By Patricia S. Daniels
Published July 12, 2022
History books are filled with warriors—male warriors, that is. Less referenced are the women who took up spears, bows, swords, and clubs to fight. The classical world knew and respected the skills of real-life Celtic queens. In the East, legendary female warriors could cut down an enemy and twist off a head with the best of them, while a Central African queen used her cunning and military know-how to face off against Portuguese slave-traders. Native American women took up the fight to preserve their homeland against U.S. soldiers, while female patriots fought against the British Crown. Here’s a look at some of history’s most amazing women warriors.
Boudicca: Revenge against Rome
Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni of East Anglia, Britain, did not set out to be a warrior. But after her husband, the Iceni ruler, died in 60 B.C., the Romans whipped her and raped her daughters, and she had no choice but to make a stand. Boudicca raised an army and destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans). Roman historian Cassius Dio describes her this way: “In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips.”
The British faced their retribution in 60 or 61 B.C., however, when the Roman general Suetonius met them in battle. Boudicca led from her chariot, exhorting her soldiers to fight or become enslaved, but she and her army were defeated. Tacitus writes that Boudicca then took poison, though that was never proven.
Tomoe Gozen: Elite samurai
Most of Japan’s stoic, highly disciplined samurai warriors were men, yet one of the most famous was a woman. The story of Tomoe Gozen (Lady Tomoe) is known primarily from The Tale of the Heike, a fictionalized history of the 12th-century Genpei War between two families, the Taira (also known as the Heike) and the Minamoto.
She was a samurai of her warlord husband (or lover), Kiso no Yoshinaka (also known as Minomoto no Yoshinaka). Tomoe was described as “a fearless rider whom neither the fiercest horse nor the roughest ground could dismay, and so dexterously did she handle sword and bow that she was a match for a thousand warriors, and fit to meet either god or devil.”
With her help, Yoshinaka triumphed against the Taira, but then his family turned on him. He found himself battling his cousin at the Battle of Awazu in 1184. Tomoe was with him on the battlefield until only five warriors remained. Yoshinaka ordered her to leave him as he lay dying, but she seized an enemy soldier “in a powerful grip, pulled him down against the pommel of her saddle, held him motionless, twisted off his head, and threw it away.” Then she dropped her armor and rode off, out of history.
Joan of Arc: soldier of God
At the height of the 15th-century Hundred Years’ War between France and England, a young peasant girl came to the rescue of France. Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was just a teen when in 1429 she approached the dauphin Charles, the heir to the French throne who had yet to be crowned (the English held Reims, France’s traditional coronation site). Guided by the saintly voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch, she told him: “I have come and am sent in the name of God to bring help to yourself and your kingdom.” After questioning by church authorities, she was given permission to raise troops and ride forth.
Joan and her troops liberated the besieged city of Orléans, clearing the way for Charles II to be crowned at last, giving France a rightful king. But in 1430, the English captured Joan, tried and convicted her for heresy, and burned her alive on May 30, 1431, in Rouen. Over time, the French gained ground and eventually pushed the English out of most of their territory. Charles VII overturned Joan’s heresy sentence. In 1920, the Catholic Church canonized her, and the French celebrate her as their patron saint.
Tang Sai-er: rebel leader
During China’s 15th-century Ming Dynasty, Tang Sai-er, a young girl from Putai (present-day Shandong province), was taught martial arts by her father. She married an itinerant named Lin San and joined the White Lotus Society, a secret religious and political order, becoming a local leader.
Her world changed when she lost her parents, and then her husband, at a time when the emperor imposed hefty taxes and flood and drought ravaged the land. Not one to inaction, she raised a peasant army in 1420, successfully fighting Ming soldiers. In some accounts, she won one battle by creating a flying demon army out of paper dolls.
When at last she was defeated, she fled and was never found. Some tales say that she was captured but could not be harmed or killed by any weapon. It was also said that she had disguised herself as a Buddhist nun. All such nuns in the area were arrested and questioned, but the rebel commander was never found.
Nzinga Mbande: African queen
Celebrated for her intellect, political cunning, and ability to speak Portuguese, Nzinga Mbande defined much of the history of 17th-century Angola. When Portuguese slave traders threatened her homeland, she was asked by her brother, the king, to negotiate a peace treaty in 1622. At the meeting, the Portuguese provided her with a mat on which to sit, implying her inferior status to the governor. She motioned for one of her assistants to kneel on her hands and knees to serve as a chair, establishing her equality and negotiating the treaty.
Upon the death of her brother in 1624, Nzinga became Queen of Ndongo (against tradition declaring only males could rule), the vast kingdom of the Mbundu people; and went on to conquer the nearby kingdom of Matamba. Quickly proving herself a superlative monarch, she formed alliances with former rival states to fight the Portuguese in what would become a 30-year war. But she wasn’t just a royal leader; she prepared young soldiers by leading them in arrows-and-spears war dance exercises. She also personally led troops into battle—into her seventies—holding the title of “general.”
Prudence Cummings Wright: staunch patriot
Prudence Cummings Wright came from a family of Loyalists in 18th-century Massachusetts, but she was believed in independence for the colonies. When her husband joined others from Pepperell in marching off to fight against the British after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, she was elected leader of a women’s militia known as the Mrs. David Wright’s Guard, with the mission to defend the area.
When she learned her Loyalist brothers and others were smuggling information from Canada to Boston, she prompted military action. As the spies crossed the town’s covered bridge, she led the women in seizing their documents and holding them prisoner, preventing the British in Boston from learning about American troop movements.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman: Cheyenne fighter
The Battle of Little Bighorn is well known for being the event in which Lt. Col. George Custer met his demise, as the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. faced off against the Plains Indians. What’s lesser known is the role played by Cheyenne warrior Buffalo Calf Road Woman. She had already established herself as a fearsome fighter during the Sioux Wars of 1876, heroically saving her little brother in the Battle of the Rosebud—the Cheyenne named the battle “The Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.” At Little Bighorn that same year, she fought beside her husband, Black Coyote, and, according to oral storytellers, was the one who struck Custer from his horse with a club before he was shot and killed.
Was Mulan real?
After the enormous success of the Disney movie Mulan, people have wondered whether the Chinese girl warrior depicted was real. Her story goes back to the sixth century and was written in the 11th-century “Ballad of Mulan.” In the eloquent poem, the girl takes the place of her elderly father in the army, since he has no son, and she fights as a man for 12 years.
Commended by the emperor for her service, she asks only for a swift steed to ride home again. There, she puts on women’s attire, adjusts her hair, and emerges to confound her old comrades.
The tale takes place during the tumultuous period of the Northern and Southern dynasties, from the fourth through the sixth centuries.
But was she real or not?
There is no historical evidence to prove that Mulan actually existed, though she may have been inspired from female warriors of those times. Among ancient China’s most famous female warriors was Lady Fu Hao of the Shang dynasty. One of 64 wives of the king Wu Ding, she became a leading general commanding thousands of soldiers. When she died, she was buried with her own battle axes.
(The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Mysteries of History. Copyright © 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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