion into Massagetae territory.
Although Tomyris was a queen, her title was not the defining reason for having the opportunity to become a warrior. Recent excavations of burial mounds in areas inhabited by Scythian-Saka tribes have uncovered roughly 300 examples of warrior women buried with their arms, armor, and horses. Considering the context, it can be assumed that the horse along with the bow were great equalizers, allowing women to compete on the same level as men. Nevertheless, these warrior women, and Tomyris herself, serve as estimable examples of the unmeasurable value of women on the battlefield.
2. Maria Oktyabrskaya: The Fighting Girlfriend
Although it was not uncommon to see warrior women on the frontlines defending the Soviet Union, there are special cases where individual females rose to great prominence through their exploits.
As is common with Soviet heroes (and heroines), Maria Oktyabrskaya had humble beginnings. One of ten children from a poor Ukrainian family, Maria worked in a cannery and as a telephone operator. Nobody could have foreseen at that point that she would end up driving a tank and fighting Nazis.
In 1925, she met and married a cavalry school cadet named Ilya Ryadnenko. They changed their last name to Oktyabrsky. After Ilya graduated, Mariya led the life of a typical officer’s wife, never being able to settle in one place and constantly being moved about Ukraine.
After the outbreak of the German invasion, she was evacuated to Tomsk, while her husband stayed to fight the Nazis. Sadly, he was killed in action on August 9, 1941, and Mariya filed a request to be sent to the front. She was initially denied because of her illness–she suffered from spinal TB–as well as her age. 36 was considered too old for her to be on the frontlines. Undeterred, she sold everything she had and saved up enough money to buy a T-34 tank.
She sent a telegram to the Kremlin, personally addressed to Stalin, explaining that she had bought a tank to assist in the war effort, and stipulated that she would donate it on the condition that she was the one to drive it. In the Autumn of 1943, Mariya graduated from the Omsk Tank School as a driver and with the rank of Sergeant.
With “Fighting Girlfriend” emblazoned on both sides of the tank, Mariya and her crew took part in the battle for the village of Novoe Seloe in Belarus. They performed admirably, killing 50 German soldiers and officers as well as destroying a German cannon. “Fighting Girlfriend” was hit and became stuck in a small ravine. The crew continued to fight on for two days until the tank was retrieved.
In January 1944, near Vitebsk in Belarus, Oktayabrskaya and her crew saw heavy fighting. The tank’s tracks were damaged, and as Mariya tried to fix it, a mine exploded nearby, seriously injuring her. She was taken to a hospital in Smolensk, where she remained until she succumbed to her wounds on March 15, 1944. She was buried on the banks of the Dniepr River and was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union.
3. The Amazons: Mythological Warrior Women
Widely regarded to be no more than a myth, Greek tales of the Amazons are well known. What is likely, however, is that the myth is based on real examples of warrior women, the existence of which reached the ears of Greek historians, who created legends and wove them into stories. In the legends of Heracles, one of his tasks was to retrieve the girdle of Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons. After leading an expedition against her and her Amazons, it is said that he conquered them in battle and was successful in his task.
Many other tales exist in Hellenic culture of the Amazon warrior women. Achilles was said to have killed an Amazonian Queen during the Battle of Troy. He was so overcome with remorse that it is said he killed a man who mocked his grief.
The Greeks modeled their idea of the Amazons by their own understanding of warrior women. And while the Hellenic peoples were largely patriarchal societies, females being warriors was certainly an idea that was not despised, at least not in myth and legend. The goddess Athena is a perfect example of this, often being depicted in Greek antiquity as a warrior, with shield, spear, and helm, and tasked with the protection of Athens.
Modern archaeological evidence supports the fact that many Scythian warriors were women and that warrior women in this culture were no exception but rather the norm. As many as a third of all women in Scythian culture were warriors.
Furthermore, in Georgia, it is reported through evidence of the Georgian National Museum that the graves of around 800 warrior women were found, according to historian for the British Museum, Bettany Hughes.
During the Roman conquest and subjugation of Britain, an Iceni Queen united the tribes and led a major rebellion against the world’s mightiest empire.
King Prasutagus of the Iceni ruled the land in present-day Norfolk under Roman suzerainty. Upon his death in 60 CE, he left his personal wealth to his daughters, as well as a sizeable amount to Emperor Nero, in a bid to curry favor with the Romans. Relations between the Iceni tribes and Rome had been in decline for some time, and the gesture had the opposite effect. Instead, the Romans decided to fully annex his kingdom. Upon plundering the Iceni kingdom, Roman soldiers raped Boudicca’s daughters and enslaved members of her family.
The result was a revolt of Celtic tribes under the leadership of Queen Boudicca. They destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester in Essex) and burned Londinium (London) and Verulamium. In the process, they decisively defeated the IXth Legion, almost destroying it completely.
During the revolt, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Romans and Britons were killed by Boudicca’s forces, many by torture.
The revolt culminated in the Battle of Watling Street. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Boudicca, in her chariot, rode up and down the ranks before the battle, inspiring her troops to victory. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Romans, under the command of the highly capable Suetonius Paulinus, routed the Iceni and their allies. Boudicca committed suicide to avoid being captured.
During the Victorian Era, Boudicca achieved fame of legendary proportions, as she was seen in some ways to be a mirror of Queen Victoria, especially with both their names meaning the same thing.
Boudicca was also adopted as a symbol of the campaign for women’s suffrage. “Boadicea Banners” were often held up in marches. She also appeared in the theater production A Pageant of Great Women by Cicely Hamilton, which opened at the Scala Theatre in London in 1909.
5. The Night Witches: Warrior Women at War
To the Germans fighting on the Eastern Front, there were few things more terrifying than the sound of a Polikarpov Po-2 bomber at night, as meant the arrival of the “Night Witches,” a name they were given due to the fact that they idled their engines, and quietly swooped down on the enemy. German soldiers likened the sound to broomsticks, hence the nickname.
The Night Witches were the 588th Bomber Regiment, made up to be exclusively women. However, some of the mechanics and other operators were men. They were tasked with flying harassment and precision bombing missions from 1942 through to the end of World War II.
Originally, they were not well received by their male contemporaries, who viewed them as inferior, and they were supplied only with second-grade equipment. Despite this, however, their combat record speaks for itself.
Throughout the course of three years, they flew 23,672 sorties and took part in the battles of the Caucasus, Kuban, Taman, and Novorossiysk, as well as the Crimean, Belarus, Poland, and German offensives.
Two hundred sixty-one people served in the regiment, and 23 were awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Two of them were awarded Hero of the Russian Federation, and one of them was awarded Hero of Kazakhstan.
The 588th was not the only regiment to be made up almost exclusively by such warrior women. There was also the 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment and the 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment.
6. Nancy Wake: The White Mouse
Born in 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand, as the youngest of six children, Nancy Wake worked as a nurse and a journalist before moving to Paris in 1930. As a European correspondent for Hearst newspapers, she witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the violence against Jewish people in the streets of Vienna.
In 1937, she met a French industrialist, Henri Edmond Fiocca, whom she married in November 1939. Merely six months later, Germany invaded France, and during the brief campaign, Wake worked as an ambulance driver. After France fell, she joined the Pat O’Leary Line, a resistance network that helped Allied soldiers and airmen escape Nazi-occupied France. She constantly eluded the Gestapo, who nicknamed her the “White Mouse.”
The Pat ‘O Leary line was betrayed in 1942, and Wake decided to flee France. Her husband stayed behind and was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. Wake escaped to Spain and eventually made it to Britain but was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war.
Once in Britain, she joined the Special Operation Executive and received military training. In April 1944, she parachuted into Auvergne Province, her primary goal being to organize the distribution of arms to the French Resistance. She participated in fighting when she took part in a raid that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters at Montluçon.
She was awarded many medals and ribbons for her actions. These were awarded to her by France, the UK, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, proving that recognition for her actions was extremely widespread.
Warrior Women: A Legacy Through All of History
Women have fought and died as soldiers and warriors since the dawn of time. This is indisputable, as archaeological evidence shows, from Norway to Georgia and beyond. Later, societal shifts in thinking forced women into castes where human perceptions were that of women being relegated to the realm of subservience and that of demure passivity. Despite this, these eras still produced women who fought. Where this thinking did not exist, women fought in great numbers. As society shifts towards more liberal acceptance of equality, the number of females serving in militaries around the world in modern times continues to increase.