The History Of Female Empowerment II: Women of Battle, Women of Letters

December 7, 2019 Category: History

As we saw in the previous essay, surveying the incidence of female sovereigns is an indication of a society’s view of–and esteem for–women.  This, of course, has limited implications; as it is prudent to use such figures as merely a (not THE) metric for gauging cultural tendencies.  For in the event that esteem has been accorded, it has been in isolated cases (that is: in situations unique to the immediate local geo-political environs).

Assaying the degree to which females were empowered simply by cataloging heads of state risks being facile about what is a very complex social phenomenon.  Doing so highlights privileged individuals within the society-in-question rather than revealing widespread social trends inhering the supervening culture.  (Put another way: All it shows is that SOME women, under certain circumstances, were empowered; and empowered in a certain way.)

Female empowerment is integral to the progress of any society; and is–generally speaking–concomitant with how (genuinely) democratic a society is.  Luckily, sovereignty is not the only available metric for ascertaining the prevalence of highly-esteemed women in a society.  Indeed, there are various ways to gauge how civil any given society has become.  A primary gauge is the enfranchisement of women…in ALL walks of life (social, economic, political, intellectual, and otherwise).

Indices of female empowerment can be the prominence of women in myriad contexts–anything from military to literary.  And even then, numbers tell only part of the story.  Any quantitative analysis (focusing on exigencies) is incomplete without a thorough qualitative analysis (focusing on explanations).  Here, we are only doing the former, leaving it to historians, sociologists, and anthropologists to do the latter.

That said, let’s proceed with our survey.  In the tradition of Enyo (Greek), Bellona (Roman), Durga (Hindu), Freya (Norse), and Pele (Polynesian), it is instructive to take note of the great female military heroes throughout history.   It is noteworthy that victory was given a female embodiment–as with Nike (Greek) and Victoria (Roman).

Let’s start with fiction before we venture into fact.  For the incidence of heroines in folklore can be used to indicate the esteem people-at-large were willing to accord women at any given place and time.  There were tales of the ancient Norse “Valkyries” found in the 13th-century “Edda” canon, indicative of the esteem given to women in Viking culture.  Meanwhile, there were tales of female “Wuxia” warriors in ancient China–a surprise given how misogynistic the culture became.  Generally speaking, the occurrence of valiant female warriors in mythic tales gives us a sense of how inclined people in any given society were to revere females. 

The Sarmatians of the 5th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. (the fabled “Amazons” found in Greco-Roman folklore) were renown for their female warriors.  Scythian women were known for being great warriors as well.  Such women inspired tales of swashbuckling heroines like Eurypyle, Hippolyta [alt. “Hippolyte”], Camilla, and Penthesilea.  (Also note Melanippe, Antiope, and Orithyia.)

Reverence for women in literature dates back to Ovid’s masterpiece, “Heroides” [“the Heroines”], in which he pays tribute to the females of Greco-Roman mythology while scolding the male heroes who neglected or mistreated them.  (Author’s note: In literature, my favorite female protagonist of all time is Morn Hyland, heroine of Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Gap Cycle”.)

As it turns out, fabled female warriors can be found in the folklore of MANY of the world’s cultures.  One of the more well-known is the legend of a Nubian warrior-queen (conventionally referred to by the generic moniker, “Candace of Meroe”) who successfully fought off Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.  In Judaic lore (ref. the Book of Judges), the heroine Ya-el (a.k.a. “Jael”) killed the Canaanite military commander, Sisera–thereby delivering the Hebrews from the nefarious King Jabin of Hazor.  In the Hebrew Bible, another starring role was given to Deborah, the fourth “Judge”, who also fought valiantly in battle.  Such Hebrew leaders were possibly based on historical figures.

There was no shortage of myths about female warriors in pre-modern times.  It is therefore important to distinguish between legend and actual history.  Around the world, apocryphal female warriors abound:

  • The Indians have Vishpala [ref. the Rig Veda] (c. 1200 B.C.) and Chitrangada of Manipur[a]
  • The Greeks have Medea [daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis; wife of Jason, the Argonaut] as well as the “Eumenides” [emissaries of the goddess of wisdom, Diana] (Classical Antiquity)
  • The Chinese have “Lady” Zhurong and Mu Gui-ying (from Antiquity); and more recently legends of (Shaolin) Kung-fu masters, Ng Mui and Yim “Wing Chun”
  • The Swedes and Germans have the Norse (Viking) shield-maidens Brynhild[r] (alt. “Brünnhilde”), Vebiorg, and Blenda of Värend (8th century)
  • The Danes and Norwegians have the Norse (Viking) shield-maiden, Hladgerd [Anglicized to “La[th]gertha”] (Middle Ages)
  • The Scotts have “Sgathach” of the Isle of Skye (Middle Ages)
  • The English have Briton warrior-queen, Cordelia (Middle Ages)
  • The Irish have Gwendolen and Medhbh; the preternatural warrior-queen, Macha Mong Ruad; as well as the warrior-princesses, Muirisc of Cruachan Aigle and Aife of Lethra (Middle Ages)
  • The Italians have female knights, Bradamante and Marfisa (Middle Ages)
  • The Kyrgyz have the “myrza” [eagle huntress], Zhanyl [a.k.a. “Janyl Myrza”] (Middle Ages)
  • The Persians have Gordafarid (10th century) and Banu Goshasp (11th century)
  • The Filipinos and Vietnamese have Urduja (late 14th century)
  • The Spanish have Juana Garcia de Arintero [a.k.a. the “Lady of Arintero”; “Knight of Oliveros”] (15th century)
  • The Albanians have the (semi-legendary) warrior, Nora of Kelmendi (17th century)
  • The Vietnamese have the “Five Phoenix” generals (18th century)
  • The Hausa have the Azna warrior-priestess [alt. sorceress-queen], Sarraounia Mangou (late 19th century)

All were semi-legendary.

To reiterate: Much can be adduced from the kinds of people a culture heroizes.  Even more telling are the REASONS FOR exalting certain figures.  Shall we laud cultures that hold select women in high esteem solely for their PIETY?  I would argue not; especially when piety is tied to a creed that is ITSELF misogynistic to its core.  Ultimately, it is the BASIS FOR the esteem that counts; as plaudits are hollow much of the time.

Surveying instances in which women are featured prominently in fiction, we find that in the most estimable cases, they are lionized NOT as supplicants (as with, say, female saints), but as empowered figures who saved the day–representing triumph over some formidable obstacle: irascible women that refused to back down in the face of countervailing social forces.  Such women symbolize humanity at its best.

In contemporary times, superheroes reveal much about the prevailing culture–namely its values and sensibilities.  Before proceeding with the survey of historical figures, it’s worth briefly exploring the history comic-book heroines.

Following the tribulations of the second World War, Filipinos went so far as to make a female comic book character their national hero:  Varga [later rendered “Darna”] was created in 1947.  Meanwhile, in the United States, DC comics pioneered the use of a comic-book character as a feminist icon with the introduction of Wonder Woman.  Artists introduced the world to this heroine a few weeks after the United States entered the second World War.  (She was first featured in Sensation Comics, January of 1942.)  Thereafter, the demand for a female super-hero increased.

DC then established Black Canary in 1947; and introduced Supergirl (alias: Kara Zor-El; later known as “Matrix”) in 1959.  (She was eventually cast as Superman’s daughter, Cir-El.)  Four years later (in 1963), Marvel comics broke ground with Jean Grey (as “Phoenix”).  She would be followed by Red Sonja ten years after that (1973), who was inspired by the female Swashbuckler, Red Sonya of Rogatino (a variation of whom was Dark Agnes of Chastillon).  Marvel then created two super-heroines in 1980: Emma Frost and the Vietnamese Karma (alias: Xi’an Coy Manh).  Also in 1980, DC created Starfire (not to be confused with Firestar, who was created by Marvel the next year).  In 1981, Marvel created the Greek heroine, Elektra (who was associated with Chinese, Siamese, and Japanese martial arts); and DC created the Ashanti heroine, Vixen (alias: Mari Jiwe of Ghana).  And in 1982, Marvel created Yukio, a female samurai.  In 1983, DC followed suit with the Japanese heroine, Katana (alias: Tatsu Yamashiro).  In 1989, DC introduced the Sicilian heroine, Huntress (who would be re-conceived as Batgirl ten years later).   In 1992, DC introduced the Latina heroine, Renee Maria Montoya.

It is worth noting that–pace Sentry–the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Comic Universe is a woman:  Captain Mar-Vel.  (The cinematic version of “Captain Marvel” was released in 2019.)

Tellingly, for many of the most famed male comic-book superheroes, a female counterpart was created–as with Supergirl, Spider-girl / Spider-woman, Batgirl / Batwoman, and She-hulk.  The earliest of these was Marvel’s Dorma, the female counterpart of Namor “the Sub-Mariner” (both created in 1939).  She was followed by another female counterpart: Namora (in 1947).  At the beginning of 1976, Superman was given a female cousin: Power Girl (an alternate incarnation of the aforementioned Kara Zor-El).  The animated series, “Spider-Woman” (as Jessica Drew) aired in the autumn of 1979.  (Author’s note: This was my favorite show as a child.  My other favorite character at the time was Dale Arden, the female scientist in the animated series, “The Adventures Of Flash Gordon”.)  Mera, who originally appeared in 1963, was the counterpart of Aquaman.  Thereafter, DC introduced another female aquatic superhero: Tsunami (1984)…who was eventually followed by her daughter, Indigo (1996).  In 1991, DC created a female counterpart to Marvel’s “Black Panther”: Pantha.  And while Batgirl debuted in January of 1967 (re-conceived as “Batwoman” in 2006), it took until October 2019 (over 52 years later) for it to be made into a live-action production.

We find that in the world’s most secular precincts, there has always been a demand for female super-heroes.  Not so for puritanical societies, where patriarchal norms persist.  Until the present day, it is difficult to imagine a heroine having emerged in the pop culture of any Muslim country…especially a female protagonist who was far more powerful than her male counterparts.  Ironically, the first Muslimah superhero (Kamala Khan as “Ms. Marvel”) was created in the U.S. (thanks to the work of Pakistani-American, Sana Amanat in 2013).  Meanwhile, the X-Men super-heroine, Storm (alias: Ororo, daughter of N’Dare), created in 1975, was portrayed as a Kenyan sorceress raised by Egyptian Muslims.

On screen, the history is more recent.  In 1976, French writer, Jacques Tardi created “Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec” …which would be adapted to film by Luc Besson in 2010.  In 1989, Besson directed “La Femme Nikita”.  That landmark movie inspired subsequent TV series by that name, as well as the classic “Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996), J.J. Abrams’ series “Alias” (2001), Josh Whedon’s series “Dollhouse” (2008), “Salt” (2010), “Colombiana” (2011), and “Atomic Blond” (2017)…along with Besson’s re-conception of La Femme Nikita: “Anna” (2019).  Also in 2019 was the Filipino film, “Maria”.  On the silver screen during the 1990’s, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” was also groundbreaking.

For young readership, book series with strong female protagonists became fashionable starting in 2008 with Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen (followed by Veronica Roth’s Beatrice Prior three years later).  One of the most inspiring heroines in literature is Morn Hyland–the dauntless protagonist in Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Gap Cycle” (a woman who embodied grit and acumen as much as any character in fantasy or science fiction).

Let’s now survey the long history of REAL heroines.  In terms of documented historical figures, we can go back surprisingly far.  In the 16th century B.C., Egyptian Pharaoh, Ah-hotep of Waset [“Thebes”] was valorized as a military leader (in her campaigns against the Hyksos).  Forty more notable examples from before the common era:

  1. Chinese military general, “Lady” Fu Hao led the Shang Dynasty’s military in the late 13th / early 12th century B.C.
  2. The aforementioned Hebrew military leader, Deborah from the 12th century B.C.
  3. Greek warrior-queen, Messene of Argos rose to prominence in the 10th century B.C.
  4. Assyrian / Babylonian warrior-queen, Semi-Ramis conquered extensive territory in the 9th century B.C.  Though she was at least partially apocryphal, she is likely based on the Assyrian Queen S[h]ammu-Ramat.  In legends (ref. Diodorus), as “Shamiram”, she was said to have been the Lydian consort of King Ninus of Nineveh.
  5. There were five Qedarite warrior-queens in Arabia during the late 8th / early 7th century B.C.: Zabibe, Samsi, Yati, Te’el-hunu, and Tabua.
  6. Persian / Scythian Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae–along with the military leader [“arteshbod”], Pantea–successfully led their armies against (Achaemenid Emperor) Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C.  (Yes, women defeated Cyrus the Great.)
  7. Persian (Achaemenid) army commander, Artunis fought for Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C.
  8. Greek (Cyrenaean) warrior-queen, Pheretima successfully led an army (in defense) against a Persian incursion in the 6th century B.C.
  9. Greek leader, Telesilla of Argos rose to prominence in the 6th century B.C.
  10. Chinese swordswoman, Yue-nu [Lady of Yue] of Zhejiang rose to prominence in the 5th century B.C.
  11. Persian warrior-queen [“arteshbod”], Artemisia of Caria was a great military leader.  She fought on behalf of the Achaemenid empire (under Xerxes), as admiral of the Persian fleet, in the 5th century B.C. 
  12. Persian (Achaemenid) Queen [“shah-banu”] Amestris was a respected military commander in the 5th century B.C. (as was her mother before her)
  13. Persian (Achaemenid) general, Pari Satis fought in the 5th century B.C.
  14. Maeotian / Sindian warrior-princess, Tirgatao of the Ixomatae in the 4th century B.C.
  15. Persian warrior-queens, Ada and Artemisia II of Caria fought on behalf of the Persian empire in the 4th century B.C.
  16. Trojan warrior, Mania of Dardanus fought in the area of Hellespont in the 4th century B.C.
  17. Macedonian warrior-princess, Cynane fought against Illyrian warrior-queen, Caeria in the 4th century B.C.
  18. Persian (Achaemenid) warrior, Youtab Aryobarzan fought against Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.
  19. Persian (Achaemenid) warrior-princess, Estatira Sepahbod fought in the 4th century B.C.
  20. Greek (Peloponnesian) warrior-queen, Cratesipolis of Corinth fought in the 4th century B.C.
  21. Indian (Asvaka / Assacani) military leader, Cleophis fought against Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.
  22. Spartan Queen Arachidamia led forces against Pyrrhus of Epirus in the 3rd century B.C.  Euryleonis, Cynisca, and Chelidonis were also renown Spartan warriors.
  23. Illyrian warrior-queen, Teuta of the Ardiaei fought in the 3rd century B.C.
  24. Chinese military leader, Huang Guigu fought for the Qin in the 3rd century B.C.
  25. Japanese Empress Jingu, who ruled the country as consort–then as regent–for almost eight decades during the 3rd century B.C., was a renown military leader.  The legend of female warrior “Pimiko” is probably based on Jingu.
  26. Arsinoe III “Philopator” of Egypt lead an army against Antiochus the Great in the 3rd century B.C.
  27. Sarmatian warrior-queen, Amage led a successful attack against Scythia in the 2nd century B.C.
  28. Persian (Seleucid / Parthian) Queen Rhodogune successfully led her army to quell a revolt in the 2nd century B.C.
  29. Nubian / Kushite warrior-queen [“kandake”], Shanak-dakhete fought in the 2nd century B.C.
  30. Caucasian warrior-queen, Hypsicratea of Pontus fought in the 1st century B.C.

And what of Late Antiquity?  Sure enough, there were various women in prominent military capacities.  The Sassanians were especially known to employ female warriors; but the phenomenon was not limited to Persia.  Iconic examples could also be found in Britannia, the Nordic regions, North Africa, Syria, and the Far East.  Here are 27 of the most renown:

  • Nubian (Kushite) warrior-queens [“kandake”] of Meroë, Amani-renas and Amani-shakhet[o] fought against the Roman in the 1st century B.C.  Nawidemak, Amani-tore, Amantitere, Amani-khatashan, and Furude Rika fought against the Romans in the 1st century A.D.
  • Vietnamese military leaders (sisters), Trung Trac and Trung Nhi successfully staved off Chinese invasions in the 1st century.
  • Icenian (Celtic) warrior-queen Cartimandua, followed by the fabled warrior-queen Boudicca (a.k.a. “Boadicea”), temporarily staved off the Roman incursion into Britannia in the 1st century.
  • Chinese (Han) general, “Mother” Lu was a successful rebel leader in the 1st century.
  • Though purportedly an odious figure, the Roman legions saw fit to anoint Annia Galeria Faustina Minor as “Mother of the Army”, as they saw here as their patroness (2nd century).
  • Dardanian warrior-queen, Tania fought in the 2nd century.
  • Vietnamese rebel leader, Trieu Thi Trinh was not only a political leader, she was also arguably the first feminist in history (3rd century). 
  • Syrian warrior-queen [“Septimia”], Na’ila bat-Zabbai of Palmyra (a.k.a. “Zenobia”; “Tadi”) fought against the Romans in the 3rd century.
  • Persian (Parthian) warrior-princess, Sura fought in the 3rd century.
  • Nubian (Kushite) warrior-queen (“kandake”), Maleqorobar fought in the 3rd century.
  • Nubian (Kushite) warrior-queen (“kandake”), Lakhide-amani fought in the 4th century.
  • Persian (Sassanid) princess, Aspas was commander of the State police in the 4th century.
  • Chinese military leaders, Xun Guan of Xiang-yang and Yang Niang (a.k.a. “Li Xiu” / “Li Shuxian”) were successful in quelling rebellions in the 4th century.
  • Nubian (Kushite) warrior, Majaji battled the Romans at Meroe in the 4th century.
  • Syriac / Arab (Tanukhid) warrior-queen, Mavia successfully stood up to the Roman army in the late 4th / early 5th century–primarily in the Levant.
  • Norwegian warrior-princess, Sela fought in the 5th century.
  • Geatish (Germanic / Swedish) Viking princess, Alfhild was a shield-maiden who served as commodore of her own fleet in the 5th century.
  • Chinese (Sichuan) warrior, Hua / Fa Mulan [a.k.a. “Han Guan-bao”] became the stuff of legend in the late 5th / early 6th century; and has since been popularized by a Disney version that (erroneously) pits her against Mongol invaders (eight centuries after she would have lived).

The Middle Ages boasted 35 prominent female warriors outside of India:

  • Syriac (Ghassanid) warrior-princess, Halima lead an army in the Battle of Rhium / Chalcis in the 6th century.
  • Persian (Sassanid) Queen [“Shah-banu”] Shirin helped orchestrate successful military campaigns in the 6th century.
  • Chinese political leader, Chiao Kuo of Xian [a.k.a. “Lady Xian”] suppressed the Hou Jing rebellion in the 6th century. 
  • Chinese warrior-princess Zhao Pingyang of Tang successfully led an “Army of the Lady” to overthrow the oppressive Sui Dynasty in the late 6th / early 7th century.
  • Arabian (Qurayshi) priestess, Hind [bint Utbah ibn Rabi’ah] al-Hunnud in the early 7th century.
  • Mayan warrior-queen, K’abel ruled the Wak Kingdom in the late 7th century.
  • Persian (Sassanid) military commanders, Apranik and Negan both fought against the Mohammedans in the late 7th century.
  • Numidian (Carthaginian Berber) warrior-queen, “kahina” [priestess] Daya ult Yenfaq Tajrawt (a.k.a. “Dihya” / “Dahia”; a.k.a. “Dhabba” of Carthage) successfully staved off the Mohammedan incursion into the Maghreb the late 7th / early 8th century.
  • English Queen Æthelburg[a] of Wessex led attacks against enemies in the early 8th century.
  • Siamese / Mon warrior-queen, C[h]ama-devi of Lamphun / Hariphun-chai [-jaya] led successful military campaigns for the Dvaravati / Lavo Kingdom in the 8th century.
  • Persian (Sassanid) warrior, Azad-e Deylami fought against the Mohammedan incursion in the 8th century.
  • [k]Hazar warrior, Parsbit (a.k.a. “Barsbek”) was a prominent military leader of the Turkic people in the 8th century.
  • Turkic warrior, Büyük Ece of Merv (a.k.a. “Gülnar Hatun”) earned renown for her military prowess in the 8th century.
  • Veborg was a famous Norse shield-maiden in the 8th century.
  • Bohemian warrior-queen, Valasca (a.k.a. Vlasta) fought in the 8th century.
  • Persian (Sassanid) military leader, Banu Khoramdin successfully staved off a Mohammedan incursion in the 9th century.
  • Bavarian (Carolingian) warrior-queen, [h[Emma of Altdorf / Frankia lead an army against insurrectionists in the 9th century.
  • Norseman (Viking), Rusla (a.k.a. the “Red Maiden”) was renown in the Nordic region for being a ruthless warrior in the 9th century.
  • Mercian (Anglo-Saxon) warrior-queen, Æthelflæd (a.k.a. “Ethelfleda”) fought in the early 10th century.
  • Abyssinian (Ethiopian) warrior-queen, Gudit of D’mt conquered Aksum in the 10th century.
  • Varangian (Russian) Princess [later Queen] Olga of Kiev lead successful military expeditions in the 10th century.
  • Mongol (Khitan) Empress Xiao Yanyan of Liao (a.k.a. “Cheng-tian”) was a military leader who led successful campaigns against the Song / Han in the late 10th century.
  • Indian (Kannada / Chalukya) warrior-princess, Akka-devi of Karnataka was a respected military leader in the 11th century.
  • Holy Roman princess [later, to be queen] Sibylla of Jerusalem led a resistance against the Muslim siege in the late 11th century.
  • Lombard warrior-princess, Sikelgaita of Selerno lead military campaigns with her husband (the Duke of Apulia) in the 11th century.
  • Burgundian women, Isabel of Conches and Florine of Burgundy were both knights of considerable renown in the 11th century.
  • Italian (Tuscan) crusader, Matilda of Canossa led her own military campaign in the late 11th / early 12th century.
  • Austrian crusader, Ida of Formbach-Ratelnberg [a.k.a. “Itha”] led her own military campaign in the late 11th / early 12th century.
  • Chinese general, Liang Hongyu was a successful military commander for the Song Dynasty (leading successful attacks against the Jin / Jurchen) in the early 12th century.
  • Indian (Chaulukya / Hindu) warrior-queen, Naiki-devi of Gujarat defeated the formidable Mohammedan forces of (Ghurid) Sultan Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad of Ghor in the 12th century.
  • Welsh warrior-princess, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd of Deheubarth / Aberffraw / Gwynedd led revolutionary forces against the Normans in the early 12th century.
  • Kara-Khitan (Buddhist) warrior-queen, Yelü Pusuwan [Tabuyan] of Western Liao led military campaigns in the 12th century.
  • Dagomba (west African) warrior-princess, Yennenga founded the Mossi Kingdom in the 12th century.

Clearly, several societies around the world were familiar with scenarios in which women were accorded prominence in martial affairs.  (Interestingly, there were even conflicts in the medieval world where female military leaders fought against each other–as with Matilda of Boulogne vs. Empress Matilda; and Urraca of Castile vs. Teresa of Leon.)

Behold ten of the great INDIAN warrior-queens [“rani”] during the Middle Ages:

  • Mysore warrior-queen, Uma-devi of Hoysala
  • Kannada (Jain) warrior-queen, Onake Obavva of Chitradurga / Karnataka
  • Kannada (Jain) warrior-queen, Abbakka Chowta of Ullal / Karnataka
  • Kannada (anti-colonialist) warrior-queen, “Kittur Chennamma” of Kittur / Karnataka
  • Kakatiya warrior-queen, Rudrama-devi of Orugallu / Telangana
  • Maratha warrior-queen, Tarabai Bhonsle of Maharashtra
  • Ramnad warrior-queen, Velu Nachiyar of Ramanathapuram / Sivaganga
  • Gondwana (anti-colonial) warrior-queen, Durga-vati of Mandla / Katanga
  • Kashmiri military leader [“Begum”] Joanna Nobilis Sombre of Sardhana (a.k.a. “Begum Samru”) [who apostasized from Islam]
  • Kannada / Keladi (anti-colonial) warrior-queen, “Keladi Chennamma” of Kundapur / Karnataka

These are the most renown female warriors of medieval India (in addition to the previously mentioned Akka-devi and Naiki-devi).  A dozen prominent female leaders is no anomaly.

More recently, India boasted other great rebel leaders–as with the Tamil “rani”, Veli Nachiyar in the 18th century.  Later, legendary “rani” such as Jhalkari-bai, Avanti-bai, and–most notably–Mani-karnika (a.k.a. “Lakshmi-bai”; “Manu”) of Jhansi all stood up to the British in the 19th century.  (Also of note was “begum” Hazrat Mahal.)

In the Hindu Kush, we encounter (Pashto / Urdu) tales told of the vaunted “gul makai” [“flowers of the corn”; a term used for folkloric heroines].

Here are 52 of the most renown (outside of India) from 1200 to 1900:

  1. (Japanese) female samurais: Tomoe Gozen [of Minamoto], Hangaku Gozen [of Jo], Nakano Takeko, and the legendary “Tokoyo” {4}
  2. Japanese warrior-princess, Hojo Masako
  3. Chinese Yue Fei (Kung Fu) master, Ng Mui of Shaolin / Henan (as well as her apprentice, Kim Wing-Chun
  4. Chinese pirate, Cheng I Sao (a.k.a. “Ching Shih”)
  5. Siamese warrior-queen, Suri-yothai of Ayutthaya
  6. Siamese warrior, Thao Sura-nari of Nakhon-ratchasima / Isan (a.k.a. “Ya Moo”)
  7. Siamese warrior sisters, “Than Phuying” Chan and “Khun” Muk
  8. Javanese (Majapahit) warrior-queen [regnant], Tribhuwana Wijayatungga-devi (a.k.a. “Dyah Gitarja”)
  9. Acehnese (Sumatran) admiral, [Keu-]Malaha-yati [possibly Muslim, from the 16th century]
  10. Acehnese (Sumatran) warrior, “Raden Adjeng” Kustiyah Wulaningish Retno Edhi of Serang / Yogyakarta  [possibly Muslim, from the late 18th / early 19th century]
  11. Acehnese (Sumatran) rebel-leaders, Cut Nyak Dhien [a.k.a. “Tjoet Nja Dhien”] and Cut Nyak Meutia (19th century)
  12. Melanesian freedom-fighter, Martha Christina Tiahahu of Nusalaut / Maluku
  13. Ilocano (Filipino) revolutionary leader, Maria Josepha Gabriela Cariño of Ilocos Sur (Luzon) [a.k.a. “Gabriela Silang”]
  14. Jurchen warrior-Queen, Boto-hui [strong and fierce] Tar[k]hun
  15. Mongol (Ögedeid) warrior-princess, Khotol Tsagaan (a.k.a. “Khutulun”; “Ay Yuruq”; “Aiyurug”)
  16. Mongol (Ongud) warrior-queen [“khatun”], Mandu[k]hai “Sechen” [the Wise])
  17. Mongol (Oirat) warrior-queen, Orakina (a.k.a. “Orghana”)
  18. Keraite (Turkic-Mongol) warrior-queen [“khatun”], Dokuz
  19. Punjabi (Sikh) military leader, Mai Bhago of Majha
  20. Georgian warrior-queen, Tamar(a)
  21. French warrior-queen, Isabella of France (a.k.a. the She-wolf of France)
  22. French warriors, Jeanne Laisné of Beauvais [a.k.a. “Jeanne Fourquet / Hachette”], Jeanne de Clisson / Belleville [a.k.a. the “Lioness of Brittany”], Duchess Joanna of Flanders / Brittany [a.k.a. “Jeanne la Flamme”], and Jeanne of Arc
  23. French soldier, Marie-Thérèse Figueur
  24. Saxon (German) warrior-queen, Christina of Saxony
  25. Lithuanian / Polish revolutionary, Captain Emilia Plater
  26. Scottish leader, “Black” Agnes of Dunbar
  27. Irish warlord, Maire O Ciaragain of Armagh
  28. Irish warrior-princess, Aoife Mac-Murrough of Leinster (a.k.a. “Red Eva”)
  29. Irish pirates, Grainne Ni Mhaille of Connacht (a.k.a. “Grace O’Malley”) and Anne Bonny
  30. Swedish warrior-queen, Kerstin Nilsdotter of Fogelvik / Tullgarn (a.k.a. “Kristina Gyllenstierna”)
  31. Norwegian pirate, Elise Eskilsdotter of Ryfylke
  32. Spanish army officer, Agustina of Aragon
  33. Italian (Sardinian) warrior-queen, Eleanor of Arborea
  34. Angolan (Mbundu) warrior-queen, Ann[a] Nzingha of Ndongo (a.k.a. “Queen Jinga”)
  35. Nigerian (Edo) “Oba” [queen], Idia of Benin
  36. Congolese warrior-queen, Llinga
  37. Congolese (Luba) warrior-queen, Kasongo Mukaya
  38. Ashanti (Ghanaian) warrior-queen, Yaa Asante-waa of Ejisu (who fought against British colonialists in the 19th century)
  39. Nigerian warrior-shaman, Nana Miriam
  40. Herero (West African) warrior, Kaipkire
  41. Fon (West African) “Amazon” warrior, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh of Dahomey
  42. Ethiopian (Yejju) warrior-queen, Menen Liben Amede of Shewa
  43. Ashanti (Ghanaian cum Jamaican) rebel leader, Nanny of the Maroons
  44. Samoan warrior-princess, Nafanua [possibly apocryphal]
  45. Latina freedom fighters, Juana Azurduy de Padilla (a.k.a. “Bermudez”) and Irene Morales Infante

And what of Native Americans?  We find female warriors in the Western Hemisphere as well.  Here are six of the most renown:

  • Cochasqui warrior-queen, Quilago of Tabacundo
  • Shawnee warrior-chieftess, Nonhelema
  • Crow warrior-chieftess, Pine Leaf (alt. “Fallen Leaf”)
  • Blackfoot warrior, Pitamakan (a.k.a. “Running Eagle”)
  • Apache warrior, Lozen of the Tchihendeh / Chiricahua
  • Brasilian warrior, Dandara of Palmares

We might note the Fon “Amazon” warriors of Dahomey during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Interestingly, there were even conflicts in the medieval (non-Muslim) world where female military leaders fought against each other–as with Matilda of Boulogne against Empress Matilda; and Urraca of Castile against Teresa of Leon.

The massive disparity between more religious societies and more secular societies belies any claim that religion somehow buoyed female emancipation. {5}

In Islamic lore, there are tales of figures like Nusaybah bint Ka’ab and Umm Munee Asma bint Amr ibn Adi–early converts to the Mohammedan movement who are said to have “participated” in battles.  There is nothing notable about this.  (Water-carriers are not warriors.)  Throughout history, in societies around the world, there were typically roles for women to play “behind the lines” (as with apocryphal tales about the Kharijite, Ghazala).  Tending to the wounding, praying for victory, delivering provisions: these are tasks women have been performing for men since time immemorial.  (I adumbrate apocryphal Muslimahs in Appendix 1.)

The first–and only–Muslimah warrior for whom there is solid historical documentation is the legendary 16th-century Moorish corsair, Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid of Granada (a.k.a. “Sayyida al-Hurra”; later governor of Tétouan, Morocco).  As might be expected, she was not known for here religiosity.  As it happened, she harbored seething resentment for the Roman Catholics who exiled her from her native Andalusia during the Reconquista–a sentiment that likely led to her cahoots with the Barbary pirates.  Her irascibility can hardly be attributed to piety.

Granted, the case could be made that–as with the female rulers enumerated in the previous essay–these bold women were anomalies in each of their respective societies.  So let’s modify our heuristic yet again.  After all, political power and martial prowess are not the sine qua non of empowerment.

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