1.Marguerite de Bressieux
In France, in the late 1400s, Royalist troops battled against renegade nobles. In one such battle Marguerite de Bressieux, the princess of a Royalist castle, was captured by Louis de Chalon, the Prince of Orange, and along with her 11 women in waiting, was raped by his men.
Several months later, while Royalist troops prepared to attack Louis de Chalon at the battle of Autun, 12 knights appeared. They were dressed in black armor, wore black crepe veils over their helmets, and carried a black banner depicting an orange pierced by a spear, emblazoned the words Ainsi tu seras (you will be so).
Eyewitnesses reported that they fought well. Each time they confronted one of the rapists, they would raise their visor so that he would know the identity of his executioner before killing him. Marguerite herself was badly injured in the battle, and died several hours later. She was buried with full military honors.
2.The Valiant Ladies of Potosi
In the mid-1600’s lived who would become two of Peru’s favorite folk heroines: the valiant ladies of Potosi. Doña Ana Lezama de Urinza, adopted into the de Sonza household, developed a close friendship with the de Sonza daughter, Doña Eustaquia, and in later years became her lover. Both women displayed a passionate interest in the fencing lessons provided for Eustaquia’s brother, and after the young man’s death, were allowed to pursue their interest. By age 13, they were studying with a swordmaster, as well as learning to handle firearms.
As was befitting proper young women of their class and times, they were raised in virtual seclusion from the rough life of Potosi. In their late teens, however, they often dressed as men, slipped away from the de Sonza hacienda, and plunged into the violent nightlife of the city for adventure and a test of their martial skills. In one street fight against four men, Ana was knocked out, and Eustaquia warded off the attackers with her sword until Ana regained consciousness and jumped to her feet. Ana identified the man who had struck her down, and attacked him with such ferocity that she cut through his shield and nearly severed his hand. The remaining three men fled.
For five years, the lovers wandered Peru, engaging in fights and gaining great fame as swordswomen. They returned to Potosi after Eustaquia’s father died, and willed them his estate. A few years later, Ana died from a wound she received in another of her dangerous pastimes: bullfighting. Four months later, Eustaquia died of grief.
Nancy Wake,a New Zealander, was living with her husband in Marseilles when WW2 broke out. She became an ambulance driver, later moving on to serve in the French resistance. Her group is estimated to have saved over 1000 downed airmen and lost soldiers from capture by the Germans.
Nancy became a thorn in the side of the Germans, and in November of 1942, the Gestapo records indicate their concern with an enemy agent they called “the White Mouse.” After being captured in 1943 and escaping, she was flown to England where she underwent grueling training for the Special Operations Executive. The only woman in Special Ops, she was ranked as a marksman with a Sten gun, and taught various methods of silent killing.
On March 1st, 1944, Nancy was dropped into France near Montlucon. Operating under a false name, she soon worked her way into the leadership of a 7,000 man guerrilla task force. On their first major assignment, Nancy and her guerrillas were attacked at their base by 22,000 German soldiers, supported by aircraft and artillery. Nancy and her men slipped out of the trap after dark, leaving 1500 German soldiers dead. By July, she was operating with a task force of 2000 maquis, attacking German conveys that were bringing troops and supplies to the Normandy front.
Britain honored her with the King George medal, America awarded her the Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm for her aid in the rescue of two American officers, and the French government awarded her two Croix de Guerre, and a third Croix de Guerre with Star, and the Resistance Medal.
Concerning Nancy Wade, a fellow maquis leader told an historian, “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fight starts. Then she is like five men.”
4.Abbess Odette de Pougy
From the 7th through the 13th century in Western Europe, Abbesses held enormous powers. They commanded huge tracts of land with their knights, levied taxes on the surrounding populations, and even had coins struck in their own images. The often waged war on one another, and fortresses of warrior monks and nuns grew such a problem that laws were passed forbidding citizens to loiter outside convent walls, for their own safety. The king or queen could only subdue them with difficulty, and various popes established creeds against women engaging in martial combat in an attempt to weaken the sisterhood. The papal ban against women wearing armor proved to be the technicality on which Joan of Arc was sentenced to be burned as a heretic.
In 1265 Abbess Odette de Pougy of Notre Dame Aux Nonnains challenged Pope Urban IV. He wanted to build a church on the site where his father’s shoemaker’s shop once stood. The Abbess forbade him to do so, as the land belonged to her abbey. Pope Urban sent a work crew to break ground, despite the Abbesses’ objections, and she sent an armed party that drove them from her land. Two years later, he tried again with the same results. Enraged at the Abbess, the pope excommunicated the entire abbey. The sentence remained in effect for 14 years, but the Abbess was resolute, and the pope’s church was not built until after her death.
It was not unusual in world history for women warriors to be nuns: in the 1650’s, Philothey Benizelos established a convent in Greece and so successfully attracted women students that the local governments feared her growing power. The women of the convent were armed and trained as fighters, for several times Philothey had been called to forcibly pacify rebellious tenants who protested the harsh taxes exacted by the convent managers.
In the late 9th an early 8th centuries BC, Assyrian Queen Sammuramat secured the throne from her husband Ninus, ordered him killed, and seized control of the expansion of the Assyrian empire. She fought her way to oceans, thereby accessing foreign trade ports for land-locked Assyria. She conquered Babylon, and constructed one of the seven wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. She went on to capture Ethiopia and Egypt, held Bactria against her husband’s attack, and repulsed the armies of India.
According to chroniclers of the time, the Queen led an army of 300,000 foot soldiers, 5,000 horse cavalry, and large contingents of camel-mounted cavalry and charioteers. Her impressive legend of accomplishment and conquest led the Greeks (who called her Semiramis) to fashion tales that she must be descended from the gods.
She left behind her own records of her accomplishments on a variety of self-glorifying monuments. At the base of one statue, the Queen had engraved
“Nature made me a woman, yet I have raised myself to rival the greatest men. I swayed the scepter of Ninos, I extended my dominions to the river Hinamemes eastward; to the southward to the land of frankincense and myrrh; northward to Saccae and the Scythians. No Assyrian before me had seen an ocean, but I have seen four. I have built dams and fertilized the barren land with my rivers. I have built impregnable walls and roads to far places, and with iron cut passages through mountains where previously even wild animals could not pass. Various as were my deeds, I have yet found leisure hours to indulge myself with friends.”
7.Khawlah Bint al-Kindiyyah
In the early days of Islam, women of noble status had the same rights as their husbands, including the right to raid, to wage war, and to fight in battles. Khawlah Bint al-Kindiyyah rode with her female captains in the front ranks of Arab army, as they clashed with the Greeks at the battle of Yermonks. The Greek strategy bested the Arabs, and the Arab army retreated in panic. Khawlah and several other women captains assumed control of the army and turned back on the Greeks, urging the men to follow her into the center of battle. When a Greek soldier knocked Khawlah to the ground and advanced for the kill, her captain Wafeira severed his head with her sword, and displayed it to inspire the Arab soldiers.
Khawlah and her women captains (Alfra’Bint Ghifar al-Humayriah, Oserrah and Wafeira) were eventually captured by the Greeks in a battle near Damascus and their weapons were confiscated. Feeling that she and her captains were being treated rudely by their captors, Khawlah stirred her captains to escape. With no other weapons than the poles that held up their tent, they attacked their guards, and the soldiers fled before them.
A historian who saw Khawlah fight in battle described her as a tall knight, muffled in black and fighting with ferocious courage. She and her women captains were experienced warriors with the strength to control a camel in battle, to fight with a sword and lance, and to render a simple tent pole into a deadly weapon.
In Scotland in 1334, Lady Agnes Randolph, called Black Agnes, fought in defense of the Castle Dunbar in the Earl her husband’s absence. Her adversary was England’s Earl of Salisbury, a specialist in military engineering and technology. For five years, the English general laid siege to Dunbar, and directed against her some of the most advanced machinery that had appeared in England. Black Agnes, leading her troops, withstood him, and after each bombardment, ordered the maids to dust the furniture and shake out the rugs in her chambers, and act of normalcy designed to irritate Salisbury, as he attempted to terrorize the inhabitants of Dunbar with his mines and cannon.
When the bombardment failed, Salisbury’s men built a testudo, a wheeled, covered shed under which his men worked battering rams. Agnes observed the apparatus for a time, before ordering her men to swing a large rock over the battlements and drop it on the testudo. As Salisbury’s men fled the crushed war machine, Agnes commanded that fire be dropped on the remains.
Finally, Salisbury brought Agnes’ brother, the Earl of Moray from prison to the Castle Dunbar. He displayed the Earl, and threatened to kill him if she did not capitulate. Her response came in two parts: first, because the castle did not belong to her, she could not surrender it, and second, because her brother had no children, his death would simply assure that she would inherit all his lands and with them, even greater power. Salisbury reluctantly returned her brother to prison.
On June 10th, 1338, Salisbury withdrew his siege from Castle Dunbar and never returned. A small poem written by some of his men conveys his attitude about Black Agnes:
She kept stir in tower and trench,
that brawling, boisterous Scottish wench.
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.
9.Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat
In the year following the Civil War, a number of women outlaws populated the American scene. New York claimed barkeep Gallus Mag, a brawler and thief, who displayed neatly labeled jars of pickled human ears she had bitten off in her many fights.
Sadie the Goat, another New Yorker, was famous for butting strangers in the stomach with such force that they were disabled while she robbed them. One evening Sadie, despondent over losing an ear to Gallus Mag in a recent fight, walked along the New York waterfront. Hearing some shots, she discovered a robbery in progress and watched with fascination as a group of drunken men attempted to steal a small sailing sloop anchored mid-river. A handful of crewmen easily drove the would-be pirates into the river.
Sadie assessed the soundness of the robbers’ scheme as well as their ineptness in executing Hudson River piracy. Confident that she could captain the crew, she helped the floundering men out of the river and proposed her plans. Within days, she discovered a larger sloop, engineered its hijacking, and led her crew on a rampage of robbery, murder, arson, and kidnapping up and down the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
Sadie the Goat earned a fortune before the determined and organized farmers who lived along the Hudson River forced the end of her piracy career. She returned to the Fourth Ward, acclaimed as “Queen of the Waterfront.” In a gesture of good will, Gallus Mag returned her ear, and a grateful Sadie mounted it in a locket, which she wore at all times.
10.Mrs. Wright and the women of Groton
Though the Sons of Liberty are celebrated for participating in the American Revolution, few know of the existence of the Daughters of Liberty. As the rebellion against the British escalated, many women were moved to warrior effort.
In Old Middlesex, Massachusetts, when Prescott moved out with his regiment of “Minute Men,” Mrs. David Wright of Pepperell, Mrs. Job Shattuck of Groton, and a group of local women whose names have not been recorded put on their husbands’ clothing, armed themselves with muskets, axes and pitchforks, and took possession of Jewett’s Bridge, an important link between Pepperell and Groton. They elected Mrs. Wright their captain and vowed that no enemy would cross the bridge.
Captain Leonard Whiting, a heavily armed courier carrying British intelligence dispatches from Canada to Boston, failed to fight his way through Mrs. Wright’s small army and was taken captive. The women discovered the letters and sent them to Colonel Prescott.
In 1581, the Netherlands came under attack by Spain. At the Dutch city of Harlaam, three thousand fighting men and a unit of women warriors prepared to receive the fury of the Spanish army. The women, led by Kenau Hasselaar, a 47 year-old widow, formed the elite corps at Harlaam.
When the Spanish army was approaching, she proposed to the military governor that she raise a women’s fighting unit and arm it at her own expense. Permission was quickly granted, and three hundred women instantly volunteered. Each woman, an expert with sword, dagger, and musket, wore light armor over her dress, disdaining to costume as a man.
Kenau Hasselaar’s troops fought in all major actions, both within and without the walls of Harlaam. She also led them in countermining operations and in heavy construction to bolster damaged defenses. The grateful citizens of Harlaam granted Kenau a pension in the form of a permanent public position as a tax collector.
At this point, Kenau Hasselaar disappeared from the pages of history.
12.Madame de Chauteau-Gay
The crusades of the 13th century, as did those preceding, found many women warriors in the Holy Land. A historian of the time wrote, “French women warriors in this period were either duelists who made themselves locally famous in France or hard-fighting crusader soldiers who usually died unidentified.”
Madame de Chauteau-Gay exemplified the former. She was, as one commentator expressed, “…both gallant and handsome; she was generally to be seen on horseback, wearing huge top-boots, kilted skirts and a man’s wide-brimmed hat with steel trimmings and feathers to crown all, sword by side and pistols at saddle bow.”
Though married, she challenged the captain of her lover’s cavalry regiment to a duel after the officer had, in her opinion, mistreated her friend. Aware of Madame de Chauteau-Gay’s fame with sword and pistol, the cowardly officer appeared at the duel with two swordsmen by his side. Madame de Chauteau-Gay’s squire asked her to withdraw because of the unfairness. She responded, “It shall never be said that I encountered them without attacking them.” She engaged all three swordsmen at once and after offering an excellent account of her sword skills, she was, in the end, overcome and killed by her adversaries.
13.Ingean Ruadh and Stikla
Saxo Grammaticus, an ancient Danish historian, wrote:
”There were once women among the Danes who dressed as men and devoted every waking moment to the pursuit of war. Those who had the force of character or were tall and comely were especially apt to enter into such a life. Such martially trained women often functioned as “shield maidens” and accompanied both male and female warriors in battle. They entered legend as “the Valkyries.””
The Irish, who were often terrorized by Viking attacks, remember through their oral tradition on Viking captain, Ingean Ruadh, “the Red Maiden.” Called Rusla in her home country of Norway, the Red Maiden commenced her career with the overthrow of her brother, the king of Norway. She with her constant companion, the shield maiden Stikla, warred against Iceland, the British Isles, Telemark, and Denmark.
One of the most extraordinary martial records of a Russian woman fighter belonged to a young schoolteacher named Vera Krylova, the daughter of a factory worker. In the summer of 1941, after hearing Molotov’s speech announcing war between Germany and Russia, she enlisted in the medical corps, having experience as a student nurse. Vera worked within 100 feet of the German lines, dressing the wounds of injured soldiers. She was credited with carrying and dragging hundreds of wounded men to safety as bullets from German sharpshooters meant for her exploded the earth around her. At 21, she became a regimental medical inspector with the rank of Captain – and she had not yet begun to fight.
In August of 1941, the German army pushed toward Moscow as the Russian army rallied its resistance. In the confusion, Vera’s company was separated from the main force which she, injured in an earlier skirmish, was riding in a wagon with the wounded. For days the remnant company meandered in deep swamp an forest, trying to avoid capture. As they approached a seemingly deserted village, the Germans sprang an ambush. When the two commanders of the company were shot, the exhausted and leaderless Russians stood numb in the face of the German fire. Quickly mounting a riderless horse, Vera fired into the air several times and ordered the company to follow her. She led them to shelter, while the Germans, using the village as a center, dispatched soldiers into the forest to encircle the Russians. She moved quickly to the middle of the enveloping German offense before its units could link up. She commandeered some retreating Russian artillery and ordered it to fire on the village to soften the German position for her soldiers.
True to her nature, Vera led the first cavalry assault on the German village, but as she approached the edge of town, six Germans rushed from hiding and pulled her from her horse. Vera fought them until a German rifle butt smashed into her face, knocking out three of her teeth. In a fury she cursed and spit blood on her attackers as she kicked and punched. Even her now weakened resistance proved effective, as she bought enough time for her comrades to come to her rescue. Dazed and bleeding, Vera rallied her troops once more and led them deep into the dense forest.
The German army was unprepared for forest warfare, but Vera had a talent for it. Laffin writes that the Germans “… learned some of their costliest lessons in the forest of Bialowieza where Vera Krylova was in action.” After running and fighting for 2 weeks, Vera’s soldiers reached the last German barrier before the safe village of Serpukhov. A 23-hour battle ensued at the river crossing as a German force fought to prevent Vera’s company from joining the main Russian guerrilla force while also stalling for another unit to attack her from the rear. Understanding the enemy’s strategy, Vera waited for the right moment, and then led a charge across the river. The German defenders scattered, and she continued on to Serpukhov. When she entered the town at the head of her unit, it was still only the beginning of her dazzling warrior life.
Vera survived the war and returned to teaching, one of the most honored of Russia’s modern women warriors.
In the mid eighteenth century, a British woman named Hannah Snell, aka “James Gray” joined the Frazer Marines disguised as a man to search for her lost husband. Her unit shipped for India aboard the Swallow, and she was immediately thrown into the battle for Pondicherry. In the first assault group to cross a river, Hannah waded chest deep under fire from the French batteries. She spent two weeks fighting in the trenches and seven consecutive nights as a frontline picket. For her efforts, she received six bullets in her right leg, five in her left, and one in her stomach. By doctoring the stomach wound herself, she maintained her disguise.
After her recovery she was assigned to the Tartar Pink and later to the Eltham. At first, her shipmates teased her for her lack of beard and called her “Miss Molly Gray;” however, her courage and toughness soon earned her the nickname “Hearty Jimmy.”
When she retired from the military in 1750, she published her autobiography and launched a speaking tour of England and Europe. With the proceeds she opened an inn, which she named the Woman Warrior.
16.Moll Cutpurse and the Roaring Girls
In the 16th and 17th centuries, urban observers took note of the “Roaring Girls” phenomenon. Averell, in his Marvailous Combat, describes women “who from the top to the toe, are so disguised, that though they be in sexe Woman, yet in attire they appear to be men.” The chamberlain records carried this account dated January 25, 1620: “Yesterday the bishop of London called together all his Clergie about this towne, and told them he had express commandment from the king to will them to inveigh vehemently and bitterly in their sermons against the insolence of our women, and they’re wearing brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne and some of them stillettaes or poniard [knives and daggers], such other trinckets of like moment.”
The cover girl smoking a pipe and carrying a sword, pictured in the Roaring Girls, a book published in London in 1611, depicted a real, historically verifiable model of the type. Mary Firth, also known as Moll Cutpurse, lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Her name appears in a number of lawsuits of the period. In her confession recorded in the Consistory of London Corrections Book of 1605-1606, she admits to “frequenting alehouses, taverns, tobacco shops and associating with ruffianly, swaggering and lewd company, namely with cutpurses, blasphemers, drunkards, and other of bad note.” She appeared in court again in 1621 on a charge of wrongful arrest. Mary claimed that because of her reputation for locating stolen goods, she was asked by a friend to find a certain pickpocket and regain the purloined items. Mary sought to represent herself as an underworld policeman to rationalize her high-handed manner with the plaintiffs.
During the English Civil War, Mary single-handedly robbed the commander in chief of the parliamentarian forces, General Fairfax, even though he was an excellent swordsman in the company of an armed guard. She not only slew several guards but also killed the general’s horse so she could not be followed. She relieved Fairfax of his purse but was soon captured and sentenced to be hanged. A bribe of 2000 pounds in gold won her release, and Mary returned to a life of robbery. She died in her mid-seventies, a wealthy woman.
17.Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
In the early 20th C, the Vietnamese defended their homeland against a French invasion, and over one million women participated in the fighting. The initial successes of women in battle spurred more women to join the war, and with these and many other examples to inspire her, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai joined the Vietnamese guerilla force in the early 1940s, eventually leading them in the fight against the French in Nam Ky. She was captured and tortured by the French to learn her troop’s movements.
While imprisoned, she wrote a poem in her own blood on her cell wall:
A rosy-cheeked woman,
here I am Fighting side by side with you men.
On my shoulders weighs the hatred which is common to us,
The prison is my school, its inmates my friends,
The sword is my child, the gun is my husband.
Minh Khai cut out her own tongue rather than divulge any secrets, and soon after, was executed. In Vietnam today, women’s groups and military units still take her name to honor her.